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26 January 2022updated 27 Jan 2022 5:14pm

On a menu of natural wines, I find a wonderland full of surprises

At Manteca our palates were cleansed between courses by a gorgeously perfumed, smoky orange wine from Primosic near the Italian-Slovenian border.

By Nina Caplan

I went to Manteca because of a restaurant review – less for what it said than for what it left out. I am not blaming the writer. Meals out are about expectations, and his are different from mine. He loved the food but hated the idea of a section of the wine list called “Down the rabbit hole”. I would have happily foregone much of the detail on pig parts and pasta, however delectable, to learn more about these Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland wines, although perhaps not from someone predisposed to dislike them.

Manteca’s wine director, Emily Acha Derrington, was unfazed. That’s why the list has a classics section too, she told me. She is “equally comfortable drinking fine Burgundy and orange wine” but, anyway, the rabbit hole wines are not necessarily natural: anything that can’t be labelled “classic” is assigned to Wonderland.

[See also: Christmas is a time for wines that remind us of the small pleasures of home]

The aim is to satisfy both the person who asks for “the natural wine list” (Manteca, in London’s Shoreditch, started as a pop-up, so there are lots of those) and those, like me, who are wary of the word. Again, it’s a question of expectations. “Natural” is not an official designation: it can mean almost anything, and the assumption that the grapes will be free of chemicals, as they must be if the bottle is certified organic, is misguided. Low-intervention is great, although each winemaker will define it differently. As for no-intervention, show me a wine that can make itself. And, please, don’t bring up sulphites, either. A little sulphur to stabilise a wine before it travels is a beneficial thing, and if anyone, these days, is heaping the stuff into their vats in toxic quantities, I have yet to hear about it.

I’ve had wonderful wines that call themselves natural, but also plenty that are faulty, often with a snarky hipster telling me that the only fault is in my judgement – as if wine weren’t complicated enough! So a list that ranges from unusual grape varieties such as Xarel-lo (usually found in Cava) to atypical locations such as Domaine de Thalie, high in the hills of Mâcon in southern Burgundy, and also offers excellent natural wines, such as Abuse from Domaine du Pech in south-west France, is my kind of rabbit hole.

Emily, balancing expectations from all sides, says she plans to take Abuse off the extensive by-the-glass list because after opening, some bottles have grown funky enough to provoke complaints. Emily, please don’t. As a match for the delicately meaty tripe alla Romana, it would be hard to beat.

[See also: Wine’s secret ingredient? Slowly crumbling rocks]

Manteca’s triple-pronged schtick is nose-to-tail eating, handmade pasta and a wood-fired oven. On a Monday night, it was packed and vibrant, with waiters threading precariously between tables and bar-side diners on high stools. A tattooed chef with pink hair debonairly sliced gargantuan sausages, cured on site, to the background beat, a sack of flour beside him waiting to be turned into fabulous flatbread.

This place is fun, and eating here is fun, too – unless you’re a vegetarian. Pale, crisped pig skin bubbled like foam atop rich ragu; the cream and salt in a brown crab pasta sauce went beautifully with Thalie’s saline white. Between courses, a gorgeously perfumed, smoky orange wine from Primosic near the Italian-Slovenian border cleansed our palates for the treats to come. It was expensive, but Manteca also has a frequently changing range of more gently priced wines on tap.

Only one wine disappointed. Nebbiolo from the Langhe – the classic grape of Barolo, from the broader region around that legendary village – can be fantastic, and great value. Last year the Wine Society added a beautiful version to its Exhibition range, laden with cherries and spice, at just £13.95. (It’s sold out but will be back in mid February.) Confronted with brash duck ragu and pangrattato (breadcrumbs fried in duck fat and garlic), this pleasant red wine wilted.

This, the only wine we tried from the classics list, was exactly as expected – and that wasn’t what we wanted. Thank goodness for surprises: there’d be no Wonderlands without them.

[See also: The cruel history of rum – and why we drink to forget it]

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This article appears in the 26 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Light that Failed

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