Almost everyone has a personal history of their relationship with wine - from the first stealthy underage sips at a dinner party, to the piercing Blossom Hill hangovers of university (my friends and I had a particular penchant for a £5 bottle of German dessert wine that brewed a hangover so vicious that death began to seem like a tempting relief). Despite what a regular appearance wine makes in my adult life, up until now most of my decisions about it have been made in the aisle of a supermarket, where I deliberate what I can get for under £10 that won't betray its price when I present it to my friends at a dinner party. Aside from knowing that you never, ever opt for the Lambrini, my knowledge of what I should or shouldn't be drinking is non-existent.
However, this all changed when I met Sam. We crossed paths when she started working as the dining editor on the sister magazine to the title I work for, and we began accompanying each other on food reviews around the city. It was while road testing the restaurant at the top of the Tate Switch House that Sam introduced me to the wonder of biodynamic wines (turns out they boast a good selection that's worth the sweaty climb up the flights of stairs). Despite being familiar with organic farming, it was a concept I had never encountered before, but the ethos behind it had me hooked instantly (I'll let Sam explain properly below). Best of all the wine was delicious – beautifully delicate and light, it tasted like nothing else, and came without the fuzzy-headed feeling of standard wines (biodynamic wine gives you no hangover. You heard me - NO HANGOVER). Sam explained her love for wine in terms I could understand – regaling me with stories of the eccentric personalities who make it, the meaning behind the names (which are inspired by anything from the birth of a baby to a great grandfather) and the unique and beautiful landscape each one is grown in. It was all so relatable and un-pretentious that, for the first time in my life, I found myself becoming truly curious about what I drank. This was wine culture I could understand – pinpointing which bottle was good for drinking in your pyjamas on the sofa and which should be shared on a summer's day with friends. There was no wrong way to describe what you tasted – and no obligation to even describe it at all – just to enjoy it was enough. Everything about biodynamics – from the little communities and families that make it, to the way it's designed to be consumed – seemed decidedly human, and felt like such a healthy, happy way to honour something that has been a part of our culture for centuries.
Sam has since channelled her passion for biodynamic wines into her own business, in partnership with her boyfriend Oli. Together they handpick the finest offerings from around the world and sell them from their Primrose Hill Market stall Natural Born Wines (opposite Sam's brother who has his own business selling artisan coffees from around the world). They very kindly provided some fascinating replies to my questions so I felt the best thing was to leave them untouched for your reading pleasure. So pour a glass, settle down and enjoy...
Can you describe, in layman’s terms, what biodynamic wine is, and how it differs to Organic wines?
Put simply, biodynamics is a more holistic, ecological and ethical approach to approach to organic farming, invented by Austrian scientist and philosopher Rudolf Steiner (of Steiner school fame) in 1924. Humans have been making wine organically for thousands of years but in the 20th century, with the intensification of farming, Steiner sought to offer an alternative. In many ways he was decades ahead of his time – lecturing on all kinds of things like the importance of bees and the dangers of synthetic fertilisers. All biodynamic wines are, by definition, also organic but biodynamics goes further by taking in account the lunar cycle and the earth's gravitational pull on everything, among other things. It sees the whole vineyard as one living organism, which should be able to sustain itself from within, as much as possible.
While organic vineyards treat problems and seek to do no harm to the environment, biodynamic vineyards seek to prevent problems before they arise and actively improve the health of the land and its entire ecosystem. Steiner said; 'To our modern way of thinking, this all sounds quite insane', and even now, almost a century on, many people still think of biodynamics as quite mad, particularly when you consider the costs and risks to farm in this way. Some of it sounds pretty bonkers (like burying cow horns filled with local manure or only bottling and pruning on certain days according to the moon), which has led a lot of people to dismiss it as hippy nonsense, but even skeptical producers say it works for them. You might lose your first few years crop during conversion, but this toughens up the vines and they tend to come back stronger. Soil biomass improves, roots grow deeper and stronger, indigenous plants and wildlife return, and most importantly of all, wines begin to taste like where they came from (also known as terroir).
What do biodynamic wines have to offer that’s so special?
No hangovers. I wish I could say something more profound than that, but the truth is I was first attracted to biodynamic wines when I started to notice a pattern in what I drank and how it made me feel the morning after, and I wanted to know why that was (as a food writer I have been very lucky to drink some great wines, organic, biodynamic and otherwise). I found myself asking waiters, bar staff and sommeliers for biodynamic options whenever I was out (because most of the time, it's not labelled on the bottle, you need someone who knows the wine's origins), and this sparked lots of conversations about how they were made, why some producers choose to get certified biodynamic and others don't want to advertise it at all.
