Wargs of middle earth: part 1

Prompted by a recent exchange on a blog Exordium:

Is there a place in the purity of wine discourse for terms such as “priest” to denote the fundamental irrationalism of the common-or-garden natural wine aficionado? In this context priest implies either someone who is shamanistic or a person who spends his (or her) time interpreting set scripture and tries to evangelically inculcate values and ordinances based on those writings. I’m not sure which is worse for this is not only disrespectful to hundreds of winemakers and hundreds of thousands of drinkers, but is an entirely inappropriate descriptor. And so the metaphor falls flat at the first hurdle. Herbert Spencer once wrote: “There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance – that principle is contempt prior to investigation”.

Ironically, the same people who caricature natural wine lovers as priests (when they probably mean extremists), have their own favourite pulpiteers, and like to cite all manner of wine gospel themselves as if quotation of an approved source validates their own beliefs. This faith in text and received wisdom is touching yet highly unscientific. What Peter Sichel or Paul Draper, for example, might say or believe is interesting, but it is their opinion after all and not an irrefutable argument-clincher as when one is appealing to a higher authority!

les caves de pyrene

Natural winemakers don’t subscribe to the highly authorised version of the conventional wine bible. They use their winemaking to interrogate those theoretical certainties; successfully, when they make good or great wine, unsuccessfully, when they don’t. More on this anon. My point is that natural wine is a moveable feast; the winemaker has the freedom to operate more or less as they see fit. This rugged individualism is deplored by many who believe that winemaking is a finite science, that there is a demonstrably right way of doing things – and a wrong way. And the “natural approach”, according to our pernickety friends, and if we may it term it thus, is the wrong way. A more accurate description of the difference in the diverse approaches might be found in Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.

There are choices and choices and choices. Practical choices. The notion that winemakers place some quasi-religious philosophy ahead of the exigencies of the wine is patently absurd. You may want to venture into taste zones where few have explored, but you still want to make drinkable wine. And the risks, more often than not, reap rewards. And when things go wrong – or right – then knowledge is accrued. If you don’t make wine according to a strict, unvarying formula, you have to learn to make wine over and again, which is a humbling experience, but also motivates you to work with the best grapes you can possibly get and in the most meticulous fashion. This is hand-made wine, a raw, artisan, naked product. And that has to be worth the effort.

Taste is a matter of taste

All of life is a dispute over taste and tasting, quoth Nietzsche. For all the pretence that taste is an exact science, the actuality is somewhat different.

I have convened controlled groups with experienced tasters featuring natural (no sulphur) wines and conventional wines. The results reveal that once you start mixing the wines up and undermining preconceptions then tasting becomes a lottery. If you are an amateur you have no gold standard and tend to rely on instinct or similar like/dislike; but if you are professional you tend to want to compartmentalise the wine, by placing it in its appropriate qualitative category.

les caves de pyrene

Once tasters have been informed that natural wines are lurking in the line up, responses shift accordingly, although actual assessments transpire to be no more accurate. Said tasters looked for unconventional aromas and flavours (brett, VA etc), associating those characteristics with natural wines. Confusingly (and deliberately), the wines in the line up which demonstrated those traits happened not to be natural, but classically-made wines. The predetermination to discover a flawed natural wine seems to be a more powerful motivating impulse than the ability to use one’s senses objectively to evaluate the wine qua wine.

If professionals can be so easily discombobulated, and when a priori knowledge is an impediment to sensitive tasting, then the science of tasting is as flawed as the human beings that participate in it. And thank goodness for that. Rather than putting ourselves before the wine and the winemaker and making grandiose assumptions, we should perhaps heed Thoreau’s advice: “Live each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influences of each.” The

Terroir Fallacy

The contras refuse to believe that a naturally-made wine might ever express terroir as well as a conventionally-made one. The deliciousness of this argument is that it posits that natural wine (i.e. wine that best reflects its terroirs) can only be made with interventions, and consequently, wine made without additives, is, by definition, unnatural. We’re through the looking glass again, people. One of the biggest fallacies in the contra canon, this presumption does not take into account that so many subtle grades of intervention exist. Pronouncing airily on an entire genus of wines (not that genus is the right word to describe the range of natural wine), however, can never be a substitute for tasting them. For example, there are zero-sulphur wines that beautifully capture the subtlety of terroir (one thinks of the wines of Jean-François Ganevat or Tom Lubbe) and there are those where terroir definition is a secondary consideration to making a vin de soif. Most natural wines are, in any case, made with (low) sulphur, some the living embodiment of soil and vintage, others existing simply to express fresh harvest fruit. The question is not whether natural wines can exhibit terroir, but whether natural winemaking expresses terroir more adeptly than conventional winemaking.

