Thank you for joining us in the Pantry at The Holborn for Tea & a Chat, Isabelle.
What would we find if we poked around in your pantry?
I love my pantry – it’s full of glass jars, you won’t find any plastic. I’m a big believer in a “one single ingredient” policy, so everything we cook at home is made from scratch. We’ve just made a huge batch of pâté and we have kombucha and kefir fermenting in one corner of the kitchen. Aside from that, there are rows of homemade jams and lots of dried wild herbs for tea. I also like to forage, so we currently have some extra herbs macerating in oils too. Everything you can think of, we’ve got a jar of it!
What’s your earliest food/drink memory?
I was brought up on a farm and we kept our own pigs as well as cows. In winter, we would kill the pigs and cook them together as a family. So from January to March, most weekends were spent at one or other cousin’s house cooking up entire pigs. I can still remember the smell of it. We would spend two to three days chopping, mixing, stuffing meat grinders and creating pâté, sausages, black pudding, even a dish called ‘jigouri’ which is basically pig skin boiled in blood for hours and minced up to look like semolina – sounds horrific but it’s absolutely delicious over boiled potatoes.
Where and when did your love of wine begin?
In my life, wine has always been a staple. We grew up having a tiny bit of wine in water, just enough to tint it slightly. So to me, wine was always just there; just another foodstuff. Some may find this strange, but for me wine smells of home.
My family used to make wine, so a part of me has always been fascinated – it’s a part of my fabric rather than something I have grown to love.
You advocate natural wine. There is a lot of flowery language and jargon in the world of wine so in simple terms, please could you explain what the terms natural, organic and biodynamic mean?
According to Alexandre Bain, a natural wine producer from Pouilly-Fumé, ‘organic and biodynamic are the tools, natural is the philosophy’. I think that is a great way of summing it up.
Natural wine has to be grown organically or biodynamically in the vineyard. This means that growers will use environmentally-friendly farming methods to grow their grapes and, if they are biodynamic, they will go a step further and use a method of organic farming, developed by Rudolf Steiner, which takes a more holistic approach.
But the key difference between natural and organic or biodynamic wine has to do with the winemaking itself. Natural wines are made using minimal intervention in the winery. The idea is to keep the wine alive – full of the indigenous yeasts and good bacteria that made it in the first place.
Natural winemakers see themselves as guiding a naturally occurring process rather than as people trying to fashion a product. They don’t try to shape the grapes or juice into a particular taste or texture. In its purest form, natural wine is wine that has had nothing added or removed whatsoever.
Organic and biodynamic wines on the other hand, while obviously grown amazingly, allow more intervention in the winery (higher sulphites, added yeasts, sterile filtration etc.) – exactly what is and is not permitted is dependant on the country & certification body. Similarly, many organic and biodynamic wines are actually natural too even if they may not use the term themselves.
Winemaking is a funny business. Although it may seem like the most natural of products (after all squash a few grapes and wine makes itself), modern wine is often a highly manipulated product, moulded to suit market trends and tastes. Winemakers can intervene all the way through the process using a raft of additives, processing aids and gadgets that can radically alter a wine. There are packets of yeasts, vitamins, enzymes, Mega Purple, reverse osmosis, cryo-extraction or powdered tannins, to name but a few. In fact, there are so many additives and processes used in winemaking worldwide today that it is shocking that labelling laws have still not caught up with market realities. The people of today have literally no way of telling apart highly manipulated wines from those that are simply fermented grape juice.
What’s more, as things currently stand natural wine does not have a legal definition so abuse of the term is rife. At RAW, the artisan wine fair I organise (taking place this weekend), we put transparency first and foremost. All the wines on show are natural, organic or biodynamic (and all much more alive than most wines you’d come across) but importantly every artisan has committed to transparency, which means they each declare all procedures used to create their wines.
Why are natural farming techniques (including organic and biodynamic practices) and low-intervention vinification processes so important to winemaking and the wine industry?
Grapes contain everything they need to ferment and make wine; just like apples and cider. So adding or taking bits out means you move away from the purity of the fruit and so too from things like terroir – or a sense of place. Obviously, if the fermentation goes awry and rogue bacteria take hold then you’ll lose the sense of place anyway, so it is a very fine line that the growers walk. But when they succeed, the results are glorious. And since for me the pleasure of wine is all in the aromas, flavour and texture, their integrity is paramount, which is why I love great natural wine.
Why do you think people should choose natural wine? Are there benefits in terms of taste and health?
Natural wine, like any wine, contains alcohol so drinking to excess is never a good idea, but with so many chemicals in commercial wine, it is hardly surprising that they leave you feeling especially worse for wear.
Not only can pesticides used in the vineyard make it through into the wine but the excessive use of sulphites (which is commonplace in the industry) means that some wines contain sulphite totals that are 10 times what they would be in a natural counterpart.
Sulphites are a preservative, an anti-bacterial, but nowadays they are used in exceptionally high doses throughout the wine industry to try and keep non-living wines stable. Trouble is that that mixed with alcohol they seem to have a particularly noxious effect on the body, making it harder for your liver to process the drink. If the wine trade globally communicated more about what was used in wine, I think people would be surprised. People simply don’t know what is in their drink or what the long-term effects will be on their health.
Apart from the negative health implications of conventional wine, though, I also truly believe that good natural wines taste better than any conventional equivalent. There is a purity, complexity and moreishness to the finest examples that are just not possible in conventional wine.
