The 1000th Blog (give or take) and doing it our way
For what is a man, what has he got?
If not himself then he has naught
Not to say the things that he truly feels
And not the words of someone who kneels
Let the record shows I took all the blows and did it my way
Prodigious amount of guff is still written about natural wine – some considered pieces, many less so – detailing the good, the not as ugly as you think, and the pretty awful. It is a subject that divides because there is a perception that one has to take a side or adopt a fixed position in an ongoing argument. A lot of assertions about the culture of natural wine are punted without evidence. Without understanding the history of wine and how farming and winemaking have evolved over time, you cannot hope to pass qualified judgment on the present, let alone imagine how the future might turn out.
In this extended piece, adding to the guff, I will be weaving my original bullet-pointed ideas (in a different order to previously) from an alternative natural wine manifesto first published in the early 2000s (I forget when exactly) – and cut with some later revisions – into a discursive essay touching on the history and culture of natural wine, the controversies that these wines engendered over the years, how the genre is currently perceived in the market, and finally, on a personal note, detailing the pleasure and otherwise I have derived from writing far too many blogs about the subject. To adapt the words of the legendary boxing MC, Michael Buffer: “Let’s get ready to ramble!”
(By the way, the bold font denotes the original manifesto statement followed by the argument, and the italics are comments interpolated ten years later).
1. Start from the following simple premise: to borrow from Gertrude Stein, the wine is the wine is the wine and the grower is the grower, and the vintage is the vintage etc. It is not about “this is good” and “that’s better”. There is no uncritical freemasonry of natural wine aficionados, and its devotees will happily diss a faulty wine if it deserves it. As in any profession there are heroes and villains. Heroes can become villains. Whomsoever is up, whomsoever is down, we treat the wine for what it is, from where it comes from and who was the person or people behind it and most of all what it says to us.
This largely still holds true, although there are some growers and certain iconic wines that who have an aura about them and apparently invite unquestioning loyalty and love for the wines. While many consumers are recognising the point where flaws tip into faults, there are some drinkers (fans) who will smell and taste no evil as far as their favourite grower is concerned. Perhaps, this reflects a propensity to look solely at the image of the grower or valuing the label as if it were a commodity rather than a wine qua wine. Perhaps, it reflects also that we are investing more in the person than the wine and, loving the one, are more able to forgive the quirks and faults in the other.
Not all critics of natty wine go as doolally as the following complaint, but there are plenty of hecklers in the profession whose immoderate ventings keep the argumentative juices flowing!
“What passes for wine among us, is not the juice of the grape. It is an adulterous mixture, brewed up of nauseous ingredients, by dunces, who are bunglers in the art of poison-making; and yet we, and our forefathers, are and have been poisoned by this cursed drench, without taste or flavour—The only genuine and wholesome beveridge in England, is London porter, and Dorchester table-beer; but as for your ale and your gin, your cyder and your perry, and all the trashy family of made wines, I detest them as infernal compositions, contrived for the destruction of the human species.” Tobias Smollett – Humphrey Clinker
Today, I read another wine magazine article making the hackneyed crack to the effect that natural wines tend to smell of cow manure, are cloudy and unappetising, and always taste like cider. It’s funny how criticism of natural wine distils everything down the emissions from a cow’s backside! Or, as I euphemistically used to say, when nosing a liquid boiling with brett, it reminds one of the countryside. While the accusation might approximate to the truth about some wines, it is totally wide of the mark about others. The fixation that a certain style is just wrong per se and utterly anathema to gastronomic enjoyment, betrays very little comprehension of the process that brings these very wines into being, the flavour range that they possess (they are rarely one-note wines), the energy they possess, and the pleasure they provide. We could debate until the end of time whether a barely-varnished wine or one that has been racked, filtered, fined and sulphured to polish the product to a level of commercial acceptability will exhibit greater terroir character. The arguments will churn on, and since taste is the ultimate arbiter, they will not be resolved.
For several years, the wine trade scene roiled with grandstanding contrariness – straw man fallacies, false dichotomies and more than a fair few ad hominem attacks. Ayatollah, fundamentalist, extremist and Cathar Prefect were some terms used to describe me back in the day. The Old Testament days, I guess. I used to joke that certain sensitive souls had google alerts set to respond to the juxtaposition of the words natural and wine. Mighty carillons chimed. Thus, did natural wine cause uncontrolled “wild fermentation” ‘mongst certain overly sensitive-souled bloggers. Meanwhile, a notable wine merchant most notably wrote an introduction to their wine catalogue excoriating natural wines and the natural wine phenomenon, whereas another, a director of one of the largest wine companies, and a guest speaker at the first Real Wine Fair, commented that he felt like Daniel in the lion’s den. Talk about putting the biblical in bib! Yes, natural wine had created a Manichean universe!
