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This blog site includes news on latest wines, food, events, offers and happenings at artisan & vine. It also includes stories of my wine adventures in and outside the bar, wine facts and wine profiles.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Why local and natural

The question I get asked most often is probably “can I please have a glass of sauvignon blanc?” I confess to being surprised by the popularity of the grape, without doubt, our best selling wine is the 2007 Sauvignon Blanc from Reyneke in Stellenbosch. Another question I get asked a lot is “what does local and natural wine mean?” I’m not surprised by how often I get this question. So, today, as I’ve done all my ordering and payments and accounting, I thought I’d take some time to describe what we mean by “local” and “natural” wines and why I chose to specialise in them. Today’s blog is about the intent of artisan&vine, how I came to love local and natural wines and why I wanted to set up a fun and friendly venue for sharing them.

Mid 2007 I decided that I would definitely open my own wine bar. I wanted to do this because (1) I thought there was an absence of great wine bars where you could taste a broad range of wines in London and (2) I wanted to turn my passion for wine into a career in wine.
One of my favourite things in the world has always been travelling to vineyards and sampling a range of wines together. I have always thought it bizarre that in London you could have almost any experience on earth – we have underwater aquariums, simulated golf ranges, genuinely global cuisine – except simple, accessible, casual wine tasting. The idea at the heart of artisan&vine has always been this: to capture that fabulous vineyard experience where you can taste a variety of wines and learn through tasting. The concept is to bring your taste buds as close to the artisan and the vine as possible, while remaining in a comfortable, accessible environment.
So, from the beginning, a rotating list of flights of wine and a long ‘by the glass’ list would always be on the menu.

In addition to comparative tasting, something I love about the vineyard experience is the focused expertise of the person conducting the tasting. From the outset I thought it was important for artisan&vine to have a focus to the wines we offered. The first and most obvious choice I made was to stock local English wines.
I’ve travelled a lot and lived in a few different countries. One of my favourite ways of coming to know a country or region is through indulging in the wines of that region. There is no question in my mind that English wines are underexposed in their own, let alone in the global, market. At the same time as local food production in England is enjoying a celebrity chef inspired renaissance, English wines sit on the shelves of local community markets or the homes of wine maker’s relatives; it’s a fascinating contrast.
In order to bring the English wine experience into artisan&vine, I insisted on only working with winemakers who would deal with me directly – no distributors or wholesalers. I visited a wide range of English vineyards and tasted over 300 English wines to come to the 15 or so we have on our list at any one time. English wine making may be in something of an infancy - I view this as an exciting thing. The wines are generally fresh, low alcohol and easy drinking. After nearly four months of serving English wines to our customers I am proud to report a very positive response. Often artisan&vine customers say they are happy simply to be given the option to have a taste of home. The 2007 Bacchus from my friends Bob and Carol of Brightwell Vineyard in Oxfordshire remains one of our best selling wines; the 2007 Pinot Noir that Julian makes at Biddenden Vineyard in Kent is also very popular.

Still… as I mentioned earlier, English wines are generally very light, young wines. To have a local only wine list would prevent me from serving big belting reds or buttery golden whites.
During this “planning phase” of artisan&vine, I was still working in Corporate Strategy for BP and was attending evening courses at the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET). I was reading a lot of wine literature and press. It took no genius to recognise the word “biodynamic” appearing it a great deal of wine journalism while it was almost completely absent from the formal WSET lectures and text books.
In late 2007 I attended my first biodynamic wine tasting and have never looked back. The tasting was run by Frederic Grappe, who has since become a great friend of mine. We tasted five of his wines that day; among them Le Grand Blanc 2005 from Domaine Milan, Coteaux Du Languedoc L’indigene 2005 from Mas Des Agrunelles and Cahors Le Combal 2005 from Domaine Cosse Maisonneuve, all of which we now list at artisan&vine. I was instantly in love. These wines had such purity of flavour and intensity of character. Nothing needed to fight its way to unleash qualities in my mouth; everything seemed in balance. As good an instructor as Fred is, with only one tasting my knowledge of biodynamic wines was clearly limited. What I knew was that something was different. I equate it to the feeling you have when you taste real cocoa versus mass produced chocolate, or fresh squeezed juice versus that from concentrate, or percolated coffee versus instant. Even if you had no knowledge of how these products were produced, you taste that there is a difference. That is the feeling I first had about biodynamic wines and I have not changed my mind.

