Natural wines don’t taste like wine (Wines can be beery, cidery, reductive)
Wine doesn’t always taste like wine. Who is the arbiter here? The mythical consumer on top of the Clapham omnibus, a holographic projection of the palate of Robert Parker or some other Rhadamanthine wine critic? Wines certainly don’t taste like each other, so what template are we be working from? Beaujolais Nouveau doesn’t resemble in the slightest Californian Cabernet Sauvignon. Blush Zinfandel, anaemic Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay with oak chips doesn’t taste like wine in any meaningful sense; it is confected grape juice, highly flavoured with external agents, chemical to a fault.
Show someone a poor quality natural wine and they may presume to pass judgment on all natural wines. Whilst there are inferior, clumsy examples of natural wine there are also inferior, clumsy examples of conventional wine. One doesn’t offer a blanket judgment about all conventional wines on the basis of a quite a few rotten apples.
Natural wines are virtually never submitted to the major wine judging competitions. Because they incite controversy one could easily imagine panels split on a fundamental level. Their very existence points to an arbitrariness in the way we perceive wines; one person’s poison is another’s radical joy. The more orthodox taster will attribute his or her dislike to a technical fault in the wine; the “naturalist”, so to speak, will either dispute that is a fault or celebrate the fault as a beacon of individuality. As Goethe said, “Certain defects are necessary for the existence of individuality”.
I encountered an example of this contrary tasting mentality a few days ago when a wine I showed at an event was denounced as corked and oxidised (just to make doubly sure) by a customer who had evidently made up her mind to dislike the wine before she even sampled it. It was neither of those things as it happened, but it was bizarre and twisted. Chacun etc. There a huge number of wines that I will never allow to pass my lips, but there is a place in the pantheon of wine for them. If one’s criterion for faultiness is simple obnoxiousness we would all become arbiters of everyone else’s bad taste.
The beery, cidery accusation is a caricature of some wines that are taken to an oxidative limit or where aldehydes dominate the fruit. Of course, it is a matter of degree, and it is up to the individual taster to decide when the flaw tips over into the fault. To attribute faults to all natural wines on the basis that they are made with few/no interventions is not a scientific approach.
The winemaker has a duty of care to the consumer…
… is the kind of claptrap spouted by consultants to supermarkets as if supermarkets had the monopoly on consumers. The consumer has become a de facto mythical, fearsome, hydra-headed beast created by consumer acceptance panels and so-called arbiters of taste. Please let’s not patronise people by second guessing what they may or may not like to drink, but give them more opportunities to assay different things. Our drinker on the Clapham Omnibus is perfectly entitled to make his or her own decisions without nannying protection; after all if you don’t like something you can simply avoid it in the future. The duty of care argument is a red herring; supermarkets may have restrictive buying policies to filter out unusual wines, but in the real world you can’t legislate for creativity or individuality. One might as well say that footballers have a duty of care to the spectators; that still doesn’t prevent zero entertainment spectacles. Or perhaps we should ask musical artists to compose exclusively for the charts to please the majority of people who buy cds. Or artists to paint pictures to please the widest possible audience. The duty of care is the counsel of mediocrity. The natural winemaker is as proud of his wines as he would be of his children; he doesn’t require the imprimatur of a supermarket buyer or the approval of a tasting board for him to know that he has made a legitimate wine.
You can’t taste terroir in natural wine…
… is a fallacy. Whilst some natural wines are made purely for the purpose of glug (vins de soif, vins de petanque, vins de glouglou – they order these things better in France), simple wines of fruit and pleasure, terroir differentiation is at the beating heart of many natural wines. One can produce numerous examples of wines from all over France, Italy, Spain and the New World wherein the flavour of the vineyard shines through. The two white Sancerres of Sebastien Riffault are a case in point. According to some wine writers his style of wine-making interferes with the expression of Sauvignon in relation to its terroir. Poppycock! Everything he does may break with received wisdom (late harvest, malolactic, ageing in foudre, no sulphur) but if you taste Akmenine (caillottes terroir) versus Skeveldra (flint) you will immediately notice that the wines are entirely different. Undoubtedly certain types of natural wine closely resemble one another – those, for instance, that undergo reductive winemaking or whites that experience extended skin maceration or are aged in foudres (controlled oxidation) – like it or not (and many can claim fairly not to like it) this is the imprint of the winemaking. Terroir, however, is the subtle accent which, when you taste the wines next to each other, pinpoints their respective identities and emphasizes that the wines were born in different vineyards.
