Natural Wine: A Tasting
Attempting to discuss a movement that is inherently disparate and whose practitioners defy categorization presents a particular challenge. Complicating matters, the so-called “natural wine” movement finds expression along three non-parallel axes: the environment in which the grapes are grown, the grower/winemaker, and the drinker. Winemakers and drinkers each have their own separate philosophies that influence their perception of what natural wine means and the continuum of wine experience requires that both be considered. The environment where all this radical juice is made is supposed to be the real anchor of the movement – but as any scientist or philosopher would tell you, understanding and classifying the natural world is a process of complexification rather than simplification.
I recently attended an excellent tasting of so-called ‘natural wines’ hosted here in Vancouver. The attendees had various levels of experience with these wines but all were engaged in thinking about them and experiencing them. This openmindedness is precisely what natural wines are all about. But, as we spent the evening discussing and pontificating over – what are natural wines?
To begin, the most important task in understanding natural wine is to debunk the Socratic myth of natural perfection: an ideal form that underlies the possibility of all nature. Any winemaker with the pretense of finding this ideal form of nature through a bottle of wine is not a great representation of what makes the natural wine movement interesting. It is also such an approach that leads easily into dogma.
So, then, how do we broach the subject? One early distinction was that natural wine makers attempted to add nothing to a wine once it entered the cellar (a logical counterpart to movements like organic and biodynamic wine growing). No enzymes, no sulphur, no commercial yeasts, etc. etc. Some proponents have even gone so far to say that no new wood should be used as it imparts its own character that is not part of the ‘natural’ grape. Thus have some producers started using amphorae, which supposedly offer the most neutral fermentation vessel possible, and which allow native yeast colonies to form and live within the pores of the clay.
But to me this prompts a very big question: what is the underlying rationale that draws the line between humans and nature in such an idiosyncratic way? It is obvious that the very process of planting, picking and fermenting grapes is a human process, both conceived of in the human brain and meant to serve human needs and desires. We shape our environment when we plant and grow vines and make wine from their fruits. This process has, of course, become a vast continuum with industrial wine makers using this raw material as a mere base to make a heavily adulterated product that offers consistency at very high volumes. So, perhaps naturalists are those who, at first, eschew this sort of high volume wine making. Natural wines would not be possible at extremely high yields and on vast tracks of land with mammoth fermentation tanks. It is also questionable at what level a human can agriculturally understand a complex diverse natural environment over huge swathes of land – monoculture and a controlled environment become the necessary norms after a certain size.
So, a natural wine requires a smaller more understandable environment, which is in itself a good example of the fact that the best and most emblematic natural wine makers are those who are humble in the face of the land that they work. So, for me, first off natural wines are small scale wines that take the time to understand and respect every detail of what is going on both in the vineyard and in the cellar.
But that, surely, is not enough to explain what is going on here. During the tasting I noted that many had a fairly technical approach to understanding why natural wines were different – the litany of chemical processes that compensate or enhance wine should not be part of a natural wine. But is this entirely true?
Lapierre and Overnoy, two ‘natural wine’ producers in Beaujolais and the Jura respectively, have admitted to chaptilizing their wines on occasion. I’m not sure that vaults them out of the natural wine category. Clearly ‘natural’ is something more than merely technical.
A common refrain amongst naturalists is to do nothing to the grapes that they cannot do themselves. Do not compensate for bad vintages, for incomplete fermentations, for acid imbalance. Let the wines be what they are when they are. But why do nothing, or at least as little as possible? The underlying philosophy here is that doing nothing is (1) more respectful to the environment in which the grapes grow, (2) is a more authentic or complete expression of something that is the product of the earth rather than of human design, and (3) raises the ‘natural’ origins of the product above the hubris of the human ego. This underlying philosophy is a significant reason why natural wines have become more than simply a way of making wine taste good; rather, natural wines have become a rallying point for all those who infuse their wine drinking with at least a semblance of ethics.
To drink natural wine is, to many believers, to drink something that is more ethically pure than the majority of ‘adulterated’ wines on the market. This has been, understandably, a turn off for many who simply either do not want to think of the moral dimensions of what they are drinking or do not think of these dimensions on such stark terms. Recent debates surrounding natural wine in the United States and Europe have pushed this dogmatic and yet quite prevalent association to the side somewhat and have tried to move the debate forward to something more symbiotic. It is this sense of symbiosis that I find most compelling.
It is the most farcical parody of ego-critique to uncritically elevate a reverence for nature over human production. As the environmental movement that began in the 1960’s has shown us, such view points are not only a form of substituting an idealized environment for an overblown and self-righteous ego but are also entirely ineffective at resolving actual issues. The question of our relationship to the environments in which we live (which include social and political as well as natural environments as any good evolutionary theorist would admit) is not a question of ‘letting nature speak for itself’, a mere pipe-dream. Rather, if we really want to question how we relate to our environments, and if we want to bring ethical questions into this questioning, we have to understand the human-environment equation as inextricable even while the elements remain distinct. This is what the most exciting proponents of natural wine are finally figuring out.
