Those familiar with the Cathedral city of Exeter will no doubt be aware that amidst its chain restaurants and high street stores, a vibrant undercurrent of indie businesses are emerging. From recycled candle makers to ethical fashion shops – it’s an exciting time for independent shops and Exeter’s newest addition – Pullo – is no exception to the rule.
It was a bitterly cold November morning when we paid Pullo a visit. A misread email meant that we were running 55 minutes late, but you would never have known from the warm welcome we received. As we stepped out from the cold and into the warmth of the store, the Pullo team were all smiles and friendly greetings. They were just 24 hours away from opening their doors to the public and it was all hands on deck. Owners Alex Fitton and his partner Mirjam had baby in tow – a bundle of giggles in her arms – and their colleague Joe was busy typing up tasting notes ahead of their first day.
Pullo is Exeter’s first purveyor of natural wines and cider. In Mirjam’s native Finnish, pullo means ‘bottle’, which seems perfectly apt when one takes a look at their offerings. A quick glance around the shop dispels any notion that Pullo is yet another pretentious wine merchant. The first thing you’ll notice are row upon row of colourful bottles. This is no stuffy wine cellar. Eye popping labels vye for your attention on the shelves; calling out with their edgy graphics and their provocative names. On top of this, you’ll spy rustic bottles of cider with chic labels, an impressive coffee machine perched at the back of the room, and a deli counter filled with the freshest British fromage.
I’ll admit, this is all a touch disarming. Aren’t we supposed to feel intimidated by the wine and cheese on display? Apparently not. Everything you’ll find at Pullo has its own story to tell and its own unique reason for gracing the shelves. Even the coffee – which Mirjam graciously poured for us – has been chosen for its quality and ethical backstory. So, with greetings and flat whites out of the way, it was time to get down to the nitty-gritty. We were keen to discover more about the natural wine movement and find out what to expect from Pullo. We started with the most obvious question:
So, what is Natural Wine?
“When we think of wine and wine-making we have a vision of the winemaker tending their vines and lovingly pressing them into barrels in ancient caves where they magically transform into delicious wine,” Alex explains, “In reality, wine-making has been just as much a victim of industrial farming as any other foodstuff since WW2.”
It’s difficult to get your head around, but by 2012 nearly half of all wines sold in the US were sold by just 3 companies. In Australia, 5 companies accounted for nearly half the national crush. Over the years, wine-making has become an incredibly manufactured process, with products guided to fit a particular flavour profile.
Unlike ‘organic’ or ‘biodynamic’ wines – which have tightly controlled criteria – the term ‘natural wine’ has no established legal framework. As such, it’s easiest to think of natural wine as wine made without industrialized processes.
“With many commercial wines, terroir is a controlled process, rather than a true expression of time and place. Natural wine is what we commonly perceive all wine to be – fermented grape juice. It’s just unfortunate that all commercially produced agro-chemical wine can also call itself ‘wine’ without any definition attached”.
Vino la Révolution
It seemed obvious to us that the natural wine movement is a pushback against this industrialisation of winemaking. Producers seem to be reverting back to their roots, akin to pushback you see in other industries, like sourdough bread and British cheese.
“Yes, in a sense” Mirjam agreed, “The natural wine movement originated in the 60’s, a time of positive change, especially in food. I certainly see it as a form of resistance against industrialised food making.”
“It’s strange though,” Alex added, “What we see as conventional winemaking these days has only really been commonplace since WW2 and commercial yeasts have only been available to winemakers since the late 1970s. So, when we talk about natural wine as being somehow ‘revolutionary’, it doesn’t take into consideration the fact that we have been using natural winemaking techniques for centuries!”
“Natural wine is certainly a lot less snooty than conventional wines,” Mirjam laughs, “In certain industry circles it feels like there are too many rules. It’s like you need some kind of membership to get in. With natural wine, it feels a lot more relaxed. You drink what you like and it’s not about how much knowledge you have, it’s about the enjoyment of the wine tasting.”
The guys at Pullo aren’t shy when it comes to decanting their wines and sharing the love. Twenty minutes into our chat, we were sampling one of their latest deliveries. As Alex poured a delicate red into our glasses, he recalled their formative years in the industry.
“When Joe used to work in East Dulwich, we would rock up to the bar and some of the bottles we would open were just so out there. We were just looking for something fun. Eight years ago it was all about being as crazy and funky as possible. Is it volatile? Does it blow your mind when you smell it? There were some that were just like nothing we’d ever experienced before!”
Of course, those very same winemakers making waves in the early 2010’s are now reaching their own maturity within the industry and are refining their offerings in harmony with purveyors like Pullo.
“We’ve evolved together,” Alex explained, “Someone like Testalonga for example (a South African winemaker) used to produce crazy, acidic wines. Now, they are much more refined. Eight years ago, they were making funky wine and we were looking for funky wines. Now things have moved on and we’re both after something different”.
A New Kind of Winemaker
All this talk of funky wine got us thinking – do the brightly coloured labels and contemporary graphic design confirm that smaller winemakers are making more experimental products? Each of the fabulous designs on display at Pullo revealed something different – some showcased beautiful works of illustration, while others were totally bonkers. We asked Mirjam what she thought…
“Not really no. They look so unique in contrast to supermarket brands because they’re made by a much more involved winemaker. The smaller the batch, the more attention to detail. I think part of it may also be the pushback against this very regulated way of doing things. Winemakers don’t want to be told that they have to have the name in this size and the regions in that size. It’s a rebellion against all those rules. They think ‘I’ll put whatever I want on my labels!”.
“But some winemakers also just love art” Alex counters; “Take Gutt Oggau, for example. Each of their bottles feature a different face and depending on the age of vines, the face develops and matures. At the moment, one of their vineyards is going through a conversion, so they’re using faces wearing masks. Those masks will be lifted once they’ve gone through certification. It’s all about telling a story!”
Why Visit Pullo?
Pullo’s enthusiasm is contagious. Just half an hour listening to them chat about their passion made us want to delve deeper into the world of natural wine. But what can customers expect from Exeter’s newest wine shop and deli?
“Just come in and have a chat!” they implore, “We want people to talk to us and taste the natural wines and ciders. It’s about starting conversations. We’re always going to have something by the glass and hopefully in the future we’ll start mini tastings on the weekend. ”
Pair this with a counter filled with British cheeses, ethically sourced coffee and more knowledge than you can shake a stick at, and we think Pullo might just be onto something…
Find Pullo at 23 Paris St, Exeter EX1 2JB