We visit RAW – The Artisan Wine Fair 2014 at Truman Brewery in East London to meet some of the small natural wine producers and other artisans there. Not knowing a huge amount about wine we manage to grab Isabelle Legeron, the founder of RAW and only female Master of Wine in France for a quick chat about natural wine, how it differs from commercial wines and some helpful tips to avoid hangovers. We also find out more about her book which is due to hit shelves shortly…

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How did you get into natural wine making?

So my upbringing was on a farm, a farmer’s girl. My parents have a vineyard so I was taught to go and work there, make sausages, patés, we had a very rural upbringing. Then I decided ‘this isn’t what I want to be doing with my life’. So I went to university, moved to London, got work experience and then suddenly I thought, ‘actually, wine and farming are what interest me’. So I went to study wine in the UK, and my course was very intellectual about wine. I think wine nowadays is treated as a very intellectual topic, even though it is a very sensual thing. People in the trade, journalists, they really get caught up in their heads about wine – you have to look at scoring, writing tasting notes, studying the terroir, and all of this is really nice but sometimes you get bogged down in the technicality and cerebral aspect of wine, and you miss out on the sensuality.

I realised I was becoming very corporate-y, I only wanted to taste the most expensive wines. And at the same time, I realised I was so far removed from my upbringing and I was really missing the earth and farming. So I became interested in very small wine growers, who are farmers, and who really make an agricultural product, and you don’t really get too intellectual about the taste. And this is how I got into the natural wine world – I didn’t want to be caught up in a very corporate industry wearing suits and being very serious and eating expensive dinners; I just wanted to be outside and look at flowers and plants, to understand the relationship between the soil and the plant, the biodiversity, natural fermentation and things like that, and little by little I became hooked by natural wine. And I haven’t looked back, I don’t drink anything else and I don’t work with anything else.

And so in terms of if you wanted to get into international wine making, what is the best way to go about it?

If you wanted to actually make it? I think it’s a lot easier than people think. Some people have had very formal training, so Derek here from California, he went to a very posh university in the US to learn about fermentation and stuff, and then he decided that’s not really what he wanted to do. But actually, honestly, and I’ve made wine once, it’s all about farming great, raw material. It’s all about what you produce in your vineyard. And all being well you can actually crush grapes, it will ferment naturally, and you make wine like that. It’s a bit like cooking, really. I think that the more I work with wine, the more I make wine at home, the more I realise that it’s like cooking. You need to be sensitive to the plants you’re working with, you need a bit of instinct and judgement about how long the maceration time should be, whether you need some form of temperature control or not, what grape varieties you want to work with. If you follow your instincts and you have some sensitivity towards nature, I think you will be a successful wine producer.

And in terms of the labels that apply here – biodynamic, organic – do you think they affect the taste?

I think it’s not necessarily about the labels, I think you’ll find if you talk to the growers they are about a lot more than that. Because you could just follow the rules by the book, follow your calendar and do what it says, but if you’re not in your vineyard, if you’re not looking at your plants, if you’re not listening to them, you’ll never really be able to make great wines. I think the basis for me is to form something without any synthetic chemicals, to work with soil a little bit, to allow the indigenous plants to flourish, to plant trees, to allow bees to come to your plants… just normal common sense.

 

Do you have any wine that you favour? Obviously different occasions call for different wine, but do you have a personal favourite region or type of wine?

Not really, I like drinking wine from people that I really like, I think the personality comes through, the energy of the people. You know you drink your wine and someone’s been really attentive to that plant, so you can feel that energy. I don’t want to sound like a really spiritual person, but for me the love that you put into farming is really important. As long as the wine is made really naturally, balanced, not too marked by oak and other elements like that, as long as there is a nice freshness, drinkability, I don’t really care what region it’s from.

Do you believe that you shouldn’t mix red and white?

Oh, if this were true… No, I think it’s more about making sure you drink really natural stuff. In an evening I’ll drink some red, some white, maybe some sparkling… I don’t think there’s any reason not to.

What about any wines that you think people should avoid?

I wouldn’t say avoid at all costs – I hate wines that are clearly very marked by the yeast that people are adding, it develops a very aromatic flavour. I don’t like residual sugar, I don’t think it should be there. I think there’s more and more tendency to drink sweet whites now with a few grams of residual sugar, even reds now. I don’t like wines that feel like they’re confected. I like wines that are really unprocessed. Like sake… Sake is such a new territory, people don’t have any preconceptions, so you welcome cloudiness, you welcome all these new aromas. That’s what I like in wine, something a bit more rustic.

Any tips for if you do drink a bit too much wine, what you should do the next day?

Haha, drink lots of water! Drink wine without any sulphites added – you digest the alcohol a lot better. Obviously dehydration is always there, so you do need to make sure you drink a lot of water. Personally I always find it easier with natural wines – I don’t drink a lot of commercial wine anyway – but I find the natural wines don’t affect me too much.

And finally, can you tell us a bit more about your wine book which is coming out soon?

The book is there to say: “what is natural wine?” Because there’s a lot of confusion out there, people say lots of different things about natural wine. It was also a bit of a wake-up call – I want people who don’t work in the wine industry, but really enjoy wine, to start thinking about wine the way they think about food. The issue that we have is that you have some people who will hunt down outdoor-bred pigs and sourdough bread made from organic flour, and they go and buy a bottle of wine that is the equivalent of a battery chicken. So I wanted to write a book that was – not giving necessarily definitive answers to what is what – but getting people to think about wine differently, and inform their choices, so that they can start asking questions and maybe buy differently, or buy knowing what it is that they are drinking.