Natural wine vignerons diverged from the mainstream wine industry in order to reclaim farming and winemaking from its reliance on chemicals and oenological adjustments. Working in a low-intervention manner, these vignerons will certainly align themselves with certain principles, but are not stuck in the same narrow ideological trench, unable or unwilling to venture out.
The net effect of all this disingenuous huffing and puffing was to make natural wine an issue that everyone in the trade and beyond had to have an opinion on, thereby kindling the embers that were warming this hot potato. If I wished to provoke further controversy, then I simply countered illogical statements. Opinions derived from generalisations rather than a deeper knowledge of the subject would, by definition, never be changed. A little learning closes all portals to open minds.
15. Natural wines – they all taste the same, don’t they? D’oh! Of course, they do, there isn’t a scintilla of difference between these bacterially infected wines which are all made to an identical formula of undrinkability; they are totally without nuance, subtlety, complexity, and those who drink, enjoy, and appreciate natural wines evidently had their taste buds removed at a very young age with sandpaper. This canard is one dead duck.
It is still a cliché bandied about by sceptics of the style, that all natural wines taste like… cider or barnyard… or vinegar. This suggests that some critics are intoxicated by generalisation, never actually taste the wines, or try one or two and believe they are qualified to pass judgment on many thousands of wines from hundreds upon hundreds of vignerons.
16. Doesn’t the process of natural winemaking mask terroir though? Terroir is in the mouth of the beholder, perhaps, but the clarity, freshness, and linear quality of natural wines, supported by acidity, makes them excellent vehicles for terroir expression. But bad winemaking, be it in the conventional or natural idiom, always masks terroir. In the final mix, if the wine has a distinctive accent that is not obscured by process, then something of that precious terroir signature has been preserved.
Within the spectrum of natural wines, there are styles that are much more about instant gratification than the expression of terroir. These are known as glouglou or soif wines, usually the result of carbonic maceration and short elevage. Some might say that the process of skin- contact in making orange wines inhibits terroir character. This is nonsense, and the opposite is more likely to be the case. Nor does oxidative winemaking obscure terroir; it just shows it in a different context. Making wine is a process of transformation. Whether the final product exhibits the quality of terroir is down to whether the vigneron is able through time, patience and watchfulness, and gentle handling, to capture the unique signature of grape and place.
I am not a fundamentalist in these matters and very wary of generalising about the incredible diversity of styles of wine, be they natural or conventional. Natural wine is often caricatured by its critics (and there are still many) as wines that not only suffer from a variety of faults, they are defined by them. Natural wines are bretty. Natural wines have VA. Natural wines have an aldehyde character. Natural wines are mousey. For want of a milligram of added sulphites, a kingdom of taste was lost.
Wine has been made for thousands of years. Commercial wines made with lab-cultured yeasts only date back to the mid-1960s. The oenological armoury: 100+ corrective chemical additives and procedures taking place in purpose-built industrial type wineries with huge stainless vats and temperature control equipment, is a comparatively recent phenomenon in the overall history of winemaking. Corrective winemaking is based on the view that wine exists to be sold. Its function as stable commercial product entails that it has to reach a minimum quality standard, rather different to the notion that wine is made to be drunk and confer pleasure.
Technology is a wonderful enabler when used in the right way and when reliance upon it does not become a substitute for judgement (or taste). In football, for example, the use of VAR seems to have paralysed referees, who have become terrified of making mistakes on what we might term “judgment calls.” Technology in wineries has inevitably led to more recipe or palliative winemaking and instilled a mentality of “failure-avoidance.” And if you can massage fermentations and correct a wine’s deficiencies at any point in the process, then you don’t need to trust that the quality of the grapes will do the job. Technology will take care of everything and the numbers will always stack up. Straitjacketed approaches lead to straightjacketed outcomes.
