Monday, January 04, 2010
Kathryn O’Mara, who last year opened London’s first natural wine bar, Artisan & Vine (126 St. John’s Hill; 44-207-228-4997), grew up drinking wine and works in the wine industry — and yet she had never really liked drinking wine by itself. “It tasted funny,” she recalled. “Like you had to get something plasticky out of your mouth.” But after O’Mara tried natural wine — that is, wine that hasn’t been doctored with additives or modern processes of vinification — she had an epiphany. “It’s a unique fruit-based beverage,” she said with a laugh. The shop, in a gorgeous Georgian-era pub in Battersea, sells such bottles as the “hypernatural” Sicilian vintages from Frank Cornelissen, who uses grapes indigenous to Mount Etna. “I wouldn’t expect everyone to be as carried away as I was,” O’Mara said. “But we have a lot of regulars now who say that they have difficulty going back to ordinary wines. A lot of them say they feel the difference and seek out these natural wines now.”
To help understand this difference, a quick primer: Natural wines are made from grapes that come from organically worked vineyards (whether or not they’ve been certified as such) that have been harvested by hand. During the vinification period, there is minimal intervention — no added commercial yeast, acid, sugar, enzymes, bacteria and tannins, and only naturally occurring sulfites. Sulfites are controversial, with purists swearing off any added sulfur dioxide, and other natural winemakers ceding a bit of additional sulfites at bottling (though still far less than conventional winemakers). Natural wines are also produced without common modern technologies like reverse osmosis and micro-oxygenation, which tweak the texture of the wine and add either flavor or alcohol.
Despite grumblings from some oenophiles about its rustic flavor and barnyard smell, vin naturel is rapidly gaining a following around the world, with natural wines showing up on menus and bars like O’Mara’s popping up more and more.