Here we need to separate industrial wines, and anything that is mass-produced to a chemical formula, from more hand-crafted conventional wines. Conventionally-made crafted wines are no more homogenous than natural wines in this regard. The expression of terroir is primary the expression of the quality of the grapes. Winemaking decisions are what largely separates natural from conventional and here it could be argued that it is a matter of degree. Depending on which side of the argument you stand how much is too much or how little is not enough? We know that less expensive wines are often “corrected” to the nth degree, but what about more expensive wines? To what extent does thermovinification, cold fermentation, flavoured yeasts, reverse osmosis, spinning cones, stabilising gums to name but a few, alter the essence of the wine? If terroir is what we are all searching for, then how many, and what type, of interventions begins to denature the wine?

les caves de pyrene

And so to sulphur. This has become a religious issue for the contras who can apparently only see the devil in their own lack of detailed research. The biggest myth perpetuated by the contras – and it is surprising how many subscribe to this falsehood – is that all natural wines are made without any added sulphur whatsoever. Natural wines may have virtually no sulphur (other than that naturally generated in the fermentation), or no sulphur during vinification and just a homeopathic amount at bottling, or sulphur may be added pre-or-during the fermentation. Using sulphur is thus discretionary – a vintage such as 2008 saw growers use more sulphur; 2009, conversely saw the same growers not using sulphur at all. Growers like Lapierre or Frick, for example, will make avec & sans soufre bottlings of the same wine. I have hundreds of tech sheets from winemakers; it might surprise the contra to know how many of the vignerons work according to the needs of the wine.

Sulphur is a two-way street. It’s not that it’s intrinsically good or bad (I’ve never read a natural wine blogger write an impassioned treatise on The Monstrous Regiment of Sulphur-Abusing Winemakers) but it is what you do with it. Conventional wines may be superbly integrated – or not. A recent CdP buying trip in Burgundy uncovered so many wines that literally reeked of sulphur. Its vivid presence does not denote cleanliness. Clumsy winemaking is bad winemaking; if you can taste the chemical overlay, you can’t taste either the grape or terroir underneath. Far too many wines are made like this, alas. The same with oak and extractive winemaking – we taste hundreds of examples of over-wrought wines because the winemaker/oenologist seems to view his or her job as doing more than is strictly necessary. The best winemakers know when to leave well alone – which is not the same as a laissez-faire approach; it involves empirical assessment and constant tasting and a deep understanding of natural flavour and the importance of terroir.

If sulphur dioxide can be detected by most tasters at relatively low levels it begs the question how its obvious organoleptic presence serves to enhance the subtleties of terroir and typicity in wine. Chemical interventions push the wine further from its original identity. The idea that all winemakers are simply trying to avoid bacterial spoilage is not the whole truth (natural winemakers don’t want bacterial spoilage either); winemakers do however, manipulate the flavour profile of wine to make it more commercially pleasing to wine buyers and critics. All this begs the question – where does transformation end and deliberate manipulation begin?

As for tasting one can confidently say that it is as much the style of the wine that we recognise as the terroir. I attended a tasting a few years ago which interposed wines made by celebrated oenologists with wines made by “humble” vignerons. We had to see if we could discern not only who made the wines but where we thought they came from.

I was able to identify the style of Cotarella and Rolland in the line up, but wasn’t able to determine where the wines originated. Conversely, I could make more than an educated guess as to where the vignerons’ wines came from. An anecdote to be sure, but one which illustrates that oenological tropes can completely obfuscate terroir and style will precede substance. This seems wrong – skilled oenologists should leave the signature of the vineyard on the wine. Isn’t that their role? The converse argument is that natural wines lose their terroir signature because slapdash winemaking allows faults to creep in – which is only true if you characterise the wines as faulty or implicitly believe that flaws are not allowable in wine – full stop. In which case you would have a hard time justifying unpasteurised cheese, real ale, sourdough culture bread or any similar food or drink which are not consistent products.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. John Atkinson

    Doug, if I’d known you were going to start quoting Nietzsche, I would have brought my umbrella.

    Happy to put a link on my blog to your response, and trust you are happy to do the same.


  2. Doug

    Hi John,

    Ha ha. Nietzsche is the go-to philospher on wine. Did not the Bruces say in the Philosophers’ Drinking Song in Monty Python: “There’s nothing Nietzsche couldn’t teach ya about the raising of the wrist…”

    Happy to do that. You made some very interesting points on Jamie’s blog and a lot of these would be worth discussing further over a glass of Cousin Grolleau/Gamay/Cab Franc (delete where appropriate).

  3. Great post, Doug, all very sensible common-sense stuff 🙂 I agree with you on the sulphur issue in principle. I seem to be blessed with a very favourable climate, so I don’t actually use any by default, tho I would if it were ever necessary!

    1. john

      socrates himself was particularly pissed

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