Natural Wine may be an idea, but it’s a good one
The Caveman Speaks
By Bill Zacharkiw
I had a few friends over for dinner when one of my buddies started to grill me about my love for Beaujolais. These aren’t wine connoisseurs, rather folks who just to love to eat and drink. I went on about the greatness of good Bojo but tasting is believing, so I went down to my cellar and brought up a 2006 Moulin à Vent from one of my favourite wine makers, Yvon Métras.
I poured everyone a glass. The bouquet hovered somewhere in between geranium leaves, beet juice and bacon. “This is weird,” was the first comment offered up.
I told everyone to chill out, swirl their glass a bit, and as the wine opened up, the fruit started to show itself, alongside an intense minerality. The initial aromatic weirdness drifted into the background and each sip seemed to offer up some variation on the theme. The wine was at times challenging, but after the bottle was emptied, the consensus was that while strange, this was one of the more memorable wines they had drunk.
I wonder if I wasn’t there, how many people would have got past that first sniff. “Are all Beaujolais like this?” I was asked. My response, “Well, not exactly.”
Métras makes what is loosely defined as “natural wine.” While organics and biodynamics are concerned primarily with the way that grapes are grown, “natural wine” is all about the wine making. Influenced by French wine maker Jules Chauvet in the 1970’s, proponents of this approach believe that the wine maker should intervene as little as possible when making their wines. In a perfect world, that would mean harvesting and crushing the grapes, allowing them to ferment with indigenous yeasts, ageing the wine in whatever vessel the wine maker chooses, and then putting it in bottle with as little sulfites as possible, or preferably, none at all.
This is the image that the wine industry wants the consumer to have about winemaking. The reality is that modern day winemakers have an arsenal of tools at their disposal to make their wines. Some of these are relatively innocuous and are considered as much a part of making wine as crushing grapes. Cultured yeasts are used to do such things as boost aromatics and finish ferments of high alcohol wines. Sulfur Dioxide and sterile filtration stabilize the wine by removing any lingering bacteria. Tartaric acid is added to adjust over-ripe grapes, as is powdered tannin. Sugar is used to raise alcohol levels (chapitalization), or simply sweeten the wine.
But there are many others which are even more intrusive. Enzymes are added during fermentation to do everything from help clarify the wine to boosting aromatics. Water is used to dilute over concentrated juice, woodchips and oils are employed to flavour the wine. Gum arabic adds texture. Products like Mega Purple colour, flavour and alter the texture of the wine. I could go on and on. And this is not even going into more mechanical interventions such as reverse osmosis (used to concentrate wines), de-alcoholizing machines, and micro-oxydation (adding oxygen during fermentation to soften tannins).
And these interventions are not limited to inexpensive bulk wines. Reverse Osmosis and micro-oxydation machines are rampant all over Bordeaux. In California, Ridge’s Paul Draper has spoken out against all the monkeying around with high end wines in California, and has voluntarily added ingredients on his wine’s back labels.
While many believe that wine has never been better, I’m not one of them. I taste a minimum 100 wines a week, have done so for years, and while my chief complaint would be that I find a standardized taste and texture, which bores the hell out of me, some are in fact so incongruent that they are bad.
This is what has led me to my love for more “natural” wines. Now there are probably more critics of these wines than there are proponents. Most revolve around the “I’ve tasted natural wines and they are shit.” Fine, but bad wines are everywhere.
I have drunk hundreds of such bottles over the years, and different bottles of the same winemaker and from the same vintage can vary, at times quite a lot. While a small percentage have definitely taken the wrong fork in the road, especially those without added SO2, the vast majority have what I look for in a wine: complexity, drinkability and while difficult to translate, a certain energy. These wines just feel alive.
The other criticism is that unlike organics, there are no rules, no certification, no real definition as to what is a natural wine. The latest criticism I read was by Tom Wark on his blog Fermentations, where he once again decried the lack of a definition as to what is “natural wine.” You can read the post here.
Wark made one very interesting observation: that “natural wine” is an idea, and not a thing. And in that he is dead-on, even though he sees this as a negative. What is wrong with an idea, especially in the context of how the bulk of wines are being made today? More and more people are gravitating towards natural wines, and I believe it is because they want less standardization, less additives, and a truer sense of place and time.
Disregarding those natural wines that are poorly made, and they do exist, logic says to me that by not manipulating the juice, and by using the yeasts that are there, will offer up a truer picture of the vineyards and the vintage. Of course this means that good grape growing becomes even more important, but that’s another issue.
This flies in the face of the philosophy of the modern wine industry, which often places more importance on reducing the variations from vintage to vintage than showing them. Consumers, the industry believes, want a consistent taste from one bottle to the next. They might be right.
But not me. I understand that wine is a business, and the approach that natural wine makers take cannot be copied by large-scale wineries. There is too much risk. Too much money involved. But the aim should be to translate the uniqueness of each growing site into the eventual wine. I could care less if the wine is faultless. If only more took to heart the spirit of Chauvet’s disciples: as natural as possible.
So what to drink? If you have a wine bar near you that specializes in these wines, go and try them. And if you are looking for a few wines to try at home, here are some wines where the winemakers do it right. (Contact the Agent listed if you are having trouble finding these wines in your province.)
From Greece, this wine has mentioned a number of times by myself and my fellow critics. Thymiopoulos does makes non-sulphured wines, but they all go to Paris. But try his Jeunes Vignes, in Quebec, we are lucky to have it at the SAQ.
One of my favourite wines I have tasted over the last 2 years is COS’ 2010 Cerasuolo. Beaujolais-cru like in texture and fruit. Simply delicious.
No discussion about natural wine is complete without mentioning the name of Marcel Lapierre. While he has passed on, his son Mathieu has taken the reigns and is making wine in a way which honours his dad. While best known for his Morgon, his Vin de Pays Raisins Gaulois Gamay is equally fresh and delicious. Keep this at 14C and enjoy!
On a similar track as the Vieille Julienne is Château Trolliet Lafite’s 2009 Côtes De Bergerac. It’s the Bordeaux varieties but with a southern rusticity. Interesting, flavourful and eminently drinkable.
Like cabernet franc? Try Chateau Yvonne’s La Folie, The more evocative and delicate side of the grape that drinks well on its own, yet still shows enough muscle for the table. Try it with chicken brochettes and tatziki!
For readers from British Columbia, my colleague Treve Ring has suggested these natural beauties that are available in your province: Try Domaine Baudry Les Grezeaux 2010 or Christophe Pacalet Chiroubles 2011.
Until next time.
“There’s enjoyment to be had of a glass of wine without making it a fetish.” – Frank Prial
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