There are good natural wines and bad natural wines. You can assess these wines analytically and personally just like any other. The best naturalists don’t just want to make ethical wines, they also want to make good wines. For the best naturalists, making a good wine also means making wine that distinctly expresses aspects of both the grapes and their environment that we otherwise cannot experience. Hence enters the idea of symbiosis – naturalists are trying to create a symbiotic relationship between themselves and the environment in which their grapes are grown and then fermented into wine. It is not a question of dominance – either of man over nature or of nature over man. Rather, it is a question of learning from that which elides our desires to categorize and to essentialize. To me, the best natural wines capture the elusive mystery of the natural world in a way that other wines don’t. They do this by dialing back all of the modern wine making techniques that have proliferated across the world and come to dominate agriculture and wine making and by, in a sense, starting from scratch.
If we do very little to the grapes, then we can see their potential more clearly. It is for this reason, I believe, that most of the best naturalists are actually incredibly empirical. They test and experiment and take risks in order to discover potentials in their grapes that no one else has discovered. It is for this reason I believe that naturalists could end up being the most important forward thinkers in wine: they believe in their subject and they want it to teach them rather than for them to dominate and control it. This is a radical shift away from current wine making practices. Are the results perfect? Not at all. But they are almost always interesting and the best are constantly progressing and learning with each vintage. This is why we can’t define natural wines: they have not yet defined themselves.
Some Natural Wines
Here are some brief notes on some of the wines that we drank over the evening. All these producers are making wines with very minimal intervention in the cellar, and all with indigenous yeasts.
Rkatsiteli Kakheti 2008: The only orange wine of the night (white wine with extended skin contact). It would have been nice to compare this with some other orange wines, but this at least was an example of the style. I found it overly aggressive and tannic with pretty much no fruit left and plenty of volatile acidity. This is not true of all orange wines, which can be quite finessed at times.
Movia Puro 2002: I brought this bottle of undisgorged sparkling from Slovenia’s Movia. A blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Ribolla Giala, this wine was remarkably fresh. I’m not quite sure technically why Movia wants this wine to sit on its yeast until drinking, but it was surprisingly less yeasty on the palate than I expected. I also thought the wine was outstanding.
Catherine and Andre Breton Les Perrieres 1997: 1997 and 2002 are both outstanding vintages for the Loire, and this Breton was holding up remarkably well. Unlike some of the other wines, this was varietally pure and classically Cabernet Franc from the Loire. Some vegetal elements here with some cooler berry fruits. You might not guess this is a ‘natural wine’ when drinking due to an absence of the faults you can often find in natural wines. The Bretons also use almost no sulpher, which makes the freshness of this 14 year old wine even more impressive.
Clos Rougeard 2002: This is pretty outstanding stuff and it lives up to the name. There is plenty of garden vegetables here and I found the wine to be a pretty much perfect expression of Cab Franc.
Gravner Rosso 1994: Gravner now ferments in amphora, and was, from what I can tell, the first modern european wine maker to use the amphora fermentation technique, which he discovered in Georgia. While this wine is from his pre-amphora days, I was extremely surprised at its expressivity, particularly given the age. Again, this was varietally correct and aromatically outstanding. Another beacon for natural wine making.
Frank Cornellisen Munjebel 6: This did not show as well as it did when I had it in New York a few months ago. I found the wine to be somewhat overly aggressive and I could not detect the varietal characteristics of the Nerello Mascalese grapes from which this was made. It was still a pleasure to drink and offered an amalgam of lightness and tannin that is pretty darn uncommon. Amphora fermented.
Dettori Tenores 2005: I had this the night before, and it showed better then. However, this is still really impressive wine. The 16% ABV does not show at all and I think the Grenache characteristics come through nicely in the wine. The wine at the tasting made me wonder about serious bottle variability, however, as the balsamic notes were a bit aggressive in the nose and overall the wine was less balanced and pretty than Friday’s bottle.
We also tasted some New World wines that I wouldn’t classify as natural, but are pushing towards it in some ways. We had a Pinot Blanc and a Riesling from Pyramid Valley Vineyards of New Zealand. The PB was a bit green, but the riesling showed nicely and is atypical for New Zealand, with some nice florality and a hint of residual sugar. The most interesting New World wine was the Cameron Clos Electrique white, which was made from cuttings from Corton. It tasted a hell of a lot like a good burgundy and was quite impressive – though again I wouldn’t put this winemaker in the naturalist camp.
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