Natural Wine: Dog’s bollocks or the King’s new clothes?

Natural Wine Tasting at Fallon & Byrne, Dublin  by Le Caveau

My first encounter with what has come to be called ‘natural wine’ came some five or six years ago during the Salon de Vins de Loire at Angers. That week I was staying at the Chateau des Vaults, as a guest of Evelyne de Pontbriand, proprietor of the first-rate Savennieres winery, Domaine du Closel. Also staying at the chateau was a young Belgian journalist. One evening, before dinner, he brought from his room seven or eight wines, an assortment of red and white, saying “I would like you to try these. It is the wine of the future.” After such a flourish of trumpets, how could I refuse. Twirling a glass of cloudy liquid before taking a generous swig, your man pronounced “One day all wine will taste like this”. Nervously, I took a second mouthful which only served to confirm my initial opinion -that the wine was spoiled, acetic and wholly vile. As were most of its cohorts. There was not one wine in the batch that I’d consider ‘of merchantable quality’, as the old legal phrase goes.

Since then things have moved on. Wines of this kind, made from hand-picked grapes,with minimum intervention in the winery, using ‘wild’ i.e. naturally present yeasts rather than bought-in cultivars have proliferated. Their proponents have coined a term – ‘natural wine’ to describe the product. Principally, they believe that wine today is too mucked-about with, too processed for its own good. They prefer to let nature take its course and if nature hasn’t bestowed the right amount of acidity or tannin or sugar in the grape then we have to put up with what we have. Natural wine makers are against the addition of tartaric acid, powdered tannin or grape concentrate, the tools of the hyper-commercial wineries. These guys are looking to make wine with a ‘sense of place’, wine that reflects its terroir – the soil, the aspect, the micro-climate in which the grapes are grown – one hundred per cent. The wine is to be made without using pesticides, fungicides, weedkillers or other synthetic chemicals or fertilisers. The addition of dollops of sulphur dioxide as a preservative is as much anathema as is trucking in grapes from other locations to balance the blend. The land is farmed at least organically, probably biodynamically, although the certification that accompanies these methodologies is often lacking. The credo of minimum intervention, zero manipulation and low or zero use of sulphur dioxide (which asthma sufferers will find a blessing) is carried over into the winery. It’s both a ‘nowt taken out’ and ‘nowt put in’ philosophy.

Other beliefs have attached themselves to the movement. First and foremost is a quest among producers to make wines that are lower in alcohol than the brands they aim to supplant. Reds are often in the 12-12.5% range, a backtrack to the clarets and burgundies of 30 years ago.

Sceptics might find natural wine a soft target. Firstly, there’s the name. To call a wine made with this methodology ‘natural’ stigmatizes wines which are not so made as ‘unnatural’. Which is fundamentally unfair to a host of good winemakers all over the world who believe that to make the best possible wine nature must be given a little help. The lack of a defined standard is, for me, a major handicap. It’s maybe significant that great winemakers like Olivier Humbrecht in Alsace, Chapoutier on The Rhone and Vanya Cullen in Margaret River, WA have been doing the biodynamic/minimum intervention thing for years yet they and others have thus far declined to add their weight and influence to the ‘natural’ movement. Then there’s the variable quality; a recent tasting in Dublin revealed that while there are some decent and enjoyable natural wines there are also real bummers, some cloudy, others acetic, still others exhibiting funky farmyard flavours most critics would consider a winemaking fault (although some do have a surprising (to me) tolerance of, even liking for, brettanomyces. To be fair, there are wines of variable quality at most tastings, natural or no. But proponents of the ‘unnatural’ stuff will at least agree that a wine is oxidized or bretty, they won’t shrug the shoulders and utter a De Niroesque ‘this is how it is because this is how it is”. The arrogance of some natural wine adherents is simply staggering. On more than a few occasions I’ve been presented with a glass of murky liquid having more in common with scrumpy than with conventional wine and told “This is great”. Yeah, right.

Yet the market for ‘natural’ is growing. English wine merchant Les Caves de Pyrene stocks a wide range, approaching 400 wines at the last count. The company is also a major investor in two London ‘natural’ wine bars and were instrumental in setting up the first Natural Wine Fair in London earlier this year. Many British wine writers were first intrigued, then impressed and some have now nailed their colors to the mast.

Me, I’m still sitting on the fence even though the barbed wire of naturalism is prickling my arse. So far and yes, I know I should have been at the London extravaganza, I simply haven’t tasted enough natural wines of the merchantable kind, nor have I come across a single example that’s really wowed me. And my love of certain well-fettled wines by talented and honest winemakers with the appliance of science at their fingertips has not one whit diminished.

