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Discovering natural wines

In conversation with wine insider, Louis Fernando

The next couple of months are likely busy ones for anyone involved or interested in the world of wines. The annual London Wine Fair is being held at Olympia in May, but there’s another, more fascinating offshoot happening at Tobacco Dock in April. It’s the Real Wine Fair and we sat down with our very own Insider, Louis Fernando, to find out a little more about this growing trend.

Louis Fernando is our Insider for our Off To Market, Grape Escapes, Made in Soho and Counter Culture experiences.

Louis, there’s still quite a lot of snobbery in the wine world – or at least, there’s perceived to be. Your approach is so much more laid back. How did you get into wines?

My parents are quite into wine and they got into it really quite late in life, so they’re definitely not wine snobs; they just like it and view it as a hobby. As a result of that I was put in touch with quite a lot of people who made wine, or who involved at a very basic level and that was interesting. Obviously, it’s quite a different experience to the snobby restaurant side of things and for me it was a great introduction and I really liked that. I went to work in a winery for a while a few years ago and got a great insight into the industry from that perspective.

One of your Insider Experiences is focused around wine bars in London. They seem to be really coming back into fashion – why do you think that is?

Yes, they’re doing really well. It’s really blown up in the last two to three years and it’s something I see as being led by the resurgence of the Parisian wine bar scene. A lot of the new ones sell a unique selection of wines that you wouldn’t find in a supermarket, or even in restaurants; many of the most successful ones stock what we’d call ‘natural wine’ and actually I think that’s what’s really been what’s driving the increase in popularity.

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You mention ‘natural’ wine. Is that the same as ‘real wine’? What exactly does this mean?

Real wine, which I guess is something people use as a byword for natural wine is a phenomenon which has really taken hold in the last three to four years. Natural wines, real wines or whatever you’d like to call them, are wines which are made in an extremely traditional way, with no intervention whatsoever. That means no fiddling around with the ferments, adding anything or doing anything which wouldn’t normally happen if you just left it there. Think of it as organic plus.

So how is it different from organic?

Organic is when you have your vineyard practices completely locked down: no added chemicals or sprays on the plants and the vines themselves, but natural [wine] is the next step. With conventional winemaking you are by law allowed to adjust the acidity, add sugar or water to adjust the end product and make it more consistent, whereas real wines are coming from that angle we see in food as well, where you get a completely unadulterated product.

The movement has mirrored consumer demand in recent years for greater transparency, and a desire to know exactly what’s in what you’re eating and/ or drinking, how it’s made and where it comes from.

Are the wines really that different?

They are. With some of them, the taste is so unique that you might not even think that some of them are wines at all, which has been fantastic for expanding the reach of these products and getting people excited about wine.

It has become a bit of an anti-establishment movement and I think that’s partly why it’s gathered quite a lot of momentum. It’s fun, cheeky at times and slightly punky in spirit, so this means that you get really passionate, out-there winemakers. On top of that they’re sold in places which are a bit more edgy, hip and interesting too.

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Does that mean I’m unlikely to find a bottle in my local shop?

The very nature of this type of wine and the small production runs that a lot of them have mean that it’s quite anti-supermarket. It’s not generally made in the kind of quantities where real wine producers can afford to supply a supermarket chain, which might have minimum orders of 30,000 or 40,000 cases. Some of these guys only make 10,000 cases.

These producers are all obviously producing something which is quite unique: how were they distributing before this movement took hold?

They were probably just selling it locally or weren’t making very much of it. It is very much a phenomenon of discovery and I’d say that the propagation of natural wines within the UK is down to a few savvy individuals who were on the cutting edge and able to import them.

So, it’s all about connections?

Personal connections and personalities, yes. You might work in a remote area or vineyard, but in order to sell your product you’re quite regularly brought back to somewhere like London or Paris because there are always shows and dinners where winemakers and wine producers get to communicate either directly with consumers. That fosters quite a close bond because you actually get to talk to the producers: it’s a very genuine ‘meet the makers’ thing. Five or ten years ago people might have found the idea of meeting producers a little strange, but now people want to feel like they’re being let into a secret and discovering something interesting.

So, speaking of discovery, what’s new in the wine world at the moment?

Well, there are three things I’ve noticed growing in popularity and those are natural wines, low-alcohol offerings and cool climate wines.

The first we’ve talked about. The next, low alcohol wines, are interesting because it’s very much a consumer driven thing. You now have really experienced winemakers working in places like Argentina, Australia and California who are now able to make elegant, interesting wines which are low alcohol and are completely different in characteristic to the wines that traditionally come out of those regions.

And then there are wines that come from cool climates, from the more mountainous regions of say western Austria or the Swiss Alps. These aren’t areas that you might associate with wines, but they are traditional and established regions in their own right. It’s going back to that theme of discovery and always looking to find or appropriate wines from areas that might already have quite an established marketplace, but which might not be big in a global sense. If they aren’t being poured in key restaurants in London they often aren’t really on the radar for wine writers or the press. So, when they do start to come out and people start shouting about them, people rush to that region or area to try and find out more. We saw that happen with Georgian, Croatian and Slovenian wines a few years ago – they were pegged as the ‘new’ thing, when, as wine making countries, it really wasn’t anything new: they have their own traditions which are hundreds of years old. That’s what so great about wines: even the newest ‘trend’ likely has a long and venerable history.

The Real Wine Fair is at Tobacco Dock, 17-18 April, 2016.
Image source: http://therealwinefair.com/