Many readers who are deeply interested in natural wine will have the Raisin App on their phones. It is a forum for recommending natural wines to other enthusiasts, but it is perhaps more importantly indispensable, through its interactive maps, for locating producers and vineyards, bars, restaurants and wine shops wherever you are travelling. Although Raisin asks for donations, the App is free and there is no other resource like it.
To bring Raisin to an audience offline, the Guide’s authors Cédric Blatrie, Guillaume Laroche and Harry Annoni, put together a hard copy guide in 2019, called Raisin: 100 Grands Vins Naturels d’Émotion. It’s currently only available in French, but if, like me, your passable French improves dramatically when reading about wine, you will probably be interested.
Before you think this might be some thin tome, and why only 100 wines, I should begin by saying that you do get 350 pages. Unlike most wine guides you get colour photos, both of bottles and of producers, and plenty more besides. So, what does this guide consist of besides the recommendation of individual wines?
After a few introductory pages setting out the book’s raisin d’être (sorry, had to be done), we hit the ground running with regional chapters. We begin in the Jura, running through France via Beaujolais, La Loire, Auvergne, Alsace, Rhône, Bourgogne, “Languedoc Roussillon Bordeaux” and Champagne. Okay, perhaps it’s odd that Savoie and Bugey come under “Alsace”, but we can gloss over that. The focus is clearly on France, with just less than 80% of the featured producers being based there. The last chapter covers the rest of the world, via Italy (7 wines/producers), Spain (4), Austria (4), Germany (1), Switzerland (2), Slovenia (2), Australia (2), South Africa (1), USA (1) and Japan (1).
This is where some people will quibble. You might, for example, cry out that there should be space for Hermit Ram (New Zealand), Marie-Thérèse Chappaz (Swiss Valais), Tillingham (UK), Ktima Ligas (Northern Greece) or any number of other important natural wine stars. But I think the point is that you have to look at the guide for what it is. If we added all our lists of what we feel is missing together we’d have something approaching the weight of Robinson et al’s Wine Grapes. Here we have a selection chosen by three guys who are primarily embedded deeply in the French natural wine scene, and it is mostly here where new insights will be found.
You need not worry that you won’t find the stars of French natural wine. Overnoy-Houillon, Ganevat, Robinot, Sage, Durieux and Selosse etc are there. But you’ll find names which will be fairly new to you as well, or certainly in my case. I’ve never tried Aurélien Lurquin’s Coteaux Champenois, Mito Inoue’s Vespertine, nor Jérôme Saurigny’s Sakurajima. That’s what you want really, the greats, which let’s face it, it would be odd if they were all left out (some are), combined with new horizons which in all truth are probably the producers who really make the guide worthwhile.
For each bottle selected per producer, there’s an alternative choice, often from a different producer, further expanding the selection. There’s also a small summary box for the main selection which as well as making sure we know exactly what we are buying (grape varieties, sulphur, price range) gives information as to where to find it (usually one shop and one restaurant), and a sentence or two on what makes the bottle in question unique.
I was initially surprised that no contact information was provided for the featured producers, and then my brain woke up and I remembered that, of course, I just need to search on the App itself for those details, and more.
The other side to the Guide is the in-depth interviews, and these come in two forms. Some (but not all) chapters feature a longer piece on one or two producers from that region. For example, Jura gives us Emmanuel Houillon, whilst the “rest of the world” chapter provides more in-depth pieces on Fabio Gea and on Hans-Peter Schmidt of Mythopia. When I say “in-depth”, the last of those gives us about eight pages of text with several more pages of photos.
There are also features on fifteen individuals who work in natural wine, but not as producers. We get pieces on the super-sommeliers Pascaline Lepeltier, Emily Campeau and Sév’ Perru, and on Edouard Thorens (perhaps better known as “The Winestache”), who runs “The Bottle Shop” in Zurich and is also described as an influencer, a description I generally hate but in his case it’s accurate. They all get to list their own “wines of emotion”, adding to the overall basket of wines to discover. It’s a nice touch. They all have something to add, widening the ambit of the guide.
All together this makes for, I would argue, the first truly useful guide to selecting natural wines since Isabelle Legeron’s “Natural Wine”. As that was first published in 2014 the Raisin Guide is able to provide a more up-to-date selection of wines at the cutting edge of minimal intervention winemaking, although it should be noted that Isabelle’s book is much more than a purchasing guide.
In concluding this short review, I would like to go back to the title, “100 Grands Vins Naturels d’Émotion”. What are natural wines, if not wines which feed the soul? They cannot be merely analysed, not in the way highly trained Masters of Wine and WSET Diploma students are taught to evaluate a wine sample. They are wines which shine as we enjoy them, preferably with friends. We need to give them time to blossom and develop in the glass (preferably a well-chosen glass to suit their attributes and character). We need to get to know their personalities over an hour or so, not the flicker of a first acquaintance on a tasting bench: sniff, sip, spit, points out of 100.
The authors state quite clearly that this is not some objective classification of the best of the natural wine genre. It is very much an emotional selection. If you want to know what this means, look to this quotation from one of the authors, Cédric Blatrie: “Unlike an oenologist’s wine, who thinks that a wine is perfect because there is nothing more to add, we think that a wine of emotion is a wine from which there is nothing more to take away”.
The wines in this guide are wines to get to know intimately. The guide gives us the kind of background we won’t find in the glass, but it also gives us something more. It’s that excitement when you read about a wine and what you read makes you go out and buy a bottle, a desire no less real than when a friend tells you about someone they know and you realise you just have to meet them. What I’m speaking of is “inspiration”. What do we wish for more than anything else from a wine guide? I think it’s inspiration. Whilst I find so many wine guides don’t give me that, this one certainly does. The entry for Daniel Sage is titled “Bulles Poétiques”. That sort of sums up the whole guide for me. The bubbles stimulate and the desire to drink the wines is like poetry. Even if my reading is stilted by lack of fluency. Dommage, mais c’est pas grave.
The Raisin Guide is available via the Raisin web site, www.raisin.digital and costs 22€ with free postage in France. I ordered my copy in late December and was slightly worried I might be asked to pay a tax supplement on account of Brexit, it not arriving until early January. That didn’t happen. It comes in softback with a nice matt finish. The typeface is easy to read for us non-native speakers and whilst the photography is not coffee table book standard, it is expressive, fun and more than adequate (in fact it’s something of a bonus to get a bottle pic in a wine guide, something surprisingly useful for spotting your target on the shelf of an unfamiliar wine shop).
Guillaume Laroche and Harry Annoni are behind ELV, publishing the Entre Les Vignes books. There are currently two, on Burgundy (available in French and English) and The Auvergne (French only), with a focus on these regions’ natural wines.
If you like natural wine, you’ll want to download the Raisin App if you don’t already have it. If you do, then the guide will certainly be of interest. I’d say that’s the case even if your French isn’t all that good. My French is always a level up when talking about wine simply because I know so much of the terminology and vocabulary, both for winemaking and for tasting. I’m sure many people reading this will have no idea there’s a wine guide like this. I hope that the few photos I’ve included, in my case not of very high quality, will give you enough visual information to help you decide to buy it. And, of course, purchasing the book all helps the team behind Raisin to keep adding to their maps and improving the best digital resource for locating natural wine in the wild.