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Toasting artisan wines of character
By Anthony Rose

The growing Natural Wine movement stands for higher quality, handmade wines with a story and a human touch. Dotted around the world, artisan wine makers put passion before business and natural methods before the wine maker's barrel of tricks. Anthony Rose reports.

I was paying for a carton of milk in my local supermarket when my eye caught the great wall of wine to the right of me. Not Great Wall, that is, but Jacob's Creek and Yellow Tail from Australia, Kumala from South Africa, Casillero del Diablo from Chile, Echo Falls from California, Black Tower from Germany and Stowells and a host of other brands from everywhere and anywhere. These are the brands most wine drinkers know and doggedly stick to as they might newspapers or political parties.

They stand in distinction to the higher quality, handmade wines with a story and a human touch. Wines, that is, that communicate by their flavor and character that they're made by individuals and come from a unique location. Such high-quality wines may be in a minority and drunk by a minority, yet they are capable of giving pleasure out of all proportion to their relatively small volume.

The artisan wine is symbolized by the so-called Natural Wine movement. This dynamic movement is populated by artisan wine makers crafting small-scale production wines to achieve their most natural expression. Dotted around the world with strongholds in the Loire Valley and Beaujolais, they are stereotypically unshaven and wearing sport shorts, sandals and T-shirts. They are wine growers, often young and idealistic, who put passion before business and natural methods before the wine maker's box of tricks.

These wine makers believe that kowtowing to the critics and making money at the expense of personality reduces wine to a no-faults formula and that over-manipulation in the winery strips wine of its individuality. They adhere to the view that in the process of making wine, "nothing should be added to wine and nothing taken away," as the American wine writer Alice Feiring, one of their strongest supporters, put it. They can be extreme and their critics point to an excess of badly made wines with faults such as oxidation and vinegary characters.

As a mass market wine widely considered to be among the world's finest wines, Champagne is the exception that proves the rule. Over decades, if not centuries, the brilliant marketing skills of the Champenois and the consistent quality of big brands such as Mo?t & Chandon, Roederer and Veuve Clicquot have created a hugely desirable, quality product. Seven in 10 Champagnes are exported and almost all exports are from the big houses, but within the region, there's a lot more to Champagne than the big brand.

Les Artisans du Champagne, for instance, is a group of small Champagne growers who resist the idea of the "house style" beloved of the négociant. They want their wines to reflect the ups and downs of each vintage, of the plot of land where their grapes grow and the vagaries of human nature and endeavor. Without the resources and marketing budgets of the big boys, small growers often make Champagne as good as if not better than the more familiar brands. Among the many fine growers of individual Champagnes whose names you can count on are Roger Brun, Diebolt-Vallois, De Sousa, Egly-Ouriet, Pierre Gimonnet, Beno?t Lahaye, Larmandier-Bernier, Pierre Peters, Alain Robert, Veuve Fourny and Tarlant.

The examples of artisan wines I've mentioned so far are French but that doesn't mean that the New World doesn't have its fair share of wine makers crafting wines of character. We in the UK have become accustomed to thinking of the New World as big brand oriented because the wine industries of countries such as Australia, Chile and America are dominated by commodity brands owned by large corporations, adding value through advertising and marketing.

Taking Australia as an example, if four in every five bottles produced there come from just 10 wineries, that fifth bottle comes from the remaining 2,500-plus smaller wineries. Most are off the radar because they're not exported and don't have the marketing budgets of the bigger companies. Yet it's these small handmade quality wines of personality that are defining the diversity of Australia and its multi-faceted regions.

Still much led by advertising and marketing, China too is dominated by a handful of brands with the great leviathans of Changyu, Great Wall Wine and Dynasty accounting for almost half the country's wine sales. But the promotion of wine as a healthy alternative to spirits, declining wine imports taxes and increasing purchasing power are all making their contribution to fresh approaches to wine.

In a food-oriented, restaurant culture in which matching wine and food is a developing feature, a growing number of more knowledgeable - and thirsty - Chinese consumers are looking for wines of character within their own boundaries as well as beyond. Penglai is the location for the venture between Lafite and CITIC, a Chinese company, while Mo?t Hennessy has launched a joint venture for an ultra-premium red in southwest Yunnan Province. Equally, there are a growing number of promising, small wineries such as Grace Vineyards, Silver Heights and Helan Qingxue in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region.

Mass market brands enjoy the virtue of convenience, but like those irritating car adverts on television, they inspire no emotional attachment beyond what the marketing men dredge up from their highly paid imaginations.

Real wine of high quality is derived from the human story of trials and tribulations, successes and failures. You know it when you're tasting the sweat and the soul of generations of human endeavor.

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