I started to realise that all these wines had amazing stories behind their production, which only made me love the wines I liked the taste of even more. And then there's that fuzzy feeling you get when you buy something that's handmade, with love and respect for the planet. Now that I've tasted hundreds of biodynamic wines over the past few years, I realise that the most special thing about them is their taste - they can capture terroir (a fancy wine word for 'place') like no other wines. With no synthetic additives, biodynamic grapes can't hide behind anything - they are an honest reflection of the land, the weather, the region, the wildlife and the humans around them. There's a reason why many of the world's top producers (big and small) are biodynamic or converting to biodynamic now, because the finished product is more authentic and while not all biodynamic wines are good, when they're good, they're the best you'll ever taste.
What was your personal route into becoming a wine fan? Where did your passion begin?
Things come and go when you're growing up, but there was always a box of Jacob's Creek Chardonnay in our fridge (for my mum). She seemed to like it a lot, and she was the coolest person I'd ever met so I took it upon myself to investigate what all the fuss was about one (unsupervised) afternoon, aged 10. That was enough to put me off wine for another 10 years. By the way, that brand of Chardonnay tastes exactly the same today, 22 years later as it did then, which is pretty impressive (in a scary way) of Jacob's Creek. A bit like a Twinkie – completely indestructible.
My brother Sean started to collect wine and shared the occasional bottle with me when I was in my early twenties. I loved all the weird terminology, like 'noble rot' and 'fruit bomb'. We used to watch this vlogger and self-taught wine expert Gary Vaynerchuk for hours, who reacted to wines in a very theatrical, accessible and endearing way. Sean and I would blag our way into wine trade tastings around London - we pretended to have a stall at Borough Market that we needed to stock. I remember at my first tasting, Sean took me aside to practice spitting out wine as he said it would be a dead giveaway we weren't in the wine business if I spat it out incorrectly. Even now that I am legitimately in the wine business and allowed to be at these events, when I go to tastings I feel very intimidated by all the spitting etiquette and end up swallowing way too much wine in one hour.
After I graduated from uni, I lived in a squat in Paris for a while and loved the Parisian relationship to wine: always in small pours, drunk steadily, with a bit of food and a glass of water to hand. It felt so grown up compared to England. Later, I lived in New Zealand for a few years and was struck by the Kiwi attitude towards wine. In NZ bars, wine options tend to be quite extensive and detailed on menus - you'll rarely see the words 'house' in front of 'red' or 'white'. Over there, people seem to be more educated about what they like, and they seek it out. Some people feel strongly about what makes a good 'sav' (sauvignon blanc). I volunteered for a while on a vineyard on Waiheke Island. It wasn't biodynamic and I remember having to run into the house when a neighbouring vineyard had sprayed something quite toxic on their vines and the wind blew it over to where we were. The whole experience was pretty depressing and extinguished any thoughts I had of becoming a winemaker.
Back in the UK, I got a job reviewing some of London's top bars and restaurants. I took Oli along a lot because we would get to taste wines we'd never be able to afford ourselves and chat to sommeliers we'd never have access to otherwise. We were really lucky and treated it all as an amazing education.
How about you Oli – how did you get into wine?
I guess I was first intrigued in the tasting. Sam and I have spent a fair amount of time in Paris and we started drinking some weird and unique wines on holiday both in Paris and when we visited Italy too. Natural and biodynamic wines tasted somehow different to any wine I’d drunk before and maybe this sounds a little vague, but they tasted more alive. As Sam has said, they didn’t just taste 'winey' they had their own individual flavour. When we started exploring vineyards we quickly understood why. One in particular we visited near Florence was a real eye-opener; it was wild with fennel, thyme and flowers growing beneath the vines. The place was buzzing with bees and crickets and it really seemed like such a happy spot. The farmer was a former university philosophy professor who’d given his career up to test the principals of biodynamics on the family farm with amazing success. That farm, to me, really expresses everything that is great about this kind of winemaking. The wine tastes fantastic, it’s good for the planet (encouraging plant and animal life to return and thrive) and there always seems to be an interesting story behind the bottle – whether it’s an old professor and his giant polar bear of a dog or a musician/winemaker who paid for the early vintages by giving jazz lessons on the side. It’s a fascinating subject with even more fascinating subjects.
