I’ve argued on these pages and elsewhere that it is trite to bandy loaded terms such as “natural”, “conventional” and “movement” willy-nilly as in “natural wine movement” and to have a pop at so-called natural wine evangelists. I’ve also spoken previously about the fallacy of the sophomoric straw man argument, whereby one constructs an idea using spurious logic in order to knock it down. Whilst many in the trade fondly use redundant terminology and make assertions about wines and winemakers that simply don’t stand up to scrutiny, they are publically shy in revealing that they barely have a nodding acquaintance with the growers and the wines they so confidently pronounce on. And simply saying that you are on the side of scientists or reflecting the views of consumers doesn’t prove that you are; it always boils down to a matter of opinion.
Terroir is only latent in grapes, a form of potential energy. One of the elements of terroir – like it or not –may also be the complex and healthy abundance of yeast strains in the vineyard and winery. They provide the warp and the weft of a wine. Once you begin to detach or filter out these raw materials and substitute with extraneous flavours you begin the process of denaturing the wine. Nurture, as gentle control, is one thing, superimposition or stripping of flavour is quite another, and ends with a wine which is a pale shadow of itself, bent to the will of the oenologist. Sanitary, corrective winemaking often reveals the signature tropes of the winemaker and that I can usually recognise the polished signature of a Rolland or a Cotarella means that technology has all but smothered the expression of terroir. They (the winemakers) may believe that their methods help to accentuate typicity but they end up leaving their own imprint indelibly on the wine.
A dominant patriarchal culture always spawns a vibrant counterculture, not naughty children rebelling against their fuddy-duddy elders for the heck of it, but inquisitive, intellectual, often scientifically-minded young men and women pushing the boundaries. Either autodidacts, or graduates of oenology school where they were told to obey the golden rules of winemaking, they didn’t like conventionally-made wines and so challenged orthodoxies and experimented with new techniques (which were often age-old ones). These progenitors of natural wine spawned a new generation of free-thinking vignerons who are now doing it for themselves rather than the hypothetical market-place. They tend to use a simple language to describe the principles that motivate their activities: “Respect” (for nature and terroir), “Self-respect” (making the wines you want to drink yourself) and “Humility” (never to put yourself above what nature gives you). This language is not a part of the normal critical regime which stipulates not only does man knows best, but that expensively-insured palates know best.
The phenomenon that critics call natural wine has developed deeper roots, a definite beating heart and a fairly secure soul and is continuing to grow organically, not through myth and spin, but through trial and error, and because growers and winemakers constantly question their methods, and because the results are evidently pleasing growers and drinkers alike. The beauty of natural wine is that it is not a trend and so is not ephemeral; it lies at the centre of the pulsing debate about what is authentic.
It is often asserted that there was more good wine to drink now than ever before. Vastly more wine is made than ever, and certainly, more competently, but there is still a growing reservoir of homogeneity, of mass-produced mediocrity to fill the many miles of supermarket shelves. Replicating a formula is not tantamount to making better wine. Fault-free wines are not necessarily interesting or exciting wines. The new “fit-for-purpose” wine is fit for the price bracket, most of it is stripped and neutral. Branding creates a faux-diversity, pretending to promote varietals and regions. It is at the expense of style; you don’t have to be a Decanter judge to see how similar a 5.99 Colombard from Gascony is to a similarly priced Viura from Rioja, a Fiano from southern Italy or a South African Chenin.
It is presumptuous (but it happens in all walk of life where critics critique) to believe implicitly that one knows better than the artisan-vigneron. Just like drinkers and wine critics, artisan winemakers are certainly not infallible, but their actions in the vineyard and winery determine the final personality of the wine. And the wines are the way they are for a reason. Decisions, such as topping or not topping up barrels, how much sulphur to use, to push for malo or not, to let fermentation take its natural course, in other words, all the physical choices of winemaking, will influence the development of the wine itself. For me, however, the paradigm of good winemaking is knowing when to step aside and leave the wine to its devices.