Last week’s Dublin tutored tasting was hosted by specialist wine merchants Le Caveau and presented by Les Caves de Pyrene’s Dario Poddana, an eloquent spokesman for the cause.

The wines

N.V Prosecco di Valdobbiadene. DOC Casa Coste Piane. €17.95 Lively stuff with a crisp, clean nose and on the palate a good weight of fruit – crisp green apples and citrus, with hints of walnut. Tasty. 14.5/20

‘La Dilettante’ AC Vouvray Sec 2010, Pierre et Catherine Breton €18.50 Tasty, clean, classy wine with 100% typicity to grape and region. A gem. 16/20

A.C. Montlouis ‘Minerale +’2010, Frantz Saumon €18.95. Impressive pear, heather and thyme nose fades to reveal bright fruit with a mineral tang. For me this wine was let down by its finish – unpleasant dark notes I could only describe as ‘coal mine’. 13/20

Cotes du Rhone AOP Blanc ‘Les Clos des Grillons’ 2010 €18.65 Wildly aromatic honey and herbal nose leads you to believe this wine will be more substantial but it feels thinner than a 14.5% white from Rhone grapes should. Somewhat rescued by the spicy climax at the back end. 13.5/20

AC Morgon, Cote du Py, Jean Follard 2009 €27.50 Enjoyable, pristine expression of Gamay with lively cherry flavours with a hint of russet apple. Smart kit. 15/20

Touraine AC Cot (Malbec) ‘In Cot We Trust’, Thierry Puzelat, 2008 €19.60 Enjoyed by a couple of other people, I found this wine acidic, unbalanced, beery on the palate and on the nose just too funky. Sad. 10/20

DO Ribiera Sacra, ‘Pezar do Rei’ Cachin/Dieguez 2009 €18.25 ‘Pezar do Rei’ means ‘The Royal Plot’ and this was regal wine. Smart red with lovely weight of cherry and cranberry fruit and a refreshing minerality, the sort of wine I could drink all night and then some. 15.5/20

Gran Cerdo Tempranillo Vino de Mesa 2009. €12.50 With a spot-on fruit acid balance, this easygoing and enjoyable red was bang on the money for the modest ask. Decent wine. 13.5/20

Rosso di Montalcino DOC Az.Ag, Pian dell’Orino di Caroline Pobitzer 2008 €29.95 This, apparently, has something of a reputation which, for me at least it didn’t live up to. Weird, curiously reductive nose fades and rises up as pure ‘farmyard’. Atypical, it didn’t even hint at ‘origin’. And didn’t drink like a €30 wine. 11/20

Sicilia IGT, ‘Vino di Anna’, Anna Martens, 2009. €19.95. It’s been said that the Nerello Mascalese grape can taste like aged Pinot Noir and though I haven’t had much experience with NM, the guy who said it wasn’t wrong! Balanced, rustic without being in any way rough, with endearing strawberry, raspberry and morello cherry flavours, I really liked it. So characterful and at the same time well made, it’s what ‘natural wine’ should be all about. 16/20

Mendoza DO Malbec ‘No Sulphites Added’ Familia Cecchin 2008. €17.55 The other side of the coin. I can’t help but think the addition of even a microscopic amount of sulphur would help stabilise this wine. It’s an extreme style – funky, earthy and, for me, thin, acidic and hard to love. 9/20

Summary: King’s new clothes or the dingo’s danglers? Maybe a bit of both. The “this is how all wine will taste in the future” gang are wrong, I hope. Otherwise I’ll be glugging craft beer with my coq au vin. Unlikely too. Give a panel of punters the choice of the above Montalcino or, say, a bottle of decent conventional Chianti Classico that cost the same money I’ve no doubt as to which wine would win the vote. On the other hand there’s no denying that the better-made natural wines do offer a lively, absorbing and very different drinking experience. And if the claimed alternative really is a world full of plastic tasting ‘industrial’ wines evincing no subtlety nor sense of their origins then the presence of the ‘natural wine movement’ will be essential to redress the balance.

I look forward to gaining more familiarity.

Postscript: If the topic interests you I’d recommend two books: Authentic Wine: Toward Natural and Sustainable Winemaking by British scientist/wine writer Jaime Goode and New Zealand-born consulting winemaker and Master of Wine Sam Harrop; Naked Wine – Letting Grapes Do What Comes Naturally by  US wine writer Alice Feiring.  The first is a serious treatise, but by no means dull; the second, more a travelogue with thoughts, observations and discussions with wine makers who espouse the ‘natural’ cause of which Feiring is an adherent..

These natural wines and others available from Le Caveau, Market Yard Kilkenny, Co. Kilkenny 056 775 2166 or via the website http://www.lecaveau.ie