A lot of people find wine culture quite intimidating or snobby – how do you make it accessible for your customers?
It's such a shame that people feel intimidated by it (including me and Oli sometimes) but it’s understandable – wine is such a huge, complicated beast, especially when you're sat in a restaurant staring at a wine list, desperately trying to pick out the words or grapes you recognise. We try and make it accessible at our little wine stall and pop-ups, firstly, by getting people to taste before we tell them too much about the wines. We don't force people for their tasting notes (unless they volunteer them), because there's only one thing that ultimately matters: does it taste good? Sometimes we've only got a few minutes with people at the market stall so we'd much prefer to spend that time getting them tasting as much as possible and talking about the weird and wonderful stories behind our bottles, rather than how many months a wine was aged in oak barrels or how many awards it has or points its scored – because none of that will improve how a wine tastes to someone.
We've always said we never want to do the kind of wine tastings where everyone sits around sipping and being told what to think. There is no right way to think about how something tastes and being bombarded by information can cloud your own instincts. Having said that, we do provide a little story (and doodle) with each of our wines, for those that want to know more. But we've tried to avoid wine jargon and we don't take ourselves or our wines too seriously, I hope. The stories are there more to celebrate the growers, who are too often a faceless entity when drinking a bottle of wine.
A lot of your wines have personal stories behind them – do you have any favourite tales?
Our first ever bubbles, Karanika Brut Cuvee Speciale NV, is made by husband and wife Laurens and Annette Hartman Karanika van Kampen who moved to Greece after ditching their publishing careers because they fell in love with the Xinomavro grape. They talk about this grape like it was their child, referring to as 'easily stressed.' Because of this, they built this extraordinary winery that uses a gravity system so as not to stress out the grapes too much (e.g. with pumping) on their way to becoming wine.
I also have a soft spot for our Riesling Halbtrocken 2014 from the Ebernach winery in the Mosel in Germany, partly because it was one of the first we chose for Natural Born Wines, but also because of how it came about. We’d been having a really rough time trying to import this incredible Chianti we discovered while in Tuscany, made by a former philosophy teacher, and all the red tape was making it seem like it would be impossible for the winemaker to do it (it’s really hard to import if you’re a small wine business like us and we’re still trying now with this Chianti, almost a year on from visiting the vineyard). We were feeling a bit down about it, but then we met the Ebernach winemaker Martin Cooper at a tasting in London, and he’d brought this biodynamic Riesling with him.
We tasted it while chatting to him about life on the vineyard (it’s also a monastery where they look after people with learning difficulties), and he had such a cool approach to biodynamic winemaking – he prefers not to shout about it on the bottle, so as to let the wine speak for itself. And oh my god, it’s crazy delicious with a tiny bit of fizz (a natural byproduct of the fermentation). It’s really difficult to find a low sulphur Riesling, let alone a biodynamic one. We’ve got some of the last few bottles in the UK, and I cry a little inside whenever we sell one – we get way too attached to these wines.
How do you pick the wines you're going to stock?
It’s all about the taste for us, so we’ve selected them all over the place; while sat in a restaurant, at a tasting, at a vineyard. We have no pretentions so we’ll showcase a wine with an ugly label made by a big co-op side by side with a tiny production super rare wine made by one guy in some obscure corner of the world. As long as they are biodynamic and/or natural and they’re delicious, we’re interested. The nature of their production means they all have wonderful stories to tell – we weren’t sure when we started out, but we’re yet to come across a biodynamic or natural wine that we love that hasn’t been made by someone thoroughly interesting with an inspiring outlook on the world. We’ve since branched out into natural wines too (organic wines where nothing is added or taken away) so our little catalogue is very eclectic now – we’ve got our first orange wine, a Rioja, the only one of it’s kind – but if there’s one thing that unites them all it’s that they’re all absolutely scrumptious and they’re all ready to drink now. Personally, we’re too impatient to buy wine that won’t taste its best for years to come, so we select wines that are phenomenal now.
What key qualities do you look out for when you’re tasting a biodynamic wine?
Do wines have an ‘x factor’? I don’t know what the word would be for it, not ‘grape factor’, that sounds lame. Basically that thing that happens in your body that says ‘I must have more of that’. Everyone’s taste is different, and of course all our wines are to our personal taste, so they’re not for everyone, but they are for anyone who appreciates great wine that doesn’t make you feel like rubbish the next day. I think of the wines we've chosen so far as great songs that I really want everyone to hear. The people who made them are incredible human beings who believe that wine is a very simple, fragile thing and with minimal intervention (and no added nasties), it will taste like where it came from, for better or worse. I also look out for Oli’s reaction when we taste. We never take on a wine we both don’t love but obviously one of us might love it more than the other. Then every so often, like the that Riesling from Ebernach, we’ll both go bananas for something on the first sip and that’s super exciting. Then we might fight over who gets to do the story for that one, like the wine-guzzling overgrown children that we are.
