Day 12: Fear and Loathing in the Natural Wine Revolution
Robert Camuto has been an award winning author and journalist for some 25 years, and has written for just about everybody at some time or another. His book, Corkscrewed: Adventures in the new French Wine Country is a fantastic snapshot of what is going in with a small band of like minded French vignerons. It is an unpretentious journey written by a man who stands apart from the know-it-alls and hacks that dominate wine writing (nobody here of course, excepting myself).
Sticking my nose into the natural wine world these days, I’m getting a big whiff of essence of dogma, aromas of Parker-esque certitude and attitudinal notes of ….Could that be arrogance?
It was bound to happen. Natural wines are now trendy, and like all fashion they are developing a cadre of self-appointed police with about as much flexibility and appreciation for nuance as the Iranian Governing Council.
I am not a wine critic, but a writer intensely interested in wine and the people who persist in making beautiful and honest things from the land in the 21st century. When I moved to France at the beginning of this decade I fell in love with the freewheeling diversity of so many good small production wines emerging from so many places. (Cotes-du-marmandais anyone?) The term vins naturels didn’t come with orthodoxy– just the understanding that the vigneron respected the environment and limited the use of technology in the winery. This is France, after all, where pleasure comes first and religion is way down the list.
But in the last few years since natural wine scene has made the leap to U.S., the line has hardened. It’s not enough just to enjoy the wine anymore. There is more pressure to define, limit, and label them, to designate stars and turn them into some sort of alternative lifestyle brand presided over by their very own Mullahs.
How did it happen? It seems we Americans can’t help it. We’ve been so marketed to, we HAVE TO define ourselves by the stuff we consume. Of course, today’s electronic shorthand doesn’t help. You’re not going to get much nuance in a Twitter tweet.
I’ll state the obvious: The move to natural winemaking was not started by bloggers. It began among winemakers with the shift to quality wines a couple of decades ago – and was aided by some passionate importers and retailers. It was a reaction to lots of things: decades of terroir–killing industrial viticulture, European policies that favored quantity over quality, and a glut of international style wines.
To me wine at its highest level is an expression of terroir, nourishment, omnivorous pleasure, experimentation and something scarce in the nnanh-nnanhing classes: humility. Here are some of the misconceptions and buzzwords abused by the more shrill ranks of the Revolutionary Guard.
As in wine should not be manipulated. Of course winemaking should be kept simple. But wine itself is a manipulation that started with the selection of grapes, grafting, etc. The natural product of grapes is… vinegar.
A perfect example is malolactic fermentation. This natural secondary fermentation which converts malic acid to softer lactic acid was never really understood until the modern era. It is now considered essential for reds but not necessarily whites or rosés. In high acid areas like Burgundy it’s great in whites. But in the low-acid south—allowing m.f. to happen makes for flabby, dumb whites. Even natural winemakers “manip” low-acid whites (with sterile filtering or sulfur) to block m.f.
As in all tech is bad. Yes, wine should be made of grapes, and not an OZ-ified, reverse-osmosified cola. BUT most of southern Europe would not produce fine wines without one very significant technology: refrigeration. Temperature control allows for fermentation and maturation of wines while preserving flavors and aromas. I live in Provence and I drink rosé in summer: made and served thanks to refrigeration. Speaking of which, last time I looked, most city dwellers kept their wines alive—especially unsulfured ones—with that same technology.
As in anything else is bad. Organic and Biodynamic farming are not only good for the planet but make fantastic wines that express and even scream terroir. But rigid labels and certifications? To what end? If a winegrower uses environmental methods, why should he spend the time and money to get a stamp of approval? In my experience, the best winemakers are those who follow their own conscience and instincts—not administrative regulations or bodies like the USDA.
A sticky example: There are some meticulous sustainable wine producers who in the midst of a severe once-in-a-decade mildew outbreak, prefer to use a
little (non-organic) antibiotic to using a lot of (organic) sulfur which kills insect and bacterial life in the soil.
As in the sulfites monster. Sulfur in some form has been used for thousands of years as a preservative and is present in all wines as a product of fermentation. Sulfur dioxide should not be overused—but only bad winemakers do that anyway. No-added-sulfur wines can be beautiful and they can also be unstable. To make no-added sulfur an orthodoxy is ridiculous.
As in “all wines were better” before modern winemaking. Excuse me but how many great Italian wines were there really in 1960? In 1980? Natural whiners wrap themselves in the traditions of Burgundy—a place that’s had a great wine tradition for most of a millennium. Being a traditionalist in Burgundy is–as one old-grizzled Texas editor of mine would have said—“easy, like being a liberal in Greenwich Village.” Refined wines—the kind that stretch the vocabulary of wine writers—simply did not exist in most of Europe.
As in “You say you want a…” There is a misconception going around that not long ago everyone made wines by adding phony yeasts. Simply not true. This is simply not true. Good winemakers never added yeast. In fact, Emile Peynaud (1912-2004), the enologist considered the father of modern winemaking, wrote of creating the conditions for the natural yeasts to do their thing.
As in, THE DEVIL . I am not a fan of Robert Parker’s approach on many levels. It’s true the man has championed some bombastic “Parkerized” wines and given high marks to some crappy ones. But give the devil his due: Parker was lauding natural wines long before the term made it to America. In the 90s the Wine Advocate gave outstanding marks to the likes of Marcel LaPierre, Dom. Leon Barral, Dom. Richeaume and Coulée de Serrant. Personally I don’t care what Robert Parker writes. But to take the position that if Parker likes it, it sucks, or to say that the world needs saving from Parker’s opinions is, frankly, more than just a stretch of the truth.
Why am I writing this? I love un-pimped wines that reflect their place and vintage, and I don’t want to see them limited to a ghetto of Parisian Bobos (bohemian bourgeois) and international hipsters. Going fundamentalist will only turn off the next generation and push them towards the next thing. Like martinis.
(Note: Robert wants to know if anyone can guess the wine above. I do as well because he hasn’t told me yet.)
Follow day by day here: http://saignee.wordpress.com/31-days-of-natural-wine/
saignée note: Hey you, buy Robert Camuto’s book: http://www.amazon.com/Corkscrewed-Adventures-French-Country-Table/dp/0803276354 (and not a used copy)
Next Up: Slaton on Carema; or Did somebody say bees?