What are your thoughts on blanket crop-spraying, sulphites and additives in winemaking?
They’re totally unnecessary! Vines and grapes grow perfectly well without spraying them with weed-killers or other synthetic chemical pesticides, so it seems a shame that we have gotten to a point where we think that plants can’t possibly grow without them. It’s ludicrous. Ditto with sulphites and other oenological additives and winemaking aids. Wine makes itself. Always has.
So, why do you think they’ve been adopted?
Control, speed and the bottom line. We live in a world where we want everything to be duplicatable, scaleable and consistent – be it a desk lamp, yoghurt or even a glass of beer. The problem is that if you want to make millions of bottles a year of a drink that always tastes exactly the same then it can’t be a living thing, which by its very nature morphs and changes with time. Instead you have to implement procedures that sterilize it and convert it into being an inanimate thing that you can control – for good or bad.
When did you first realise your own interest in natural wines?
I think that all wine should be grown organically at a minimum. Most agriculture today pollutes, so farming that doesn’t is pretty extraordinary and should be supported. But with wine there is even less reason to farm conventionally because unlike staples like rice or wheat, you won't die if you don’t drink wine.
For me it’s also personal, as my father died of very aggressive lung cancer. He never smoked and his story was not unique because in Cognac (where I am originally from) there are lots of grape growers with cancers, Parkinsons and all sorts of other diseases that doctors think may well be linked to the heavy-handed use of pesticides in the vineyard.
In terms of preferring low-intervention in the winery, however, and it is this that sets natural wines apart from organic and biodynamic ones, the change for me happened over time. While I was studying for my MW, I tasted extensively on a daily basis, and weirdly found that I was bored by what I was tasting. Wines from all over the world tasted similar and while correct in the sense of not being faulty, they were bland, monotonous, sort of pointless. At first I didn’t question it too much but then occasionally I would taste something that really stood out - that was interesting, different, captivating and I would fall in love with wine all over again. I began to wonder if there was something that united these bottles. At first I thought it might be because of the sustainable farming methods used, as they were all properly farmed by people who really valued nature, but as I dug I realised that it was more than that. I discovered a world of extraordinary small vignerons who produced wine that resonated with me. It was wine that was not manipulated nor made with flavour-enhancing yeasts. It was authentic wine. And what I have since discovered is that once you start drinking natural wine, you just can’t go back.
Are there any specific restaurants/chefs that are tapping into the natural wine market that we should look out for?
One of the most famous examples is Noma. Redzepi’s team of sommeliers is incredibly knowledgeable. They always attend RAW. Nearer to home, 2-star Michelin Hibiscus’ Claude Bosi has been championing fine natural wines on his wine list for 4 years now. On a casual dining level, Brett Redman (from Elliot’s at Borough Market) is a keen enthusiast as well.
Is there a specific winery that is proving to be a vanguard in the natural wine movement at the moment?
There are many producers doing great things and trailblazing in their respective communities - it is never easy to change accepted wisdom or the status quo. And in the case of wine, as absurd as it may sound, the accepted wisdom nowadays (and this is very recent indeed) is that wine needs more than just grapes in order to become wine. Wine professionals everywhere seem to believe that wine needs lots of poking, prodding and additives to make it happen but the truth is that, left to its own devices, wine makes itself. So the real vanguards are those extraordinary individuals who manage to produce beautiful fine wines, using grapes and nothing more. They are a rarity in the modern world but they do exist and I list lots and lots of them in my book.
What is your personal favourite choice when it comes to natural wine?
I have lots of personal favourites, which makes it hard for me to pick just one. They’re so different from each other that I fancy different ones at different times. What wine I drink depends on the mood I am in, or who I am sharing a bottle with. At this very moment, for example, I am drinking lots of pétillants naturels, perhaps because summer is upon us, and good pet nats are so refreshing. There are many great examples from the Loire, and one I am particularly fond of is Sébastien Bobinet’s Du Rififi a Beaulieu made from chenin blanc grapes. It is 100% fermented grape juice and tastes remarkably like freshly pressed, ripe, honeydew melons with bubbles. Utterly moreish.
Is there a dish you like to pair it with?
It’s perfect on its own. A great apéritif.
Isabelle's book Natural Wine: An Introduction to Organic and Biodynamic Wines made Naturally is published by CICO Books and hits shelves this July. Available from all good bookshops or by calling 01256 302699.