Natural wine vignerons diverged from the mainstream wine industry in order to reclaim farming and winemaking from its reliance on chemicals and oenological adjustments. Working in a low-intervention manner, these vignerons will certainly align themselves with certain principles, but are not stuck in the same narrow ideological trench, unable or unwilling to venture out. Many natural vignerons are progressive; they seek to improve and refine their farming and winemaking, they learn from their mistakes, they understand the process more each time they make the wine. The most astute ones are aware they need to be eternally vigilant when making wine without the safety net of “corrective” additives. The idea that natural vignerons are unthinking members of a zero-at-all-costs cult is simply inaccurate.
3. But wouldn’t it be a heck of a lot easier for consumers if there was a manifesto detailing what winemakers are supposed to do and not to do?
What conceivable difference would that make? Take several hundred individuals and ask them if they agree on every single point of viticulture and vinification. See what I mean. Rules is for fools. There are enough guidelines for natural winemakers to be getting on with and if they work within the spirit of minimal intervention, they may be said to be natural, even though this is a relative term.
Although the original idea of natural wine was about championing diversity and prizing singularity over homogeneity and standardisation, there is an understandable desire to impose standards on vignerons to make good practice doubly assure. However, bureaucracy being made up of fallible human beings, and the element of policing and officiousness that dominates in any organisation, inevitably means growers will fall out over small matters.
This propensity to fall out over devilish details has caused several bifurcations in the natural wine movements. Or splits, and splits of splits. Reminiscent of the opposing positions of factions in the nation of Lilliput in Gulliver’s Travels (1726). “It is allowed on all hands, that the primitive way of breaking eggs before we eat them, was upon the larger end: but his present Majesty’s grandfather, while he was a boy, going to eat an egg, and breaking it according to the ancient practice, happened to cut one of his fingers. Whereupon the Emperor his father published an edict, commanding all his subjects, upon great penalties, to break the smaller end of their eggs.” Yes, the natural wine fraternity can get hot and bothered about the proportion of new oak, temperature control methods, and, of course, grams of sulphites added.
4. How can you claim the moral high ground for natural wines if you won’t submit to scrutiny? We’re not claiming any high ground; in fact, we prefer rootling in the earth around the vines getting our snouts grubby; we’re simply positing an alternative way of making wines that doesn’t involve chucking in loads of additives or stripping out naturally occurring flavours. Working the land in an environmentally sustainable must be a (morally) positive activity. Yes, this is largely self-policed – there are no certificates to apply for or accreditation bodies to satisfy*. Praise be.
*And now there are. There is accreditation for natural winemaking from Triple A to Vin Nature, and all the charters and manifestoes issued by wine fairs across the world. There is broad agreement as to what constitutes a natural wine, but there are many small areas of disagreement. And that’s perhaps as it should be.
And so, natural wines. Call them natural, or real, or raw, or low-intervention. No need for the war of the words, frenzied arguments about etymology and nomenclature. Natural wines have their origins in farming practices that respect nature, and are made without chemicals and with the aim of denaturing the grapes as little as possible, would be my umpteenth attempt at a pithy definition. Making wine from grapes is a transformation, but it is the nature and quality of the transformation that matters.
Definitions are always beset by the problem of nomenclature at one end, the defining of the terms that you are using to define the terms, and by our sense of like/dislike at the other as a result of the intellectual baggage that we always carry with us.
If I use the words “natural” and “wine” in polite company, I will elicit reactions across the spectrum, based on previous encounters or, more likely, what people have read or heard. There is no substitute for experience and this involves tasting with an open mind and an open heart and as much feeling as we can muster, talking to farmers and winemakers and experts, in short, understanding context. My definition is always broad and unencumbered by too much precise detail. For me, it is a question of degree – human judgement and intuition, the role of the vigneron(ne) being not someone who makes the wine, but rather accompanies, oversees and occasionally guides the transformation of the wine from grape to bottle sans chemical additions or superimposing interventions, the overall objective being not to denature, not to correct, not to try to improve, not to remove nor strip out essential flavours. It is a fine line, of course, and preventative measures are occasionally necessary so that the wine does not become faulty or fall prey to bacterial spoilage. A natural vigneron is never a laissez-faire one, rather one who is both vigilant in the vineyard and the cellar, constantly in touch with the vines, always tasting and making the best non-chemical decisions on behalf of each and every tank and barrel of wine.
