Just a tiny shoal of fried whitebait tossed with house-grown Sichuan pepper, crisped garlic and coriander – snack prelude to another fascinating Moorcock at Norland lunch. In three months it will be no more, taking with it not only one of the UK’s great food experiences but also a rarely equalled adventurous drinks offering.
On this occasion it is the latter that has lured us to the squally hilltop above Sowerby Bridge. I’ve spent the weekend engrossed in Aaron Ayscough’s The World of Natural Wine (Artisan, £31.99), thus impressionable me can’t resist the prospect of tasting a clutch of minimal intervention reds and whites from France’s Jura and Savoie regions. They don’t disappoint.
Surprisingly Les Dolomies, profiled at length in Wink Lorch’s definitive Jura Wine (Wine Travel Media, £25pb), doesn’t get a mention in the comprehensive, France-centric new book from Not Drinking Poison blogger Ayscough. But then my beloved Jura is a maverick stronghold of natural wine and 15 pages only scratches the surface.
Savoie and neighbouring Bugey are more under the radar, but Domaine Partagé does get a glowing mention as one of five individual profiles. The author, a US expat, is based in Beaujolais, the crucible of the natural wine movement thanks to certain key figures over the past four decades. He traces that timeline in depth, exhaustively explaining what make this alternative ethos superior to mainstream ‘manipulative’ winemaking. It certainly opened my eyes to the myriad dodgy practices employed in commercial production.
What you get is over 400 pages of (copiously illustrated) polemic. Ayscough pulls no punches in naming and shaming one-time natural crusaders, who have deviated from the true path. Sulfites anyone? The rest of Europe gets only a cursory over-view at the end, but that doesn’t detract from the most comprehensive exploration of a millennial phenomenon. Still the proof is in the pudding… or rather the glass. So back to the Moorcock, where any trepidation about haziness, excess brett and funk, vinegary volatile acidity, nail polish remover stinks or the dreaded ‘mouse breath are dispelled as quickly as the whitebait are despatched.
The four wines (above) we taste are exemplary. Yet each is no comfort blanket. Purity of fruit dominates with a certain attractive wildness. There’s acidity aplenty in the two whites that copes with the whitebait spice and later both the house nduja with roast Jerusalem artichokes and a smoked mackerel tartare. Both the Premice from Les Dolomies and Domaine Partagé’s Cricri were available by the glass at £8 all weekend.
The first uses the characteristic Jura grape, Savagnin, which here is hand harvested, whole bunch pressed and fermented in large tanks, taking advantage of wild yeasts. Terroir in abundance – Les Dolomies is named after the local salty, magnesium-rich limestone rock. Apricot, gooseberries and a white pepper tingle on the tongue.
The Cricri is quite a contrast, almondy, preserved lemony with a decidedly creamy aftertaste that I love. Tech stuff: direct press of whole cluster Jacquere grapes fermented and aged in fibreglass eggs.
Both reds, at £12.50, are equally contrasting. Le Dolomie’s Bordel C’est Bon is from the Trousseau grape and translates loosely as ‘God that’s good!’. Grapes, de-stalked by hand, are fermented in stainless steel before being given 10 months’ élevage in old Burgundy barrels. For Jura it’s quite a substantial red, definitely damson and smoke on the nose, and a plummy roundness to the palate.
Bibi from Domaine Partagé was served chilled, appropriate for a lighter carbonic macreation blend of Gamay and Savoie speciality Mondeuse that reeks of cherries and violets. Thanks to Moorcock co-founder and sommelier Aimee Tufford for the tip-off about lingering liquorice notes.
Partagé’s World of Natural Wine profile adds a human dimension. Vigneron Gilles Berlioz is “a fanatic for vineyard work with immense sideburns and a permanent suntan.” In 2016 he and his wife Christine (who work their land with a horse) “took the curious step of changing the name of their estate to Domaine Partagé (‘The Shared Estate’) to honour the co-operative input of all their employees and interns.”
Apologies then if I’ve given the impression of a rather earnest gospel to the converted. There are lots of diversions along the way from Ayscough. It’s wonderful to discover another Jura producer, Philippe Bornard, is “actually more famous outside the wine scene thanks to his 2012 appearance on L’Amour est dans le Pré (love is in the Field), long-running French dating show featuring farmers.” Just one of many eccentricities that go with the territory.
Some of the author’s analogies are equally quirky. Take Loire producer Patrick Desplats, whose “output since he and Patrick Dervieux parted ways is like that of Andre 3000 since leaving Outkast; slim, indulgent and wildly inconsistent.” Elsewhere one vigneron’s early releases are compared with Cat Power’s – “shrill” – but the later output is as compelling as hers!
Where to buy natural wine in the north…
For the Confidentials website series I have written extensively about the best places to source minimum intervention bottles in the North and explained what constitutes unregulated ‘natural wine’. Follow these links: Manchester Part 1, Manchester Part 2 and Yorkshire. The latter piece profiled the wonderful Kwas in Huddersfield. Alas, it has since folded.