Article

The only way is ethics: natural wine

Categories: Behind the stalls

In a new series, we go behind the stalls to discover the positive environmental and social practices that underpin many of Borough’s traders. This month, Isabelle Legeron, who supplies natural wine to Elliot’s Café and curates its all-natural wine list, on the environmental advantages of producing wine organically

“It’s almost as if we don’t consider alcohol as something that is grown and produced, and then consumed,” master of wine and natural wine connoisseur Isabelle Legeron marvels. “So many people are super-conscious of what they eat, then buy a cheap bottle of wine from the off-licence. But if you are basing your day to day decisions around caring for the environment, which I believe we all should, then natural wine can be an extension of that.”

Farmed organically, and produced without additives or processing agents, this is wine as nature intended: grapes, fermented and bottled. Isabelle chooses it not just because she thinks that added yeasts and sulphites tend to mute a wine’s flavour, but because it’s better for the environment to grow grapes organically. The founder and owner of Elliot’s, Brett Redman, stocks these wines for the same reason. “At Elliot’s, they care about farming,” says Isabelle. “Their beef is pasture fed, their pigs have been cared for, their fish are line caught. For Brett, natural wine makes complete sense.” It’s a natural harmony, she continues, for a restaurant that “really pushes the boat out to get the best quality produce”.

“Brett fundamentally believes in sustainable and ethical sourcing of food, and he wants a wine list to go with it,” says Isabelle. The wine list for the restaurant, which Isabelle curates, is relatively short, and ever changing—natural winemakers tend to be very small scale and can produce only in tiny quantities—but is nevertheless very reasonably priced. “Brett wants this to be a place for regulars, and it is: for people at Borough Market, for locals, for those in the wine trade. I myself love eating and drinking there—and as far as our professional relationship goes, I have never worked with anyone as committed as Brett.”

Provenance, artisanship and environment
“The industry needs to take responsibility,” Isabelle says firmly. Indeed, she’s made it her mission: her organisation, Raw Wine, sets out to unite the small number of artisans who produce natural wines, together with importers, wine producer associations, restauranteurs like Brett, and food and wine lovers like ourselves. The first Raw Wine Fair was held several years ago in Borough Market: the perfect setting for a movement placing provenance, artisanship and the environment over large-scale industry.

It was then and there that Brett met Isabelle—and that evening invited her and the growers at the fair for an impromptu dinner at the semi-building site that would soon be Elliot’s Café. “The restaurant was a shell,” she recalls fondly. “But Brett insisted we should work together. He was one of the early adopters, back when natural wine was still really small.” They’ve been working together ever since.

Isabelle strongly believes that natural wine tastes better. Just as raw milk cheese respects and nurtures the innate microbiological character of the milk and the farm that produced it, so the microbiocidal culture of each individual vineyard is expressed in natural wine. “We have been making wine for 8,000 years. Additives are a recent invention. Producers of natural wine have faith in their grapes and their ability to ferment with minimal intervention,” explains Isabelle. But it is the ethical dimension of natural wine—the fact it is cultivated organically with respect for the land and the life it supports—that is most pertinent to Isabelle, and to this piece.

Feed the planet
No one needs wine—much as it might feel that way come Friday evening after a hard week in the office—so it should be incumbent upon producers to grow their vines in the most sustainable and environmentally-friendly way possible. “We’re not producing stuff to feed the planet, so I don’t understand how we can let non-organic wine producers pollute the waters, reduce biodiversity and damage the natural landscape without them having to pay for it,” Isabelle exclaims passionately.

Organic farming is a method which “sustains life—the birds, bees and insects you can see, but also the millions of bacterial organisms you can’t see in the soil. There are no pesticides, fungicides, weed killers and monoculture.” As it stands, the conventional process of winemaking has become something of a “social drain”.

The industry also needs greater transparency, she insists. Whereas with food there must be an ingredients list, wine labelling is a law unto its own. Without opting for natural wine, you don’t really know what you are drinking. “Even organic growers can add sulphites and yeasts and a whole bunch of additives. They don’t have to put it on the label.”

Humanlike, living presence
There is a philosophy behind natural wine, best summed up by Isabelle’s words, with which Brett is very much in alignment: “These are wines that have a humanlike, or living, presence—an authentic expression of place. They are the polar opposite of industrialised, big-brand, manufactured, nothing-but-alcoholic-grape-juice wines, that use imagery and suggestion to sell a product. In our disconnected world that salutes the money king, these are people who chose otherwise and who did so well before it became popular. They chose out of conviction, a love of the land and a desire to nurture the most fundamental force of all—life.”