“Beer isn’t as good as this yet,” A smiling Paul Jones tells me as he tops up the glass in my hand. “But if we work hard enough it could be.”
It’s April 2016 and we’re sat in the Duke’s Head, Highgate, enjoying a drink post a meet the brewer event we had just ran. Jones, the founder of Manchester’s Cloudwater Brewery is wearing the kind of Cheshire-cat grin, gleaming through that trademark bushy orange beard of his that indicates how excited he is to be sharing the bottle of wine in his hand. A wine he insisted that we ended our tasting with. It’s a Syrah from a winemaker called Jolly Ferriol from the Roussillon in the far south of France. And at this moment in time it’s the best wine I have ever tasted.
I’m told it’s a natural wine, meaning in this case that it has been fermented—much like a spontaneously fermented beer or low-intervention cider—using only the yeasts present on the grape skins at the time of harvest. It’s also bottled without sulphites additional to those that naturally occur in the wine. This seemed irrelevant to me at the time; I was more interested in the flavour, which was of intense cherry juice that burst on the palate like pop-rocks with every sip.
This should of been the start of my natural wine journey, but it wasn’t—at least not quite. It piqued my interest enough to remain on the fringes of conscious thought but having just gone freelance as a beer writer I didn’t have the time to dig in as I’d like, as 100% of my focus was on hops and grain. I never really got into wine because, unlike beer, I found it a little pretentious and wholly intimidating. Natural wine didn’t feel like that. It reminded me of beer in the way it felt free and easy and about making something delicious, but it also made me feel a little lost among grape varieties and regional variances. I had a few threads of information to grasp at but still found no way of making a rope.
This should have changed only six months later, when in October 2016 James Rylance (then of Redchurch and now heading up an exciting project at Cornwall’s Harbour Brewing,) came over to my house to record a podcast. He’d brought with him a bottle of white wine from a Catalonia-based (but Italian born) producer called Partida Creus and I could tell from his eagerness that he was excited to share.
Only, my corkscrew, the one corkscrew I kept in the house for when I occasionally decided to drink wine, had snapped in half. Instead I found something interesting yet crown-capped from my beer collection, and the bottle of Partida Creus went into the now vacant spot that the beer we enjoyed together used to sit.
There it remained for nearly a year, after promising I’d share it with James on another day. But he moved to Cornwall*, and one night I fancied a glass of wine. The two letters V and N in their bold, black type had been staring at me for long enough, I thought. So I chilled it down, cracked the wax seal, and popped the cork with what is now one of many corkscrews I keep in the house at all times.
What happens next is that thing which happens often if you obsess over what you drink. From the first notes of cider-like tang on the nose, to the crisp, green apple skins and delicate tannins on the palate, through to the sharp, yet familiar Lambic-tinged bite in the finish I was enamoured. I immediately wanted to know as much about this wine and the producer as possible.
From not caring about what VN stood for moments ago I now understood that it was short for Vinel lo Blanco and that this particular wine is a blend of White Grenache, Maccabeu, Moscatell, Vinyater, Xarello, Parsé and Parellada, from Partida Creus’ own vineyards planted on calcareous clay soils. I know that the grapes were harvested by hand, and not machines. That this was fermented using the yeasts present on the fruit and that no extra sulphites were added. I was making a rope!
I also now understood why crunchy was used as a descriptor for wines. And I crunched down on this bad boy until there wasn’t a drop left.
Now, when I saw the two letters which signify Partida Creus’ brand on a shelf, I was drawn to it. This is significant, because previously I had bought wine based on regional appellation or grape variety. Now I was buying wine like I buy beer. Having a tangible brand was the hook I needed to hang my jacket on and, now free of this bulky garment, I had the confidence to move around in the natural wine space with a spring in my step.
The letters on my second bottle of wine from Partida Creus were, like the wine inside, red, not black. They spelled SM and were short for Sumoll, a grape variety native to Catalonia of which this wine was made. Like its predecessor, this bottle kept handing me threads with which to make my rope stronger. These came in the form of its assertive acidity and tiny pricks of carbonation exciting the jammy flavours that my brain was fervently unlocking.
It had taken me a little while to get to this point, admittedly, but now it felt that my journey in wine was now really beginning. Most important to this was how my beer drinking and my wine drinking developed a symbiotic, not combative, relationship. They fed one another, inspiring new stories and new angles within those. I’m not sure I ever agreed with Paul that beer is still catching up with wine. They’re too different for that kind of comparison. But it’s fun trying to keep up with both.
*James, I still owe you a fucking bottle of wine and we’ll share it and it’ll be great.