Natural whine week

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Tis been a loony tunes few weeks in the world of vin nature, featuring a slew of lycanthropic articles that one surely associates with the presence of the full moon. It being a super moon the lunar utterances have been amplified into full throttle howling and breast-beating.

You have to laugh and remember that most of these guys have form for these kinds of diatribes. And well-written polemics or humorous takes on a subject can add to the gaiety of nations, but, alas, the quality of discourse is rarely elevated and often downright shabby.

All tasters are equal; some tasters are more equal than others….

However authoritative and oracular one may believe one’s pronouncements on wine to be, they are invariably warped by one’s palate and highly partial views of the world of wine. So, when The World of Fine Wine conducted its first natural wine tasting earlier this year, the variance of the marks given to each wine was naturally disproportionately wide since those who enjoyed and understood the wines tasted good things, whilst those with a preconceived dislike for natural wines pretty well damned them all equally with little discrimination. This latter view may be boiled down to the following attitude: “I don’t get it, and because I don’t get it, ergo it must be bad. By extension, those who profess to like these wines are doing so not because the wine is delicious or good per se, but because they have decided to “like” them for purely ideological reasons”. This quasi-intellectual refutation is arrant nonsense, but the only position to adopt, whereby if you call my palate, I will call yours back – in spades. What is shocking perhaps, is that people can sit around the same table and drink wine (or listen to music or read a book) and then come away from the experience with such radically different perspectives.  One individual’s notion of fluidity, harmony and deliciousness is truly another’s incoherence, atonality and unpleasantness.

So where might the yea-sayers and the dissenters agree? Certainly, we may find common ground on some general principles and approaches. We might both applaud the positive philosophical rationale behind natural wine– the one-farm mentality, the chemical-free approach in vineyard, the search for purity of flavour in wine, the desire not to extract, the interpretation of the vintage and the vineyard; viewing wine as something drinkable: nourishing, wholesome, digestible, pleasurable, food-friendly and not too heady; then there is the qualitative side – the singular style of mutating, energetic, ageworthy (sometimes), mineral and naked wines with a defined spine. We’re for this as you are for motherhood and apple pie. So we admire the wines for many different reasons. Our admiration does not mean suspending our critical and aesthetic faculties; we are not in thrall to some strange kalopsia. More importantly, we also love the wines because they taste so delicious – in our humble opinion.

Love Wine in the time of Choleric Criticism

This is what the contras don’t get. They teasingly caricature drinkers of low-intervention wines as self-flagellators forcing down the brown murky fluid with beatific grins as if consuming some kind of vinous equivalent of cod liver oil (it’s good for you, you know!) Yet the more people who independently drink and like the wines the more fatally undermined is the cherished world wine-view which seems to revolve around describing a sectarian feud between sane & rational Houyhnhnms on the one hand, and nature-worshipping Yahoos on the other. The advocates of good natural wine would love to have a fraction of the influence that their “opponents” (inverted commas denoting “heavy irony”) credit them with, but the reality is that so-called consumers of wine will make up their own minds what they wish to drink rather than be gulled by the preferences of the odd writer or sommelier.

VITICULTURE-VIN
Here’s a vignette, however, to show that people will come to the wines of their accord. We took some customers to the Loire on a recent wine trip – and happened to visit some of the soi-disant doyens of natural wine. The customers, who themselves had no preconceptions about wines, tasted and drank – and came to their own conclusions. No-one tried to coerce them, nor did they even know that they were tasting so-called natural wines. Every wine must speak according to its merits. And whenever we visit vignerons we try to understand what they do, and why, rather than label them, for each of them brings something unique to the wines they make. Thus we may understand that winemaking is a trade and a craft not an idea or a political stance.  Add to this the evidence in the glass and the evidence is irresistible if you like the wines and proves nothing if you don’t! In the real world (the world of the wine drinker) people have real reactions to real wines. In other words, their assessment of what’s in their glass is a synthesis of perceived merit and personal taste, a common-sense approach seemingly shunned by the “all-natural-wine-is-bretty-aldehydey-vinegar” brigade.

