100 Great Natural Wines: An Introduction

by blog on January 21, 2020

There comes a time when you start to believe that the best bottles of wine in your life may well be behind you. This is not a morbid realisation, but an acknowledgement that part of the charm of one’s wine education is the many taste-epiphanies that combine to form our respective wine philosophies and that they tend to occur early on, when our minds are open and our senses especially alert. For me, it was tasting bottles and realising that wines did not have to be square, polished and structured in a recognisable way to be good. Indeed, my favourite wines were invariably fluid, dynamic, mutable and complete unto themselves. They resisted objectification. They were the more than the sum of their component edges, quirks, flaws. What is more, they existed for many reasons and were in toto the seamless aggregation of the place, the climate, the soil, the local culture and history, the farming methods, the gastronomy, and the toil, love and philosophy of the women and men involved.

Part of the charm of one’s wine education is the many taste-epiphanies that combine to form our respective wine philosophies and that they tend to occur early on, when our minds are open and our senses especially alert.

Selecting exactly one hundred wines is an artificial task. Why one hundred? I am sure that many more bottles than that have had a strong emotional effect upon me. Some limits are required, however. I decided to restrict myself, for example, to one cuvée per vigneron although felt bound to give some of the other wines an honourable mention. Nor were there to be any scores, or a hierarchy within the 100, each wine being there on its merits. So, albeit that it may be implied that some are more equal than others, all wines are equal here. Much of what is delightful and delicious about a naturally-made wine is its simple drinkability, its easy verve. The wines in this selection, however, have a length, strength and durability that marks them out. We might describe them as natural grands vins. Perhaps they embody more completely their terroir than most other wines, perhaps the vigneron sees in the sheer quality of the grapes an opportunity to take the wine further on its remarkable journey, to risk more, or that these are the wines that I believe are most capable of evoking an equally intense emotional response in others.

The arresting aesthetic

I proffer this as a thought: wine possesses its greatest value when it is made with love and for love, when it is made with all humility, when it is drunk with all humility, when it is shared (obviously) and when it yields a therapeutic, socially liberating effect. That when it is sensuously provocative, it releases our imagination and transports us to highly-realised places and times and significant occasions in our lives.

Wine possesses its greatest value when it is made with love and for love, when it is made with all humility, when it is drunk with all humility, when it is shared and when it yields a therapeutic, socially liberating effect.

I judge the success of a wine by how swiftly it mellows our critical faculties and activates our creative ones. The pleasure principle being an overriding one, the wine which is least-mediated seems most generous in this regard (albeit that inhibitions are loosed by alcohol in any way, shape and form). Wine can evoke fellow-feeling and comity – the French have an expression “vin de copain” which describes the highly potable wine you share for fun with friends. Wine enjoyed in the right spirit may vitalise our conversation and stimulate our thoughts. In excess, of course, it can retard our judgement, dissolve our propriety and make us belligerent and egotistical. Its primary function though is to open the doors of hospitality, to enrich and celebrate friendship, and to toast and commemorate special occasions. The Georgian Supra is a vivid demonstration of the wine’s social and moral function – ritualistic thanks is given to the wine, to the maker, to the host for hosting, to the provider of the food and to the guests themselves for the honour of their presence. Wine is the host – in all senses – the symbol and substance of regenerative mutuality.

Food laid out for a Georgian supra. (Photo credit: Carla Capalbo Photography)

People rarely talk about beauty because it is not something that can be calibrated; also, that it is considered effete and part of the snobbery of wine that a select few may appreciate its aesthetic appeal, whilst to others wine is booze – pure and simple. The two approaches, however, are not mutually exclusive.

Perhaps the real reason why we don’t talk about beauty and wine is that we don’t sufficiently credit the poetry of the process, wherein the rhythms and inflections of nature are channelled to form a unique language. Nature doesn’t do art or science apparently. The professional vogue for chemical analysis and dissective terminological exactitude strips away its mystery, uncoupling wine from nature by reducing the liquid to the enumeration of its molecular compounds. Wine is product, and a product has purpose, which is a utilitarian way of looking at it, yet wine can also evoke responses that contradict the narrowness of such a purpose.