Since then I have tasted A LOT of “natural” wines. Yes, I have jumped from the word “biodynamic” to “natural”. Here is where I’d like to call in the need to balance accessibility with precision. We cannot continue to make the subject of wine so elusive or technical that it is inaccessible; this only results in people abandoning enquiry and selecting on price comparative to all alcoholic beverages. Precise information should always be available but detailed description cannot constitute an introduction.
Having tasted a lot of natural wines and met with a lot of winemakers and importers, I find that there exists something like a scale of naturalness. In the interests of accessibility, I have grouped the scale into five levels:
Level 1: alcoholic beverages made primarily from grapes with the addition of various flavour enhancers, such as syrup, wood chips, cultured yeasts, acid, etc; and preservatives such as suphites.
Level 2: alcoholic beverages made primarily from grapes grown in organically farmed vineyards, with added flavour enhancers and preservatives, and using cultured yeasts to aid fermentation.
Level 3: alcoholic beverages made from grapes grown in organic or biodynamic vineyards, with minimal added flavour enhancers and preservatives, and cultured yeasts.
Level 4: alcoholic beverages made from grapes grown in organic or biodynamic vineyards, with only a dose of sulphite at bottling and only indigenous (wild) yeasts for fermentation
Level 5: alcoholic beverages made from grapes grown in organic or biodynamic vineyards, with zero added sulphites, no filtration, no fining and only indigenous (wild) yeasts for fermentation

All of the “natural” wines at artisan&vine fall into Level 4 or 5. Some purists will say only Level 5 type wines deserve to be called “natural” wines. My experience is that people of all levels of wine knowledge can relate to the Level 5 wines being called “extreme natural wines” (in the end, isn’t that why we have words, to be able to relate to one another?) We have around 10-15 extreme natural wines on our list at any one time; they are rather hard to come by and the tastes are often ones that we need to ‘learn’ to appreciate. I have a lot of wines that fall into various permutations between Levels 4 and 5. For example, we sell a lot of wine with no filtration but still a dose of sulphite, etc. The subtleties we can get into here would do nothing to help most people enjoy great wines in a wine bar and for the purposes of exposing people to exciting and unique wines, whatever label we put on them seems academic. For customers who do desire more information, we’re always excited to provide it. I have gone to great lengths to ensure our definition of “natural” wine is readily available.

Before I decided to talk about artisan&vine as specialising in “local and natural wines” I did consider some alternatives to the word ‘natural’. It’s clear that to say artisan&vine specialise in organic or biodynamic wines does not say enough; indeed it says very little for what happens to the wines beyond the vineyard. To say that we specialise in wines that use only indigenous yeasts would be irrelevant to most people and in the extreme definitional case, probably technically inaccurate for the happenstance contamination that can occur in wineries. “Real wine” is a term I’ve seen used a lot in various trade tastings and advertising which does not seem helpful or meaningful at all. Even a Level 1 type wine exists, it is “real”.

We could let the pendulum of accessibility versus precision swing too far the other way too. In practice, without doubt the phrase that sticks in most artisan&vine customers minds is “hangover free” wine. Maybe I attended too many lectures on corporate responsibility over the last 12 years but “London’s first hangover free wine bar” seems to be a tagline that begs for trouble.
Natural is a good word.

I’m delighted to say that although we are still extremely young as a wine bar, so far we seem to be achieving our original intent at artisan&vine. We’ve created a comfortable, friendly environment where it’s easy to taste a lot of wines that are locally or naturally produced. We have people who come in and love the jazz music and sofas and service and will leave and be back each week without knowing they are drinking natural wine; they know they are drinking delicious wine. We have others who religiously attend every Wednesday evening wine tasting we have, thirsty for more knowledge and experience of natural wines. One of my biggest thrills is hearing regular customers explain the principles of biodynamics to a friend they are introducing to the bar; it’s an exciting place to be.

London is a fantastic place. You can have almost any experience in the world here – we have vodka bars, beer halls, Mexican cantinas and French brasseries – now we also have a bar that specialises in local and natural wines, and I think that’s pretty cool. So, here’s a toast: to choice and taste and the experience and enjoyment of life, naturally.
Picture: flights of wine at artisan&vine vary daily.

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