The wine world widens. Sustainably.
Natural wine from lesser-known regions is having a moment. Why are drinkers going further for au naturale?
Wednesday 13 October 2021
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In a year when we haven’t been able to go anywhere, I’ve done a mind-boggling amount of travelling through my glass. Czech wines have popped up, Bolivian wine sold out at Laithwaites and I’ve spent so much time chatting about Canadian Riesling that I’m heading straight to the Okanagan Valley if I ever dig out my passport again.
I’m all in favour of pushing these new viticultural frontiers. Tuscan reds are great and, yes, Burgundy is famous for a reason, but Petr Kočariks 2018 Pinot Noir from the Czech Republic genuinely knocked my socks off.
“This is ridiculously good”, I remember thinking, then, “wait…it’s a natural wine?!” Anyone who follows my wine ramblings online might know me as a bit of a stickler for environmentally friendly production methods. I am whole-heartedly that person who wants to know how the vineyard’s soils are being managed. I’m keen to see fewer chemicals used in vineyards and, yes, I get excited by biodynamics. If none of that is your bag, you are reading the wrong article.
When I started researching widening parcels of the wine world, it lifted my spirits that a handful seemed to be nurturing exciting, sustainable winemaking….
The Okanagan Valley, Canada
Let’s start with Canada. The pro-active British Columbians have wrapped agricultural and socio-economic goals in to one jazzy Sustainability Certification as the wine industry in Okanagan valley, North East of Vancouver, continues to boom. Launched in November 2020, winemakers can now label their bottles in a direct appeal to us conscious consumers. The criteria? Everything from biodiversity management to proper pay for pickers and vineyard hands.
Jess Luongo, founder of AmoVino, works with sustainable winemakers in the region and saw her business treble last year as their popularity increased. Farm-to-table restaurants and natural wine bars in the region’s super-cool capital have been snapping up sustainable bottles as they roll in from the Okanagan.
“Internationally, Canadian wines have been on the cusp of discovery for so long”, she says, “but there is also a huge interest in locally grown, sustainable wines right here in Vancouver.”
When it comes to sustainable winemaking, without the use of chemical sprays, the North Okanagan has had a bit of a head-start. Vineyards in the cool-climate North have balmy summers, cool nights, and low rainfall so winemakers can spend more time crafting low-intervention wines and less time battling disease with chemical sprays. Essentially, luck of the geographic draw.
In South Okanagan, climate becomes a bit trickier to manage. It gets hotter here than in some winemaking parts of California, believe it or not, but sustainable winemakers are doing great work with something called “dry farming”, trying to reduce their water usage. The big, punchy Cabernet Francs and juicy Gamays produced in this heat are also gaining hype among drinkers looking for those bolder, fuller reds.
Ursa Major Winery, the undisputed king of these juice bombs, has seen its sustainable wines become a sell-out hit. Cult-winemaker and owner, Rajen Toor, is adamant that environmental management is key.
“The more research that is done” he told me, “the better we can tailor our farming practices to work in harmony with our breath-taking surroundings.”
Cinti Valley, Bolivia
Much, much closer to the equator, a different pocket of sustainable winemakers are also working to produce mind-blowing red wines.
The micro-wine industry in Bolivia is only 1% of the size of Argentina’s but Claus Meyer, the dashing Dane behind Noma in Copenhagen, chose to launch his new project in La Paz in 2013 with a commitment to serving local Bolivian produce with an all-Bolivian wine list.
Growers here are working harmoniously with their environment, using traditional practices and sustainable techniques. Have you ever seen arboreal viticulture? It’s incredible. Winemakers attach the vines to ancient trees so that they spiral up in to the branches around a supporting trunk and form a hanging canopy of grapes.
In Bolivia’s Cinti Valley, low-intervention winemaking is really the only choice. The nearest city is three hours away by hazardous canyon road and large-scale agricultural machinery doesn’t travel well. Local winemakers like Jamie Rivera have had to work the region’s red soil naturally, keeping the vines alive by hand. Working with a team of local vineyard hands, he produces expressive, fruity red wines like Moscatel of Alexandria and a heavenly native varietal, Vischoqueña, which is lighter and fresher – think Bolivia’s answer to Pinot Noir – which only grows in Cinti Valley.
Unfortunately, political turmoil and Covid-19 have wreaked havoc on the country’s wine production. Bolivia’s domestic sales figures dropped by 85% in 2020 but pioneering importers like Ramon Escobar are determined to revive it. Ramon owns Chufly Imports in Washington DC, enthusiastically ferrying low-intervention Bolivian wines in to the US. He’s a self-confessed socio-economist and mad about helping Bolivian viticulture achieve sustainable growth.
“Success to me is about transforming the economy”, he explains when I ask him about his passion for Bolivian wine. “10 families are lifted from poverty for every 25 acres of grapevines planted for wine in Bolivia”.
Moravia, Czech Republic
Back in Europe, Czech wine is gaining some well-deserved attention. Importers Jiri Majerik and Zainab Majerikova launched Basket Press Wines only four years ago, sourcing wines from the Czech Republic and central Europe.
“When we started, nobody knew about Czech wines”, Jiri says. “But now our wines are stocked in two Michelin-star restaurants.”
This might be because the Czech Republic has had something of a quality revolution. When it gained independence from Soviet Russia, the country swapped mass-production and high yields for smaller, sustainable-winemaking in pockets of South Moravia. Jiri explains how winemakers had to re-learn their skills after the fall of the iron curtain.
“The generational winemaking chain was broken. Winemakers are now finding their roots again and making wines which speak of the terroir”.
Every August, the tiny village of Boleradice now hosts ‘Autentikfest’ a celebration of low-intervention winemaking, only a short hop across the border from Vienna or Bratislava. See you there next year.
Czech producers are also enjoying the freedom of working without those strict winemaking-laws governing France, Italy and Spain. Winemakers can get creative with more than ten different grape varieties, producing original blends and experimental sparklers. Moravian winemaker, Petr Koráb, works his magic with Zweigelt, Pinot Noir, Gewurztraminer and Neuburské, delivering everything from still whites to orange wines and a barn-stormer of a pét nat (a natural, sparkling wine) which Jiri calls “the best in central Europe”.
While Czech wine still only accounts for about 0.2% of bottle sales worldwide, Brits are increasingly curious about it -- particularly the sustainable bottles. Basket Press’s Czech winemakers are now nestled on the wine lists at top British restaurants Osip, Hide, and Moor Hall, and a ton of equally swanky joints. Back in Moravia they’ve formed ‘Authentiste’, a group where growers like Petr Kočarik share best-practices for treating vines without chemicals, using natural remedies instead.
Petr’s full-bodied and luscious ‘Hibernal’ wine (that’s a Riesling and Siebel hybrid) has become a stand-out hit on shelves and in UK bars.
“It’s made in a completely low-intervention way” Jiri says, “and it’s been blowing people’s minds.”
If it’s anything like his Pinot Noir 2018, sign me up, I’ve got an empty glass.
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