Those who believe that wine may possess some rarefied quality seek out and exalt its transfiguring qualities. Their view is that wine is made, not by the artisan, but by a kind of scientist-artist, and is designed to be elevated and elevating. The intentional, or unintentional, consequence of this is to make the wine desirable as an object (and thus objectify it), to detach and distance the person who is experiencing the wine so that they may appreciate how profound and unique their experience is. And even this appreciation may be rendered in a numerical format as the wine is scored on supposedly objective criteria.

Such a wine loses a sense of its natural origin because it is made and marketed to conform to a style, tracking the palates of opinion-formers. It is a form of pleasing architecture rather than the rock and soil on which that construct is built.

Conversely one may see the wine as the result of natural transformations; just as music, art or poetry are the distillations of raw emotion and thought into sounds, pictures and words, so wine is the aggregated fermented transformation of weather, geology, yeasts, fruit, minerals into… living liquid. This is life transmuted into a different form of life.

Perhaps the real reason why we don’t talk about beauty and wine is that we don’t sufficiently credit the poetry of the process, wherein the rhythms and inflections of nature are channelled to form a unique language.

It is one thing to articulate this transformation, another to superimpose on the raw materials and end up overmedicating the wine. Impositions are always judgement calls –benign interventions to prevent spoilage, decay and death. Transformations may be natural – guided by humans yet aiming to minimise the human imprint or steering the wine in such a manner that the natural “impression” of the wine emerges most strikingly. We may characterise this as responsive or empathetic winemaking – listening to and understanding the needs of the vines and the grape juice.

And then we can talk about the counsel of imperfection, the idea that wine should be true to itself in all its cracked glory. This relates to the notion of wabi-sabi, an aesthetic centred on the acceptance of transience, described as one of beauty that is “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete”. If an object or expression can bring about, within us, a sense of serene melancholy and a spiritual longing, then that object could be said to be wabi-sabi. Referring to the loneliness of living in nature, remote from society it connotes rustic simplicity, freshness or quietness, and can be applied to both natural and human-made objects. It can also refer to quirks and anomalies arising from the process of construction, which add uniqueness and elegance to the object. Applied to wine this aesthetic celebrates the pleasing uncertainty, simplicity and elegance that only nature can endow and the vigneron can “let be”. This could also be described as the tone of the vintage and the voice of the terroir and the kind of fragile distinctiveness that you find in very special wines.

And then we can talk about the counsel of imperfection, the idea that wine should be true to itself in all its cracked glory.

Wine to calm our spirits and send our thoughts into beautiful repose. Wines to jolly us along. Wine to set hares running in our minds. These wines always come from a place and from a person. They are gifts and ought to be received with the same generosity of spirit as impelled them to come to life.

All this comes into consideration for what gives a particular wine a particular transcendent quality. Of course, it is personal, and of course, the experience of tasting and drinking it adds a dimension, for what we ourselves bring to the wine adds a special flavour to it.

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Stay tuned for Part One of Doug Wregg’s 100 Great Natural Wines list…

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

David Crossley January 22, 2020 at 5:16 pm

Wabi-Sabi and my love of Japan in general helped form the way I look at wine, and I think we are very close in this, Doug. But where we might differ is that I don’t believe all my best wines are behind me. Of course, I have downed a few bottles over the years, and my age may help me rival your prodigious consumption. But I approach every bottle with the hope that it might be another life affirming object. Every year, without fail, I try something profound (or at least profound in its effect on susceptible me). It can’t be three years yet since I first drank Ex Vero II, for example. Last year, not a natural wine as such, it was Soldera Riserva of about 20 years age. Almost every bottle of Equipo Navajos affects me deeply, and I have quite a bit in my cellar. But more than anything it is the so-called simple wine perfect for the occasion, drunk with friends, that can bring me close to tears of joy. It’s why my passion for wine, which waned just a little before I found natural wine and Les Caves, never dims.

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