EXCLUSIVE OFFER: BICBIM readers can get £5 off tickets to the RAW Wine Fair this weekend by entering the promotional code: bicbimgoesRAW
French-born Londoner Isabelle Legeron is something of a wine legend.
Her book, Natural Wine, is a global success and translated into eight languages, most recently Korean.
The annual RAW Wine Fair, which Legeron founded in London in 2012, now showcases 150 producers and is attended by thousands of visitors from all over the world. It’s so popular Legeron now also hosts it annually in Berlin, New York, LA and Montreal.
Not only was Legeron the first French woman to become a Master of Wine – and is currently one of only 384 in the world – but upon receiving her certificate she refused to work with conventional wine makers, deciding instead to pioneer the natural wine movement.
It was exactly 10 ten years ago that Legeron ignored everyone who told her that decision was career suicide and embraced the role of “That Crazy French Woman”, starring in a wine TV show of the same name.
A decade later, she has proved everyone wrong and the RAW Wine movement is being taken very seriously, indeed.
So, what is RAW Wine? Completely natural wines have absolutely no additives. But the RAW Wine Fairs also champion organic, biodynamic and low-intervention producers.
Natural wines offer a completely different drinking experience to the heavily manipulated wines most of us drink, most commonly described as being ‘alive’. The flavours and aromas are usually more pronounced and no two bottles will be exactly the same.
Drinking natural wines almost requires you to relearn everything you think you know about wine, which is why the RAW Wine Fairs are not only so popular, but essential. The wine guru herself is loathe to recommend bottles because she believes we should trust our own palettes more and rely less on connoisseurs to tell us what we ‘should’ enjoy.
Natural wines are rising in popularity as consumers become more aware of the realities of toxic mass-produced wine. Did you know that even in the European Union winemakers are allowed to adjust the flavour with a toy chest of around 70 additives introduced to the fermentation process? And none of these are required to be listed on the label unless they’re one of three official allergens – egg, milk or sulphites.
Which is pretty crazy.
Which is why Isabelle Legeron isn’t really ‘That Crazy French Woman’, after all.
Neither is her bid for us to join her and “help change the world one bottle at a time”. I mean, we all must do what we can.
We find out how…
Q: So, first things first. Where can we drink natural wine?
Isabelle Legeron: These days you should be able to find at least a bottle of organic, biodynamic or natural wine on most restaurants’ wine lists. There’s a dozen more London bars focussed on natural wine, particularly in the East but also Soho.
The scene is still very concentrated in London, it’s only just starting to infiltrate Brighton, Manchester and Edinburgh – so that’s our next challenge.
Is 2019 set to be a good year for natural wines?
Organic wines make up roughly five per cent of the market so there’s still lots of room for growth and the current climate is very challenging.
Whether Brexit happens or not, the crisis is already here. It has impacted the wine market because the pound has lost value making imports more expensive. Natural wines already command a premium and UK buyers are very price sensitive. Plus, in times of crisis people are not so adventurous.
Why are they more expensive?
The crux of the issue is that, in Europe, we’re so used to paying nothing for food and drink. It’s too cheap because it’s subsidised, produced in vast quantities and hardly contains any of the ingredients it’s supposed to.
We need to step out of this crazy thinking. My job is to educate people about these winemakers’ extraordinary quality of work; they manually tend each vine and harvest the grapes, plus carefully craft wine without any additives so they’re producing pure grape juice. They are more than winemakers, they are guardians of biodiversity on the land they work.
We can’t start from the premise wine should be cheap. We need to make people understand the true value of what they’re buying when they’re spending £15 or more on a bottle of wine.
You talk about the bastardisation of the word ‘natural’ by bigger brands. What do you mean by this?
Natural is not a protected term, it doesn’t officially mean anything. It’s a code for us to differentiate the wines we produce, drink and sell. But this means it’s a code that can also be misused by winemakers looking to make profits.
‘Low intervention’ is especially becoming very fashionable and popular. Some people will buy a wine because it looks cloudy and therefore seems more natural – but this can be a marketing ploy.
How can we tell the difference?
Transparency in labelling would really help, so people know what they’re really drinking.
At the RAW Wine Fair we declare the amount of sulphites in every bottle. If we can push for transparency of ingredients and residues then the term “natural” becomes redundant. That would be a fantastic place to be. People only need this word because there’s no legal requirement to list ingredients on bottles – and companies take advantage of this.
There are now around 150 producers at the RAW Wine Fair. How many wines can you realistically taste in a day?
A dedicated professional can taste upwards of 100 wines a day. People who drink wine for pleasure could probably taste somewhere between 30 – 40 wines. The secret is to really make an effort to spit, otherwise it becomes hard to keep going after six or seven.
You were France’s first female Master of Wine and there’s still only two of you. That’s quite an achievement. How has being female impacted your progress?
There have been a lot of pushbacks, regardless of my gender. At the beginning there wasn’t really much going on in the natural wine space. It’s hard to be a pioneer, you have to be committed and over the last 10 years a really strong community has formed.
That said, the more success I have the more I notice how patriarchal the world of business is. Attributes people find admirable in a man are perceived as weird or offensive in a woman. A woman isn’t ‘ambitious’, she’s ‘over-the-top’ or ‘cutthroat’.
That said, I run my own business and this doesn’t get in my way because I believe I can do anything. The Master of Wine qualification gives me some weight, but it shouldn’t have to.
What do you drink at home?
Easily 90% of wines I drink at home are completely natural; the level of sulphites is a maximum of 30-40ppm (parts per million). Any more than that and my nose tingles. I recently helped a friend to taste 100 conventional Rieslings for a project and my mouth was covered in ulcers.
How much closer are you to achieving your dream of creating your own wine from your own grapes?
I give myself five years. I’m looking all over the world, and currently considering Greece. I won’t be doing it to make a living, I’ll always run the fairs. This is a way for me to go back to my roots. I was brought up on a farm and we or our neighbours reared and grew every piece of food we ate – animals, cereals, everything. That level of sustainability, of really knowing what I am putting into my body, is something I really aspire to.
RAW Wine Fair
The Store, 180 The Strand, WC2R 1EA; Sunday 10 March and Monday 11 March; 10am to 6pm
Tickets from £45, all tastings free; book here
RAW Wine Week Events
Across London; Wednesday 6 – Wednesday 13 March; find details here