Day 2: Nothing Natural About It
“Natural wine” is something of a misnomer. Wine is, after all, an act of humankind.
It’s true that wine occurs naturally. Aleš Kristančič once explained to me how when a grape falls from the vine, it is a natural winemaking vessel: the hole at the top of the berry (where the stem has broken away) is a natural valve that allows yeast on the skin to enter the berry and begin turning the sugar into alcohol.
Wine was a gift from the gods (think Bacchus), or a gift of G-d (think Noah), or an accident (think mother Natura), depending on how you look at it: the magic of grape juice being turned into wine was probably discovered by someone who forgot some grapes in an amphora, only to open the vessel later and find that they had been turned into wine (the original carbonic maceration). But the moment that someone employed this stumbled-upon technology (tehnê, meaning art or craft) a second time, it became an act of humankind.
Winemakers like Aleš and Gianpiero Bea of Paolo Bea will tell you how they allow nature to make their wine. But even the minimalist of the minimal intervention winemakers still must intervene in the natural process.
After all, winemaking is a gesture — an action, an event — of human design. And after all, wine is made for human consumption.
Winemaking is also an inherently ideological act and while there are many winemakers — mostly French and Italian — who boast of their natural winemaking techniques (natural techniques is something of an oxymoron, isn’t it?), there are also winemakers who produce “natural wine” by virtue of the fact that their winemaking ideology naturally jives with those consciously engaged in natural winemaking.
Produttori del Barbaresco is such a producer. When you ask its winemaker, Aldo Vacca, how he knows when alcoholic fermentation has been completed in his wines, he tells you “I know it’s done when it stops boiling,” in other words, when the wine settles and stops bubbling in the cement vats he uses for fermentation. I’ve never asked Aldo if he considers himself a natural winemaker. I don’t think he does: he simply makes wine the way it has been made in Barbaresco as long as he can remember (memory is so important here, but that will have to wait for another post).
I first tasted Dora Forsoni and Patrizia Castiglioni’s Vino Nobile di Montepulciano in Los Angeles and when I traveled to Tuscany last year I was determined to taste with them. I called them and they graciously invited me to their cellar where we munched on fresh young pecorino, table grapes, and boar salame (Dora’s an avid huntress), chain-smoked Marlboro reds (well, I had one and Dora chain-smoked), and tasted through a glorious flight of their Rosso di Montepulciano, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Riserva. When I asked Dora (whose family has owned the vineyards in Sanguineto, a frazione of Montepulciano, for two generations) how she learned to make wine, she responded simply, “I just make it the way my father did”: estate-grown Prugnolo Gentile (Sangiovese Grosso) and smaller amounts of Mammolo and Canaiolo are vinified separately in varnish-lined cement vats and then aged in large old oak casks (botti) lined with a crosta of tartrates. At one point, as we toured and barrel-tasted in the above-ground cellar, Dora tasted the 2007 Prugnolo Gentile, turned to Patrizia, and said, with her thick Tuscan accent, ma la vuol far finita ‘sto vino con la malolactica? (Is this wine ever gonna finish its malolactic [fermentation]?) Dora and Patrizia simply grow grapes and let them turn into wines that are stinky and beautiful, with classic red fruit flavors and balanced tannin, and beautiful color and rich mouthfeel imparted by the Mammolo. People often dismiss Vino Nobile as a “flabby” expression of Sangiovese (Thank you very much, Messer Parker) but when you taste wines like Dora and Patrizia’s, you find tannic structure that marries gorgeously — like these two ladies — with the fruit and acidity.
The table grapes, Dora said, were planted by her father “because we were too poor to afford fruit” and she wasn’t kidding.
Patrizia and Dora don’t present their wines at Vini Veri. They present in the Vino Nobile Consortium tasting at Vinitaly. They don’t consider their wine “natural wine.” They just call it “wine.” In the end, as I found when I tasted with them, “natural wine” is as much about people as it is about nature.
Follow day by day here: http://saignee.wordpress.com/31-days-of-natural-wine/
Next up: The author travels to Lebanon; or: The author travels to the Lebanon of the mind.