Critical articles – factitious hand-wringing pieces bemoan “the grand deception” perpetuated by a weird coven of fundamentalists who apparently have effectively brainwashed hundreds of thousands of drinkers in their solemn quest to enforce everyone to drink dreadful cider. This misses the point by several parasangs. Perish the thought anyway that I might not care for additives in my wine and that I might prefer the taste of a less-manipulated wine. Indeed I came to natural wines because they seemed to describe new, vivid shapes in my mouth and possessed an indefinable raw energy that made me smile.  It’s always the taste that draws me to the wines and elicits my particular reaction, the same wonderful sensation of puzzled discovery and joyful surprise that repeatedly struck our “ingénue” customers who accompanied us to the Loire.

None of this matters to a certain commentariat that polices the social media and appears to live vicariously through wine theology, quibbling about semantics, positing eternal wine verities and arguing ad nauseam about relativist issues. Of course it is fun to stir the pot, but in the end you can only speak for yourself and not for the public nor the profession. And why should they have all the fun?

Crude adversarialism results in a further unwarranted critique, opposing a world of “natural adherents” (winemakers, sommeliers and critics) against one where people lean towards conventional wines. Which is to ignore the vast subtlety of wine, the spectrum of styles and diverse winemaking strategies. You don’t have to be part of a movement that does not exist, as it were, to make a pretty natural wine. In the end the critics, rather than celebrating the wines they like, feel they have to go to war on the wines they think they don’t like. A few years ago one major wine merchant memorably devoted the introduction to their wine catalogue to an attack on natural wine. Did this betray a lack of faith in the taste of their customers or a lack of confidence in their wines, or was it simply tactical sales propaganda – who knows? The tribalism is the invention of narrow conventional minds who can’t conceive that you can speak up for certain ideas without derogating others. You may love to drink natural wines, but you don’t believe that conventional winemakers are bad or wrong. You understand that there are different wines for different people.

“Crude classifications and false generalizations are the curse of organized life.” ~ George Bernard Shaw

As defenders of the old faith comfortable with their doctrinal inevitabilism, the contras certainly believe that they are on the side of the good-taste angels. They repeat the mantra (or words to this effect): “As any fule know cider is cider and wine is wine and ne’er the twain shall meet”. And, because it is aberrant, all natural wine, by nature, must taste like cider. Alternatively, because all natural wine tastes like cider then it must be aberrant. Never mind the quality of the argument feel the wide chasm of the logic. Positing that a multitude of low-intervention approaches to wine production will inevitably result in a single perceived outcome (which you then call a fault) is critical lazy-fare. What is perhaps most peculiar is the way that the arguers will arrogate to themselves the irrefutable justness of their case, and do so with those sweeping generalisations as if the very logic of their assertions exists on a higher plane of human reasoning.

Other commentators surf on contrarianism as though the very existential idea of natural wine (as a concept, rather than a reality) gives them a critical raisin d’être. The pro/con natural wine debate (whatever that may entail) keeps on giving, of course, and, by fanning the embers of the argumentative fire these commentators perpetuate the argument – at least for themselves. Two years ago one leading wine writer penned the obituary for natural wine and unequivocally predicted that no-one would even be talking about this baffling phenomenon in twelve months’ time (despite wishing for more natural wines the year before). It will have shuffled off its mortal coil; it will have ceased to be. Such exequies are precisely the kind of boost these wines need.

Michel Chapoutier
Michel Chapoutier

It is easy to believe that legends like Bettane, Chapoutier et al are actually sleeper agents for the natural wine movement, nourishing it with the oxygen of publicity when required, since their hyperbolic animus arouses the interest of so many people who become curious about what might be prompting these effusions. And once the consumers discovers for themselves that these despicable natural wines are not completely evil and nasty, but are often rather tasty, then in future they may take the observations of the aforementioned critics with a healthy handful of salt.