Are there other reasons we should consider choosing natural wine?
With more and more people anxious about what they eat and the provenance of their food, wine will become a part of that culture, as will cider and beer.
Plus there’s also the ethical question. Grapes are one of the most polluted crops in agriculture, which is absurd since grapes grow perfectly well without pesticides and we certainly don’t need wine to survive. All the arguments about yields and not being able to produce enough for humanity without Roundup and the like, is simply nonsense in the case of wine.
Then there’s the problem of water. Take for example California which is currently being ravaged by drought. Many of its vineyards are irrigated using this precious resource, which again is wholly unnecessary since vines, even in California, can be dry-farmed. Indeed there are natural growers coming to RAW who do just that.
The use of resources in conventional farming (water, soil depletion, erosion et al) is simply not sustainable and it’s something that desperately needs to be addressed.
In general, do you think wine is best enjoyed on its own or paired with food?
Both! It depends entirely on the occasion. Natural wines are foodie wines, precisely because of their purity, but they’re also just as delicious drunk without any food/wine pairing whatsoever. There’s nothing quite like a great traditional prosecco col fondo with friends on a lovely summer day.
In order to enjoy wine at its best, would you recommend investing in any particular kit such as special glasses, decanters etc.?
Nice glassware does make a difference – I prefer a lovely light, delicate glass. Some available are so incredibly thin, the glass almost evaporates – like holding air and drinking from nothing.
Decanters can also be incredibly useful as some natural wines need a bit of air and time to wake up.
However, it’s more important to pair your wine with the occasion. Some of the best champagne I’ve ever had was on picnics with friends. What’s more important is the effect of your mood on the taste of wine – things always taste better when you are feeling happy.
You’ve previously talked about your passion for wine “with soul”. What do you mean by this?
I’m a very spiritual person, so this may sound a bit “new age” but I believe in being respectful of all life form, plants and animals included. Life needs to be taken care of and wine is just the same. Each grape has its own unique microbiology, so each glass has its own personality. Plus wine is made by people so there is also their touch of individuality and their energy that comes across too.
In London restaurants, there seems to be a real trend for natural wines on the menu. What’s your take on this?
We worked hard for this! We’re still gaining momentum but it’s encouraging to see that for the fair I organise, (RAW, the artisan wine fair), trade registrations and public tickets are up, even on last year. It’s fantastic that people are becoming more open to natural wine and exploring this side of the industry.
The flipside though is that increased popularity means some are now exploiting the term ‘natural’ as a marketing tool. So just because you see the word used on a menu don’t assume it is automatically natural, or even organic or biodynamic – I’ve witnessed this for myself and it is a shame. So I urge you to ask and double check when the word natural is used, just to make sure.
What wine trends do you think will emerge in future?
I think globally, people will want to know more about the provenance of their wine so transparency in the wine industry will become more important. We’re at the point where people are realising there are things in their wine they didn’t know about. We’ll see the wine producers being challenged more and the “no labeling” policy as I see it will have to change as a result. I certainly hope so!
You redesigned the wine list at Hibiscus, making it one of the first Michelin starred restaurants to promote fine, natural wine. Do you think other restaurants will follow suit?
Yes, I’ve been lucky to have the opportunity of curating quite a few wine lists around London, most recently for The Richmond in Hackney as well as Elliot’s in Borough Market. I’ve also been working with Kittitian Hill, an eco-luxury tourism initiative in St Kitts, which has a strong farm to table ethos. The wine we shipped across in December makes Kittitian Hill the first place in the Caribbean to have natural wine – so now natural wine is emerging globally as well as hotspots throughout Europe. Natural wine is definitely growing in popularity so yes other restaurants will follow suit.
Which London bars and restaurants do you recommend for drinking natural wines?
There are so many great options across the capital that offer natural wine now, such as Brawn, 40 Maltby St, Antidote, Naughty Piglets, The Remedy, Toasted, Soif, Pinch and Terroirs.
Where can we buy good bottles in London to drink at home?
For shops, you could try Noble Fine Liquor or even Whole Foods, who may have a limited stock. At the fair this weekend, our friends at Victualler, a wine bar and shop based in Wapping are hosting a shop where wines from our exhibitors will be available.
Outside of the fair, it can sometimes be nearly impossible to tell the difference between a natural and non-natural wine by just looking at the label. Always talk to the staff who should be able to point you in the right direction.
What is the purpose of the annual RAW Fair? Any highlights not to be missed?
RAW truly is the best place to discover natural wines. It’s a wonderful opportunity for people to taste natural wines in a relaxed setting whilst still being able to talk directly to the growers themselves. As the fair is the largest collection of natural, organic and biodynamic wines in the UK (with around a thousand wines from 190 growers) there is nowhere better to begin your explorations into this world.
This year sees some great new highlights for the show, including our first display of exclusive artworks and installations from MA Students of the Information Experience Design (IED) programme at the Royal College of Art, all of which have been inspired by natural wines. I’m also really excited to be showcasing numerous sulphite-free wines, which will prove that it really is possible to make totally natural, additive-free wine, even ones that age (we have a 35 year old natural wine coming over specially for people to taste…)
Another first at the show will be the raw fish bar hosted by The Richmond, who will be serving visitors delicious dishes featuring fresh fish caught that very morning in Cornwall.
Interview by Leila Dukes