Have you noticed biodynamic wine becoming more popular in recent years?
Yes definitely. Some bars and restaurants are even dedicating sections of their wine list purely to biodynamic wines. Chances are, if you drink out and about in London, Paris, New York or Berlin, you will have already had a fair few biodynamic wines without even noticing. The amazing sommelier Laure Patry at Social Wine and Tapas in central London estimates that at least 70% of her wine list is biodynamic but she doesn’t advertise it, like many winemakers. If you ask your waiter, shop manager or bartender, you’d be surprised how many shops, bars and restaurants are stocking them. In London, I highly recommend Social Wine & Tapas, Terroirs, Brawn, Naughty Piglets.
What do you think is behind the increasing popularity of biodynamic wine?
It’s a reflection not just of our growing appetite for a more handcrafted, honest, healthier glass of wine, but also a movement in the industry as more and more producers convert to biodynamic or natural winemaking processes, meaning there are just more of them out there. Even if you're not too concerned about the environment or your health or even having hangovers from hell every weekend, you can’t deny that many of these biodynamic wines just taste better than their non-organic alternatives.
You once told me that if you’re going to buy cheap wine, buy red instead of white. Do you have any other little wine mantras that are handy to know?
Don’t judge a bottle by it’s label… some of the ugliest bottles we’ve seen have turned out to be the most delicious. Also, don’t judge a wine too quickly by it’s ‘faults’. For a while now, it could be said that we have created a society that’s all about perfection. We live in a world that celebrates something being ‘just right’, from a faultless diamond to an immaculately-cut suit. But what’s so cool about all handmade things is that they are absolutely human, i.e. imperfect. Wine is no different. That thing that you taste on the first sip that makes you stand up and pay attention and question whether or not it’s a fault – a little bit of fizz, a chin squeeze of acidity or big gulp of cherry – that’s often the thing that makes a wine unique, intriguing and in the end, delicious and memorable. Some old fart might say it’s faulty or not how a certain grape or region should taste but for too long we’ve lived within parameters too narrow for how a wine should or can taste. In a mantra? Be adventurous and seek out interesting, unusual and original wines, and unlearn all the old rules.
When a sommelier asks me to taste a wine, I often pretend to sniff it, awkwardly swill it round my mouth and then say ‘it tastes delicious’ as quick as possible. How should we actually taste wine? What are we supposed to be doing?
Ordering wine, especially anywhere with a decent wine list is very intimidating. When a waiter or a sommelier pours a tiny bit of wine from a freshly opened bottle, they’re often not waiting to see if you find it delicious, usually they just want you to nod that it’s not corked. I’ll still say ‘it’s great’ though, to be polite. There is no right or wrong way to taste wine, but a little woosh around the glass to give it some oxygen (and open it up) followed by a big sniff then sip (while sniffing) will generally give you the best flavour it has to give, simply because all your senses are engaged. But you’d look like a raving lunatic if you drank the whole bottle that way. When we’re tasting a wine, and particularly if we’re seriously thinking of taking it on, we’ll buy a bottle and take it home and drink it the way you might when no-one’s looking – i.e. in your pyjamas, with a takeaway that’s in no way a good food pairing, and less sniffing, more gulping. Because if it doesn’t taste amazing then, then what’s the point?
Do you feel a personal connection with the people whose wines you stock? How important is it for you that these products have a personal touch?
Yes. Making biodynamic and natural wine is such a physically demanding, year-round, hour by hour commitment it tends to attract the kooky, the quirky, the individual and the free-thinker – the person who answers ‘yes I can’ to being told they can’t do something. As a result, within the very best wines, it’s impossible to separate the people from the bottle – that personal touch is all over it. We certainly feel a connection to the growers but more importantly I hope our customers feel a connection to them when they drink the wine and read about its origins – you no longer just taste something neutral, a series of indistinct flavours divorced from place. We think you can actually start to imagine what the vineyard looks like and how it sounds. Hopefully, the wine and the story together really take you there. And in a world getting more isolationist by the day, how cool is it to be taken somewhere else, just like that...