Text and textuality…

Back on terra firma we are talking about real wine (i.e. something that is crafted) by real people i.e. working for themselves not for companies or on behalf of supermarkets, to be drunk by real people (not mythical consumers, nor to garner journalistic imprimatur). It sounds so simple (it is so simple), but there’s many a semantic slip twixt grape and lip that confounds those who write about wine. One of the main problems here is the limitation of language itself. As Jonathan Swift recognised terminology is divisive and wars have been fought on interpretation of words. Even wine is not immune from this “super-textualisation,” and philosophers-manqué and bureaucrats revel in disputing the legislative ownership of a word such as “natural”. If you change the word do you change the idea or ideas behind the word? No, naturally.

Absolutist definitions of natural wine are thus the dogmas that never barked in the night and founder on a series of erroneous assumptions. One fallacy widely promulgated is that low-intervention winemaking is tantamount to malign neglect. A second fallacy is the assumption that without the shield of sulphur wines must always fall apart. The use or otherwise of sulphur, however, is like anything else, a matter of degree. The third fallacy is that natural wines, by definition, oxidise/maderise quickly. And yet one may drink many oxidative wines that keep on improving with exposure to air.

A Risk Profession

Furthermore, one should also be wary of criticising artisan growers because of the way they have chosen to make wine. They are risking their livelihoods and reputations; of course, they want to make wine rather than vinegar or wine rather than dogma! Some work in a highly particular way (see my article on oxidative winemaking) which may to be to the tastes of some and not others. Most natural winemakers have a good idea of what they are looking for and know if and when they achieve it but understand that the wine can move in unpredictable directions. Uncertainty is part of achieving singularity, for nature does not replicate the identical growing-and-harvesting conditions year on year, and thus the challenges are inevitably unique. Natural winemakers embrace this.

Maker’s mark

But natural wines do not have to be extreme per se. Winemaking, if it is not following a precise recipe, involves dozens of physical choices. Every wine is consequently the outcome of the aggregate of those choices. As a result there is a wide spectrum of natural wine styles from clean-cut wines that you could introduce to your maiden aunt to uber-funky numbers that are only to be shared with those of a less sensitive disposition. Such is life. Working with little-to-no-intervention is not a recipe for strangeness – by accompanying the wine throughout the process, by constant tasting and assessment, the vigneron will guide the wine in a particular direction, a form of gentle control that is not dependent chemical manipulation.

Over the years, the quality of natural wines has improved. Some critics seem oblivious to this fact – they are not up-to-date with the new growers and the different wines, they obviously don’t taste vintage to vintage, they don’t call in samples, they don’t interrogate the growers and ask questions, they don’t visit the vineyards and winery, they are not immersed in the local culture and they tend to disregard the wine fairs. Profligate with their assertions they do not seek the evidence to justify them. Where’s the engagement, let alone the understanding required to even qualify to judge the wines? Highly partial views are dangerous for a further reason; it seems some of the most ardent critics of natural winemaking have unwittingly drunk and enjoyed many bottles of low/no sulphur wine in their lives, but apparently the real experiences did not serve to undermine their one-size-fits-all doctrine. Do as I say, not drink as I drink.

I am privy to hundreds of fiche techniques sent by our growers and I am always intrigued by the fact that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to winemaking. Some growers filter some cuvees and not others, some add a little sulphur at bottling to one wine, but not another. There may be shorter or longer macerations, different types of fermentation vessel, malo may happen or not.  One wine may be made in an oxidative style, another anaerobically. Natural winemaking is naturally evolving, suiting the grapes and the quality of the juice – as reason dictates. As one grower observed to me: “Each wine has its own unique rhythm.” The knowledge that such technical information provides helps one to understand why the wines are the way they are.