Some natural wines are meant to be drunk for thirst – the clue is in the name – Soif du Mal, Il Fait Soif, Trinch!, Ca’ C’Est Bon, Vin de Petanque… whilst others are of the vineyard. The purple schists and flower-carpeteted vineyards of Laurent Herbel and Nadège Lelandais, the unique blue marls of Jura for the Chardonnay & Savagnins of Jean-François Ganevat, the granitic slopes of the northern Rhone for Dard & Ribo’s Saint-Jo and the manganese-rich limestone and clay soils of Macon for the Clos des Vignes du Maynes, all transmit their original flavours into the wines themselves. All the vineyards are farmed biodynamically, other than Dard, which is organic. Vines for these wines are 110, 100, 90 and 50 years old, respectively contributing concentration and mineral verve. The stories of all the growers also deserve to be told, for the wines are very much expressions of their personalities and the journey of the particular vintage. When I see the fault-sniffers, reduction hounds and oxidation haters reducing (no pun intended) wines to the sum of the aromas they’re not sure about, I know that wine tasting has become a cognitive demi-science and lacks an emotional, instinctive dimension. One hears stories of growers like Teobaldo Cappellano who banished journalists from his cellars because of what he perceived as the invidious practice of marking wines rather than tasting the wines for what they were.
Three of the above examples conform (if that’s the word) to a more mainstream, non-interventionist style, while the other is a tad more full-on (ironically the one with the greatest intervention). Nothing here to frighten the horses or the conventionally-tuned palate. Ya think?! Whenever I have shown these particular wines to consumers in the past, they have told me that they were prepared for something funky, and were surprised how “straight” the wines were. The wine trade, however, is an altogether different beast and I witnessed numerous tasters abstracting from the fact that they had guessed which wines were natural and consequently defaulting to imprecise tasting terms such as “funky”, “oxidative” and “weird”. What is weird is the disjunctive reasoning which affirms that natural, by definition, equals weird i.e. unnatural. This deductive method – where tasters use the knowledge of what the wine is to determine their judgements – contrasts with the more spontaneous reaction of tasters with no preconceptions or prejudices and who will tell you what they think of the wines on the simple basis of whether they like drinking it or not. I love the wines because they possess so many nuances, nuances that one misses when one plays the game of “spot the natural wine.”
I’m happy enough to use the expression “natural wine”, not in an emotive or morally superior way, rather to propose it as a commonsense alternative to the status quo. The theoretical resistance to natural wine is that wine is always made by man and so can never be natural. So what else might be considered analogous to natural wine? I like my cheese unpasteurised, my bread to be sourdough, my orange juice to be squeezed from fresh oranges and my fish to taste of the sea and I suspect a lot of wine aficionados do as well. In other words, we all enjoy things that taste of where they come from with and arrive on our tables with very little or no mediation or processing. The human influence in these examples is tantamount to setting the procedure in motion and leaving pretty well alone. Why should wine be considered any different to these natural products? You would have to ask wine professionals who can’t see this correlation and believe that the primary purpose of any product is to be absolutely consistent – and stable.
Natural wine has been made in one form or another for 8,000 years. It is tempting for every generation to think they have the best answers and that the present day is always the refinement of all the knowledge there has ever been. Progress is not simply the appliance of science and more skilful use of technology; it is the wisdom to know what to do and how to make things. Often we use technology as a crutch and allow critics to set our taste standards. Sustainable and natural winemaking is surely more than that. Defenders of authenticity should support the conservation of autochthonous grape varieties, traditional farming techniques and hands-on winemaking as all these help to perpetuate a healthy diversity. Technically sound, manipulative winemaking ensures only one kind of outcome, a wine that appeals to a common denominator palate. That may be broadly desirable, but we definitely prefer uncommon wines. There is no need for antipathy or quasi-philosophical posturing. As Eric so aptly puts it: “There are the wines that I like, that he hates. And there are the wines that he likes, that I would never drink. And somewhere in the middle are the wines we both like drinking and we drink together.”