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Robin Nugent, of Iron & Rose, raises a glass to the natural wine revolution.

Posted: 10 Sep 2023

Seven years feels like something of a milestone. But the birth of Iron & Rose, and subsequently GlouGlou and PetitGlou, was the result of more years than I care to remember before that, working across all aspects of the wine business, a growing love affair with a building wave of natural or low intervention wine production, and an increasing awareness that all was not right with what you could call industrial or “unnatural” wine.

Iron & Rose started as a weekend side-hustle to my proper day job in wine, back in 2016. I sub-let a small space from the fishmonger in Shrewsbury Market Hall. Soon the shop moved into a permanent but still small space on the other side of the hall. In 2021 it vaulted up over the balcony into its current location on the gallery level. 

Along the way, in 2019, we opened GlouGlou, our wine bar & shop inspired by Italy’s enoteche, and PetitGlou, our bar-café next to the shop in the market. The business has grown from one part-timer, (me!), to a team of around a dozen. We run regular wine tastings, often involving local food producers or chefs, as well as other art and music events. We also supply some great restaurant and bar businesses, and have built a full-service website and deliver wine to customers around Shropshire and the rest of the UK. 

So what do we mean by natural wine?

The first thing you need to know is that wine has been produced for millennia. For example there is ample evidence wine was being made in Georgia over 3000 years ago and the Romans even had their own wine critics who wrote about where the best wines were to be found. 

The second thing you need to know is that if you have a bucket full of organically grown grapes you have all you need to make wine. You have juice, acid, sugar, colour, flavour, antioxidants and, crucially, yeast. There’s no need to add or remove anything. Of course it isn’t quite that simple to make good wine. That takes talent, care and attention: natural does not mean laissez-faire wine making and natural doesn’t mean it has to be cloudy or funky though sometimes it can be!

But we’ve got into a situation where most wine is made using freeze dried yeasts and a host of technology and chemistry; microx, de-acidification, chaptalisation, cryoextraction, enzymes, fining agents, filtration, gum, etc etc.

How this has happened is a story of good intentions with unintended consequences, global events, opportunism, naivety, greed and ignorance. 

The introduction of nitrogen fertilisers, herbicides, pesticides, glyphosate and so on, plus the impact of world wars on the work force available to work in agriculture, created a situation where the old way of making wine just didn’t work. Soil life had been decimated over the course of just a few decades and with it the natural yeast populations. 

Before the mid 20th century everyone used natural ferments, relying on the naturally occurring yeasts that existed in the vineyards, on the grapes, in the cellars and in the air around us to do the work of turning grape juice into wine. But that became impossible as the population was no longer there, so it became normal to buy commercially prepared yeast. But often the must (grape juice) was deficient in nutrients so yeast didn’t thrive making it necessary to feed them which led to other problems. And so one problem led to another and on, and on, every one needing a fix. 

There was also increasing pressure to make or mould wine using chemistry and technology into a consistent commodity in order to export it in large volume around the world, to fit into the demands of large scale retail, and to conform with the tastes of a handful of wine journalists whose point systems could build or destroy reputations. All this led inevitably to denatured, industrialised wine.

But there was a core of resistance, a few small groups of growers experimenting how to make wine in a more natural way, farming organically in the vineyard and using minimal intervention in the winery. While the crucible was in France, (a country know for revolution), it has since spread around the world.

Which is where Iron & Rose comes in. In part I have gone full circle. My first wine job was in France working for a grower in Alsace which is now fully committed to organic viticulture. And on an early trip to New Zealand on a wine scholarship, I visited one of the first biodynamic wineries in the world and I remember being struck by the life and vitality of the wines I tasted there compared to some of the more anaemic wines being made elsewhere. (Biodynamics goes beyond organics, following lunar cycles to help decide what should be done when in the vineyards and winery.) The buzz around natural wine events is also a stark contrast to the big-wine-business occasions: a lot less suits, a lot more farmers, the attendees a lot younger in outlook if not always in years, and a lot more fun. 

From the very start we have focused on wines that fit our ethos: better for the planet, better for you and better tasting. Wines that truly express their origins in a way that only natural wines can: 
the soil they were grown in, the weather, the aspect of the vineyard, the terroir, a French word the neatly encapsulates all those things and more but for which there is no neat English translation.

After a period working in “big wine”, opening Iron & Rose revitalised my passion for wine, real wine, in all its wonderful variety and variation. GlouGlou and PetitGlou were opened in part in order to introduce more people to our world of natural wine, to give customers the chance to experiment and experience new tastes and flavours in a welcoming and relaxed environment. 

Many people have been involved in the evolution of our natural wine revolution, from our wonderful customers who have supported us through thick and thin, the amazing team I’m lucky to work with who make the business what it is, our landlords at the market and at GlouGlou, but above all I am grateful to my wife, Marguerite for her unfailing support and love.

Robin Nugent

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