The politicisation of wine

Spraying vineyard

If there is a politicisation and consequent polarisation of wine then it stems from the misguided and often absurd bureaucratic laws that will, for example, allow a farmer to spray round-up and other toxic chemicals onto the vines and into soil yet would prosecute a grower over planting a peach tree. The natural wine grower often comes into conflict with brutish authority. That grower may believe that he or she is upholding tradition, cultural values, defending the land against exploitation and producing a nourishing product but is constantly being thwarted by those they might expect to support their endeavours. If their local organisations won’t support their endeavours, then the cavistes, merchants, importers, wine bars and restaurants surely will, because there will always be thirsty audience for hand-crafted unpretentious wine

There is an appetite for change identified by Jonathan Nossiter:

“What these vignaioli have accomplished in the space of a decade is truly remarkable. While other artistic and artisanal activities -auteur cinema, literature, activist journalism, architecture inter alia, are in a precipitous decline in terms of both influence and invention, in the world of wine this disparate group of rebels has created a legitimate renaissance. They’ve awakened a growing understanding of wine as a vector of historical memory, as a progressive expression of cultural identity, as an agent of good health and joy at the table and as a beacon in the fight to reinstil (biological) life into the land. And, most improbably, they’re carving out a rapidly expanding niche in the sacred marketplace, both in Italy and abroad, with importers from Brazil to Japan now seeking out exclusively natural wines.”

As he goes on to say this is not a monolithic ideological engagement but a constantly evolving, often internally dissenting reaction to a world in danger. “To dare: that is the whole secret of revolutions” wrote Antoine Saint-Just. Natural wine rose without trace. Now its green shoots have burst forth it apparently presents a clear and present danger to… whom or what? The general population? The mythical consumer on the Clapham Omnibus? Or the increasingly morally bankrupt establishment?

The future of natural wine

Natural growers defend the autochthon – indigenous grape varieties, old vines planted on the best terroirs and original methods of making wine with minimal enhancing technology. They want to know why things work rather than short-circuiting the process with a chemical fix. They are progressive, intelligent and inquisitive rather than dogmatic and conservative. They feel the need to spread their wings and take creative risks. They ask questions of themselves and their wines, rather than slavishly following the oenologist’s recipe. As one grower said: “There’s so much we don’t know about winemaking; I just want to keep on trying different things every year.” Such humility is almost never present in those who castigate these very winemakers.

And so we return to our barrage of carping articles about natural wine. As Mr Bennet from Pride and Prejudice might have animadverted: “They have delighted us long enough with their exhortations. And no doubt they will continue to delight us.” None of this matters really and you can view all the contentiousness in an oddly positive light in that the natural wine debate exposes pretention and snobbery and self-evidently gets people talking about wine and questioning what they are drinking. The growers will do what they do, the wines are what they are, and people will drink them if that’s what they like to drink. On a personal note I have been incredibly fortunate to have tasted and drunk more gorgeous wines this year than ever, joyous, life-affirming numbers that made me want to write effusively about each and every one of them. I have drunk a few wines that seemed to be greater than the sum of the juice and the winemaking and had assumed a life of their own. Wines that embiggen the soul. Now from the sublime to the ridiculous. That bloomin’ word, natural. Could we/should we do without or dilute it in such a way that it may only cause offence in homeopathic quantities? No. Why should we deny the naysayers their fun?

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. michael christian

    I like this sentence you wrote, “Natural winemaking is naturally evolving, suiting the grapes and the quality of the juice – as reason dictates. ” It suggests an important truth — that winemaking should adapt to the available grapes, not bully them into a corner where they are “supposed” to be. I think this is true whether or not the winemaker fancies himself or herself a natural winemaker. However, low-intervention winemakers tend to take this adaptability further, out of necessity. We try to harvest when grapes are healthy and tasty, not when they have X Brix or Y pH. Vintage variation can be pretty extreme. Therefore, at harvest and during fermentation we may make some big, last-minute choices. Red or rosé? Still or sparkling? Blend or not? Adaptability is the quality that puts the vineyard and the vintage in the glass.

  2. Doug

    Thanks for the comment, Michael. Very much agree – if wine is made to a precise recipe it cannot take account of the natural variability of the vintage and the grapes from that vintage. Therein lies the uniqueness of the wine which is very much part of what we might the call the terroir element.

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