And so to the second part of our quasi-definition. A natural wine is not about the numbers; it is about the feel of the wine itself, and the feeling it engenders in you when you taste it. When you taste these wines, you tend not to taste technique nor think about the thought processes behind the thousand decisions that make up the wines, or analyse their component elements, those building blocks that have been bolted together in the winery. You experience the wine as a “fluid whole”. When I experience great natural wines, here are the senses that are evoked:
- Sense that the wine is free. Free from the corsetry of stylised winemaking that can place wine into a restrictive framework. Free from the disjunctive tropes of winemaking, wherein more and more interventions make the wine less and less of itself. Somehow a liberated wine demands to be respected on its terms; through its energy it reaches out to us and does want to be shaped by our expectations of what any wine should be like.
- Sense of fluidity from an incisive liquid that arcs across the tongue and moves throughout the mouth ricocheting across all parts of the palate.
- Sense of mutability in that a natural wine can be one living thing – or something completely different, and may be continuously changing and developing through the natural processes of reduction and oxidation, becoming now open, now closed. Natural wine is protean, never one-bottle one-flavour, but lots of different glasses, each with their unique aroma and flavour.
- Sense of wabi-sabi: the natural imperfections in which we discover real beauty. Natural wines that have edges and angles, irregularities and beautiful flaws, rather than being “faultily faultless” and “icily regular”.
- Sense of transparency – that you can perceive of all the levels and layers of the wine at once, as if you can perceive the heart (and spirit) of the whole wine itself.
- Sense of terroir and minerality deriving from the quality of grapes from beautifully-farmed vines that have delved deep to scoop out nourishing minerals. That these signature qualities are preserved by low-intervention winemaking rather than being disguised by oenological intervention.
- Sense of amplitude and texture from the material of the grapes themselves, the ambient ferment, the malolactic and the maturation of the wine on its lees. All these combining to give the wine the wherewithal for structure and completeness.
- Sense of energy, the almost indefinable impression of vibrancy and vitality in a natural wine, making it a living entity with a singular identity.
When natty wine aficionados get together, they don’t (surprisingly) incinerate the hide of a deer, daub their faces with raw grape juice and don the hair shirt of zero-compromise. They tend to talk about the properties that make a wine beautiful and delicious to drink, the ineffability of a particular wine. We often use words like energy, vitality, elemental and pure. We specifically reference drinkability and we love development and mutability. The wine that changes in the glass, is a wine that lives. For us, conventional wines, no matter how skilfully manufactured, lack this ineffable quality to those whose palates have been reconfigured (for want of a better word) by drinking naturally-made wines. For all their pitch-note perfection (maybe), cleanness of fruit, and structural architecture, even very well-made conventional wines can pall, with many of the character traits that make them more supposedly consumer-friendly, being obtrusive, be it their extraction, new oak superimposition, and most of all, lashings of sulphur. This is not, of course, to argue absolutely against the addition of sulphur to wine. Quality over quantity any time. It is, after all, a most necessary tool in the box. It is just that I have tasted so many wines dulled, even burnt, by its unnecessarily high addition. A similar sensation may be found in wines that undergo strip filtration; stripping the wine is exactly what happens. What makes a wine real is the tiny flaws, the floating bits, the movement of aromas and flavours. As per above, “faultily faultless, icily regular” wines are (splendidly) null. That’s my opinion, backed by a Tennyson quote, not a statement of fact!
We may celebrate what we enjoy consuming, without having to diss what we would not drink. And what I enjoy is always taken on its merits, which is to say, a particular nourishing naturally-made wine drunk at a particular special moment. Whilst I find the low-intervention genre more rewarding, I would never assert unequivocally that all the wines made this way are for all the best in the best of all possible worlds.
Our perceptions are the end of the wine’s journey. So much depends on us and how we react towards wine and the criteria for our judgements. The constituents of the wine – the material, as I call it, are one element in the equation. Professional tasters will tend to view wine as a product to be assessed for faults and evaluated for its qualitative credentials. In this tasting environment, all wines are thus required to fit the preconceived notion of what is good. But our protean natural wines don’t easily slip into this kind of categorisation. Amateur tasters may also feel uncomfortable with flavours and textures that are not on the “approved spectrum.” When I doing a tasting, people will often observe “this wine reminds me of cider”, or “it smells like my local bakery”. Wine is naturally evocative; there is an overarching idea that wine should smell and taste of specific things – certain signature flowers and fruits. In other words, wine needs to appeal to our desire to recognise and compartmentalise it. Yet wine has the capacity to unlock the almost unlimited potential of our imagination, and natural wines, by their very warp and weft, will remind us of something totally different to clean and techno-cultured wines. The important thing is to keep the keys to those doors of vivid perception handy!
To be continued…