Aubert & Mascoli are the Gilbert & George of the wine world. Parisian Guillaume Aubert (left) sports large black framed glasses and a neatly coiffed beard, while Naples-born Giuseppe Mascoli (right), a philosophy graduate, part-time artist and self-confessed playboy, has short silver curls, a Mediterranean tan and is dressed head to toe in green on our meeting. They make unlikely business partners, but the ebullient Mascoli is the yin to soft-spoken Aubert’s yang. Having built up a successful restaurant business, with a portfolio including Blacks in Soho, pizza institution Franco Manca and neighbourhood Italian Rocca in Dulwich, while working as a sole trader bringing wine into the UK, in 2009 Mascoli joined forces with independent importer Aubert after a tip off by Anita le Roy, owner of Monmouth Coffee Company. “We were doing very similar things and had the same small grower philosophy, so it made sense to work together,” Mascoli tells me over a triple espresso in one of Blacks’ powder blue rooms.
In less than three years the pair have grown the company considerably, and now represent over 35 small growers from Italy and France. Despite their success, they are keen to remain niche. “We need to stand out by bringing in wines not available anywhere else in the UK,” Aubert explains. But with both Germany and Austria boasting impressive natural wine credentials, why do they limit themselves to Italy and France? “It’s what we know,” says Mascoli. “I’m toying with the idea of bringing in Austrian wine, but my knowledge isn’t up to scratch yet.” Aubert admits that they buy with their heart and not their head. “It might not be best for business, but it’s best for us,” he says. Piedmont, Friuli and Tuscany are well represented from Italy, while the Loire, Languedoc and Roussillon make up the majority of the French offering, with cameos from Burgundy, Provence, the Rhône and Champagne. Their best seller is Piedmont-based Valle Unite, Franco Manca’s house wine, which can’t produce enough wine to supply demand.
The pair are pious in their devotion to natural wine, refusing to work with any producers that use sulphites or other additives. “People are trying to shortcut millions of years of history by manipulating wines with selected yeasts. I’d rather a wine have oddities than be tailor-made,” says Mascoli, who compares industrial wines to “cartoon characters” made to please children. “Natural wine is like a silent assassin,” Aubert interjects. “The more you drink, the less you can drink other wines. You start reacting badly to them, coming out in rashes and swelling up from all the sulphites,” he explains animatedly. Though passionate trumpet blowers for the natural wine movement, the duo didn’t set out to create a natural wine company – the focus was always on small growers – but, fittingly, it came about naturally. “The producers we started working with all happened to be natural, organic or biodynamic. It wasn’t by design,” says Aubert, adding: “There’s a libertarian element to the natural wine movement that appeals to me. I like the idea of questioning the status quo. It’s very left wing.”
The duo go on six buying trips a year, visiting restaurants and bars to sniff out the local winemaking talent. They mainly work in the on-trade, supplying top London restaurants and wine bars, including the newly opened Duck Soup in Soho, Terroirs, Hibiscus, Pied à Terre, Galvin La Chapelle and Tom’s Kitchen. “We sell in places where the sommelier is able to explain what natural wine is, as most people don’t know what it means. The definition is a bit blurred at the moment, which is a problem,” Aubert laments. To generate awareness of the brand, the pair took part in the Natural Wine Fair in London Bridge last autumn, and were surprised by the popularity of the event. Aubert believes the natural wine movement has gathered momentum so quickly in London because the city is more prone to the effects of trends than the rest of Europe. While he admits the hype will level out this year, he is adamant that natural wines are here to stay. “They’ve come into fashion due to the rise of the critical drinker. Consumers want to know the origin of everything. There’s more awareness now,” he says.
Mascoli concedes that natural doesn’t necessarily mean good. “There are a lot of really bad natural wines out there. The wines are so delicate, it’s easy to screw them up,” he says. Being a natural winemaker isn’t enough to earn an Aubert & Mascoli listing. “We import wines that are good before they’re anything else. If you have to excuse the wines by saying they’re natural that’s missing the point,” asserts Aubert, who says that to make good natural wine you need to “work like a bastard in the vineyard” and keep your winery “as clean as a hospital”.
Mascoli, meanwhile, believes natural wines require a critical approach. “They’re a bit like the works of Karl Marx: not intended for the masses. Marx was writing for a specific audience with a sufficient level of knowledge to understand and appreciate his work. The same can be said for natural wines,” he suggests. Having submitted work to last year’s Venice Biennale, does Mascoli see parallels with wine and art? “I see wine as the opposite of art,” he says. “God, the artist and the poet create out of nothing. The winemaker works with what is already in existence, acting as a pimp for nature, from the fruit he picks to the soil he respects. The winemaker is a shaman. He doesn’t create, he cures.”