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The Charter of Quality for natural wine at the Raw Wine event includes the stipulation that grapes must be hand-harvested.

At Raw Wine, you're never sure what you're going to get

Nov 18, 2016 5:50 AM

LAST weekend, Raw Wine uncorked in Brooklyn. The globetrotting fair celebrates natural, biodynamic and organic wine - it began in London in 2012 and has since stopped in Vienna and Berlin - bringing with it hundreds of natty bottles and attracting thousands of thirsty attendees. It was the inaugural event at 99 Scott, a newly renovated industrial compound in Bushwick that also houses an urban meadery and a pho joint (the second location of the Michelin-lauded dive Bun-Ker Vietnamese). 

Natural wine is the industry's buzziest category: a living, breathing expression of terroir, representative of healthy soils, microclimates and idiosyncratic growers, or so I learnt throughout the two days of swishing and scrutinising. It is a movement based on intelligent discussion, and, from the vibe here, a bit of emotion.

In the compound's gravel courtyard, local hero Roberta's slung freshly charred pizzas from a pop-up oven while young kids played tag amid the picnic tables. Inside, a moody if genial bunch of smartly dressed European and American wine producers with angular eyewear and superfluous scarves dispensed samples to journalists, industry types (sommeliers, importers, distributors) and assorted wine enthusiasts. Many looked as if they had rolled out of their nearby lofts and stumbled upon the event, bed-head and all, while others boasted T-shirts emblazoned with natural wine slogans like "Sulfur is Murder!" and "Natural Yeast Til It Hurts." It was crowded, cheery, as boisterous as you would expect a free-flowing event. 

Ask someone at Raw Wine to describe "natural wine", and you will receive a look of befuddlement.  That is because there is no codified style - and there are few, if any, tasting notes common to all natural wines. In broad terms, natural wines are wines made with as little intervention as possible. That is, without additives to keep them shelf stable and without chemicals or "correctives" that change tannin structures, acidity levels and alcohol percentages.

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Clean, classic wines

It is true that some natural wines are the out-there, hippy-dippy barnyard swill that have become stereotypical of the genre - ones that are ripe with flaws like ethyl acetate (which smells like nail polish remover) or a funky musk reminiscent of a mouldy basement. But many are clean, classic wines that we think of as traditional styles - robust Bordeauxs, beguiling Champagnes - ones that are familiar to any casual wine drinker.

The producers are just as varied, too. Some are drawn to the movement by clean farming practices (nearly all the producers at Raw were organic certified) while others bask in the mysticism of biodynamic planting, harvesting and bottling which draws largely on lunar cycles and seemingly bizarre ritualistic practices (stuffing cow horns and intestines with manure, herbs and flowers, and burying or hanging them around the vineyards).

For her part, Raw's organiser Isabelle Legeron lays out a Charter of Quality, dictating up to 10 criteria for inclusion in the fair: grapes must be hand-harvested; no yeast may be added; wines may not contain more than 70 mg of added sulphites per litre (naturally occurring sulphites are not included in this count), and so on.

None of this translates remotely to any sort of common tasting notes that could describe all or even most of the wines presented at Raw. And for adventurous drinkers, that is one of the most exciting things about the fair and the movement that it represents - a sense of discovery and the feeling that you are never quite sure what you are going to get. For more conservative palates, the thought of plonking down US$40-plus on an unknown, potentially peculiar bottle of wine may be troubling; the sweet spot for natural wines is in the US$20-25 range, where exceptional - and exciting - values can be found without taking too big a risk.

Some natural wine novices are drawn to the extreme ends of the genre - the funkier the wine, the better. But very little of what I tasted at Raw fit this stereotype of dirty, flat, cider-like wines. In fact, most were vibrant and clean, and would undoubtedly appeal to everyone from my Yellow Tail-loving mother-in-law to the most ardent of natural wine fans.

Vibrant wines

Some of the most vibrant wines were from Alexandre Bain who farms biodynamic sauvignon blanc in the Loire Valley. His 2014 pouilly-fumés were exceedingly robust with honey-like aromas and a long, rich finish. Ditto the Champagnes from Dominique Lelarge, whose family has been growing vines in Vrigny since the 18th century. His Champagnes were simply stunning with good minerality and notes of ripe apricot and candied orange peel. In fact, it is the bubbly pét-nat style where most people these days have encountered their first natural wine.

One sentiment that I encountered over and over at Raw was that most discussions about natural winemaking miss the mark entirely. True natural wines are made in the field, not the cellar. Indeed most winemakers at Raw emphasised their roles as "growers" rather than producers or makers, expressing reverence for the raw materials - the grapes - which must come from exceptional vineyards in order to produce wine with little to no additives or stabilisers. 

Secondary to farming comes a pristine cellar. Without the volition to make "corrections" to the wine - most conventional wines are augmented with acidity and tannin corrections, sulphite stabilisers and chaptalisation which boosts alcohol content - the cellar must be kept clean as a whistle.

More than half of the wines at Raw came from France, Italy and California - traditional wine-growing regions that are also the headquarters of the natural wine movement. But there were also producers from some truly head-scratching locales. Ever tried a wine from Texas Hill Country? How about Ohio? Both were represented at the fair (La Cruz de Comal from Canyon Lake, Texas, and Via Vechhia from Columbus, Ohio, respectively) as well as La Garagista's alpine wines from Vermont and Ruth Lewandowski Wines from Utah (who sources grapes from California).

Such geographic diversity indicates that the practice of natural winemaking is becoming increasingly widespread - dare I say mainstream? - and that superbly raised vineyards can thrive in challenging locations and under less than ideal growing conditions, in places other than pitch-perfect Tuscany, Burgundy and Napa. 

Raw wine bottle buying guide for beginners

If you like Champagne, you'll like ... Champagne Lelarge-Pugeot Premier Cru Brut Tradition NV; US$50 from Wine Therapy.

If you like Chardonnay, you'll like ... Domaine Chandon de Briailles Pernand-Vergelesses 1er Cru Ile de Vergeleses Blanc 2014; US$68 from Chambers Street Wines.

If you like Rosé, you'll like ... Gut Oggau Burgenland Winifred Rosé 2015; US$32 from Vineyard Gate.

If you like Pinot Noir, you'll like ... Swick Wines Willamette Valley Pinot Noir 2014; US$18 from Europa Wine Merchant.

If you like California Zinfandel, you'll like ... Coturri Zinfandel Blend 2015; US$35 from Coturri Winery. BLOOMBERG