Looking for a way to understand what all the natural wine hype is about? Hundreds of these wines from all over the world will be featured under one roof as the Raw Wine Fair descends on New York and then Los Angeles this month. The tasting brings together more than 100 winemakers from around the world who produce what’s considered “natural” or “low-intervention” wines.
With all the quibbling about what it takes to qualify as a natural wine (and whether that really matters), this event is a good place to learn, ask questions and make your own judgments. (You’ll also be able to keep up with trendy wine conversations after meeting such producers as Sicily’s Frank Cornelissen, Austria’s Gut Oggau and Slovenia’s Movia.)
Conceived by Isabelle Legeron, the first woman Master of Wine in France, Raw began in 2012 in London as part industry-trade show — and a chance for small wine producers to market and introduce themselves to importers, distributors and other wine professionals — and part consumer tasting (last year, was its first visit to the U.S.).
Isabelle says her goal for both audiences is to promote transparency in wine.
“I want people to start thinking about wine the way they think about food,” she told me last week. “I realized very early on that we have this idea that most people think that wine is natural regardless. People have this idea that wine is grape juice fermented and bottled. And that’s because there’s no ingredient labeling requirements for all of wine.”
The reality is that most wines are filled with enzymes and other additives that are used to help preserve the wine, enhance the flavor, and some — with names like mega purple — can manipulate the color of the wine.
“For me, it’s very simple. A natural wine is made with 100 percent grape juice and nothing else. Not even use of sulfites,” she says. But “for the purpose of the fairs, we’re not exclusively a natural wine fair. Not very many people make purely natural wine. For the fair, growers who are natural, it’s a two stage process where everything has to be done organically: cleanly in the vineyard and nothing added in the cellar. We also welcome low-intervention, biodynamic, permaculture principals. [The winemakers are] not allowed to add yeast or enzymes, except small doses of sulfites.”
The use of sulfites — which helps prevent wines from decomposing as it ages — is usually at the heart of the “what’s a natural wine” debate. Consumers tend to understand it the most, because it’s something they’ve heard of. The chemical is often blamed for causing headaches (that’s a myth!) or causing allergic reactions. Yet, sulfites appear in many foods, and doesn’t quite get the same bad rap.
Producers attending the fair who use minimal sulfites are required to list that information on the Raw Wine website, underscoring Isabelle’s transparency values.
“Because even people who work in a very low-intervention way are way, way more natural than the vast majority of wine producers out there. Somebody who uses a little bit of sulfites, but farms organically, ferments naturally, doesn’t fine, doesn’t filter, is actually on the spectrum of a natural wine producer,” she says.
In the year leading up to the fair, Isabelle tasted wines from hundreds of winemakers all around the world who submitted their bottles for possible entry into the fair. She estimates that only about 20 or 30 percent get chosen.
So what’s the best way of tackling the Raw Wine Fair — especially with 145 producers attending in New York, and 112 in Los Angeles? Remember, each producer could have up to five or six different wines to try. Isabelle stresses it’s about interacting with the growers more than anything else, and of course spitting.
If you’re a consumer, Isabelle suggests this:
“People need to come in and really enjoy the experience and make sure you spit, that’s the first thing. Make a whole day of it. Take breaks, have a bite to eat, have a coffee and maybe not view it as a marathon. More look at it as an opportunity to chat with growers. Even when you’re trade, it can feel a bit daunting … It’s not technical. We’re not here to score wines or anything. We’re really here to communicate a way of living. A way of somm’ing, a way of making wine. Don’t taste with your head, but taste with your stomach and your instinct.”
And for the winemakers:
“For the growers, my advice is always to be super friendly and super smiley. Because I think sometimes producers come from very far away, some people speak not the best of English, they’re a bit shy, they’re a bit worried about are they going to say the right thing, but I always say to them, they’re just here to meet other human beings, and not get too bogged down on the technicality unless people specifically ask for it, because what most people want is to meet the grower … it’s the human interaction.”
The 2017 U.S. fairs will take place Nov. 5 and 6 in New York, and Nov. 12 and 13 in Los Angeles. Thanks to a growing excitement for natural wines in the U.S., the group has planned smaller events across the country, too. For more about natural wine, Isabelle Legeron has also just released the second edition of her book, Natural Wine.