Homogeneity is the curse of the international style whereof the wine is so denatured, so reliant on the heavy hand of the winemaker that one might struggle to discern from which hemisphere it originated.
Natural wines are expensive
By definition, organic and biodynamic viticulture cannot be done on the cheap. A truly natural wine will often come from a small domaine with scattered vineyards that are often difficult to farm except by hand and horse. Harvests are selective and by hand rather than machine. The eventual quantity of wine produced may be minuscule, often numbering hundreds of bottles. An artisan product is, by definition, one that is made by hand, not in bulk. Relatively speaking, however, the wines are inexpensive compared to those spoofy efforts concocted by oenologists to appeal to a certain kind of wine critic. Alternatively, take away the marketing subsidies, trumpery and deep discounting of brands and natural wines don’t seem costly at all in comparison.
Natural wine is only popular because it is a trend that people have latched on to
The natural wine scene in the UK, such as it isn’t, is a pinprick, a pleasing divertissement. Those who support the wines are passionate about them and happy to trumpet their virtues. And why not – it is difficult to be passionate about over-marketed brands and the same old growers who have been on the scene for years. To have a scene you must have an organisation and a mouthpiece. Thankfully, the growers are sufficiently independent to plough their own furrow. When they convene it is at La Dive, La Remise and satellite wine festivals which are more like parties or family affairs.
I think we are too hung up on definitions and labelling. We’ve seen how the appellation system can stifle creativity by setting artificial (and occasionally anomalous) constraints. When I buy a unpasteurised cheese in a farmer’s market I’m taking a certain amount on trust and use my knowledge of the maker – and my senses – to make an informed buying decision. I am not buying a label or a movement but the provenance of the food, after all. In the same spirit natural wines are wines made by bunch of growers who happen to feel the same way about wine. They know what they mean individually what it means to work naturally, but don’t feel it is appropriate to have a binding definition to take account of all the nuances and niceties of their craft.
And, as I’ve said, natural winemakers are not targeting supermarkets, high street stores, competitions or international tastings. As I discovered a lot of growers prefer to sell directly to wine bars rather than wine merchants and, in Paris, you see them in those wine bars pouring their own products. That’s what I call getting close to the consumer.
Natural wine is not a mass movement nor is it a visibly marketed one. It is simply that an expanding group of (mostly young) growers is making wine with minimal interventions and there is a small core of devotees who love the way the wines taste. I think we all need to learn to be less concerned about labels and more interested in what’s in the bottle.
The reaction I get from people who drink natural wine ranges from bemusement, amusement, excitement and adoration. Most acknowledge that these are not run-of-the-mill wines, by which they mean wines that feature in supermarkets or the high street. Most acknowledge that the wines possess strong flavours – reds are said to be earthy, rustic, meaty, wild, whilst whites are cidery, funky, spicy, mineral, challenging, food-friendly.
There has been a pseudo-academic backlash to natural wines which reminds me that a few years ago biodynamics was scornfully dismissed as a shitty philosophy buried in a cow horn and the geomantic ravings of a few eccentrics. Nowadays, so many of the world’s greatest growers are biodynamic, or in conversion, that it is nonsense to call it a fringe philosophy even if you think there are questionable elements. Evidence for the validity of an action is not what we may calibrate in a laboratory but can only be seen and understood in the vineyard itself. We shouldn’t really say that certain agricultural philosophies or winemaking practices are invalid because they have no scientific underpinning. Science is not an exact science; history proves that. Natural wine is a choice, the very simple logic being that the best and truest wine is made with the fewest possible interventions. Each year is the beginning of a journey that will take the vigneron in a different direction; the creativity of nature is like Dante’s Virgil (or Beatrice, if the outcome is heavenly!). The role of the natural winemaker is to reflect what he or she is given and try to guide the wine as truly and simply as possible to the bottle.