Oddbins goes au natural

Peter Ranscombe salutes Oddbins’ new range of natural wines.

LOVE them or hate them, natural wines are here to stay.

There’s a lot of confusion over what constitutes a “natural” wine – and how organic, biodynamic and natural wines sit together.

Probably the most useful definition focuses on “low intervention” wines, in which the grape growers and winemakers have used as few chemicals as possible in the vineyard and the winery to produce the resulting wine.

Fans hail them as a natural extension of the provenance movement – if you can trace the steak on your plate back to the farm on which it was raised and ask questions about its food and its welfare, then why shouldn’t you be able to ask the same questions regarding the wine in your glass too?

Detractors criticise the “natural” label as an excuse for sloppy winemaking, with faults and mistakes brushed off as simply being attributable to the “funky” nature of the wine.

Until now, Oddbins has been sitting on the side lines, watching the debate develop, but this month the retailer is launching a range of natural wines in six of its stores, including Bruntsfield in Edinburgh and Hyndland in Glasgow.

Buyers Ana Sapungiu and Jenny Smith explain that they looked for winemakers who wanted to create genuinely interesting wines and who weren’t simply jumping on the natural wine bandwagon.

They’re also satisfied themselves that the nine wines in their range from Austria, France, Georgia, Italy, South Africa and Spain have shown stability from vintage to vintage.

The 2016 Ciello Baglio Bianco (£15) made on Sicily from Catarratto grapes is a classic case-in-point when it comes to natural wines – if you can get past the weird, stinky nose then the palate is full of ripe pear and rounded peach flavours, with a great balance between the fruit and the fresh acidity, with delicious texture too.

Similarly, the pale orange hue of the 2015 Orgo Rkatsitelli White (£20) from Georgia is another textbook natural wine feature. What made the Orgo stand out for me though was its jasmine and stone fruit aromas and its clawing acidity, which would make it a great food wine, especially with its sprig of fennel flavours mixed in with the apricot and lemon rind.

Its sibling, the 2015 Orgo Saperavi Red (£20) smelt like it was going to be a heavy-going monster, with smoke, damsons and other deep, dark fruit aromas, yet it was much softer in the mouth than the nose suggested, with fresher blackcurrant and redcurrant flavours balanced by noticeable tannins.

The 2016 Blanc Vi Natural (£13) made in Tarragona in Spain uses a blend of cabernet sauvignon, garnatxa – better known as garnacha or grenache – and Xarel-lo, one of the white grapes traditionally used to produce cava.

The Xarel-lo adds an attractive floral note on the nose, mixed in with the blueberry and blackcurrant; the fruit is really bright and racy on the palate and so ripe it almost feels off-dry – it was my favourite from the nine on show at the recent Oddbins tasting.

Another wine that fell firmly into the “weird” column for me was the 2015 Jurgen Gouws Intellego Syrah (£18.50) from Swartland in South Africa, with a funky smell that reminded me of strands caught in a hairdryer.

Yet its grippy tannins and kick of acidity would make it a good match for food and its lush vanilla and black cherry taste eroded any thoughts of burning hair.

In contrast, the 2015 Reyneke Organic Shiraz-Cabernet (£12.50) blend had no tell-tale signs of being a “natural” wine; instead, its straightforward blackcurrant and blackberry flavours were paired with a touch of vanilla, while its tannins were well-integrated.

Hats off to Sapungiu and Smith for finding accessible natural wines that won’t scare the horses but still gallop along the adventurous low-intervention frontier.