Day 27: Natural Wine, Natural Pie #2

Wolfgang Weber and Jon Bonné are both San Francisco wine writers, with Wine&Spirits and the San Francisco Chronicle respectively. They are also wine bloggers (Spume and The Cellarist) as well as friends. Here they teamed like Steven Seagal and Jean Claude van Damme in that movie i imagined was made (just with less ponytails and kicking and more pizza and wine) for a two day post. Enjoy!
Like the Rockettes of Natural Wine
Jon: Dough in hand and toppings ready, we assembled our lineup of wines. The selection in this case was a bit of “what goes with pizza?” with quite a lot of “what do we feel like drinking?” — which in almost all cases, trumps whatever other pairing logic might present itself.

Mostly, it was just a series of wines we had in our collections or went out to buy, having found them delicious before. We wanted whites, reds, sparkling and even a rosé, in this case a Beaujolais rosé, endorsed by our pals at Terroir.

Wolfgang: We also realized that between the wine and 8 or so dough balls, we would need some additional mouths to feed (thanks again for coming Cory!). So we met up at my place last week, prepped dough and various toppings – and tucked into a feast.


And this wouldn’t be a 31 Days post without a few wines mentioned, so here’s what we settled on.

Jon’s Group

2006 Francois Pinon Non-Dosé Vouvray Brut (Importer: Louis/Dressner

There are natural wines you adhere to out of virtue or hipness, and there are wines you simply find yourself loving over and over again. Francois Pinon’s wines are like that for me. Pinon is a former child psychologist who has chosen the limestone and flint soils of Vouvray as his muse. His slightly sweet Vouvrays are eloquent, but my obsession is with his sparkling wine, notably his undosed vintage Brut, which also has the benefit of a label so mod it makes me want to put on Serge Gainsbourg, plus the coolest cork cap ever [link:, akin to gawking at a Brueghel on shrooms. I asked Pinon about the cap last time he was in town. He was either feigning ignorance or was in no mood to divulge its origins.

This is all Chenin Blanc, vintage dated and made with a presumed austerity and without most of the usual yeasty tinkering. But as always, Pinon sneaks Chenin’s phantom sweetness in amid the frothy austerity. Gorgeous, eloquent and utterly without artifice, it’s a pure sparkling expression of mineral intensity. We paired a magnum of Pinon’s 2004 with gefilte fish for Passover; rarely have I found a more harmonious match. Though the 2006 with a mushroom and arugula pizza certainly stepped to the plate.

2001 Luc Massy Sous Les Rocs Saint-Saphorin (Importer: Robert Chadderdon)
First, yes, it’s Swiss. In this case from the commune of Saint-Saphorin in the Lavaux district, situated in the canton (state) of Vaud between the towns of Lausanne and Montreux, along the northeast banks of Lake Geneva. These stepped sandstone vineyards are among the most picturesque in the world, with climate moderate by the lake influence. The grape here is Chasselas, relegated to third-class status most anywhere in the world except Switzerland, where its unremarkably fruit traits channel extraordinary mineral definition. The vintner is Luc Massy, whose family has farmed the slopes near the town of Epesses for over a century.

In truth, Saint-Saphorin is not his most profound wine, or even a Grand Cru in the admittedly esoteric Swiss ranking system. (His Epesses and Dezaley Chemin de Fer are the heavy hitters.) But it retains a freshness — the 2004 is particularly snappy and precise right now — that speaks to the potential of Chasselas in the marginal growing conditions of the Vaud. There’s admittedly little information about Massy’s winemaking, but they are firm traditionalists and the wines are unmarred by evident intervention.

In this case, the 2001 — even when decanted — was just slightly underperfoming. Notably waxy with almond notes, and a distinct mineral overtone, the Chasselas seemed to have matured a touch fast, especially since its otherwise neutral nature finds depth at five or more years. Was there a bit of botrytis this year? It seemed to be doing a Chenin impression, and given how spectacular the Massy wines are, we were puzzled. Still, its curious fecund nature made a happy pair with the mushrooms.

2004 Heinrich Mayr Nusserhof Riserva Sudtirol Lagrein (Importer: Louis/Dressner) Mayr’s estate in the town of Bolzano, in Alto Adige, dates back to at least 1788. The Mayr wines are always a rarity — from six certified organic acres surrounded by a wall — but a worthy one. The Nusserhof ought to be a benchmark for Lagrein. It opens raucously, with a shot of violet and forest debris, and then brings in black pepper and brooding berry notes. This is the advanced-level course in Lagrein, no barrique or fussing to temper it for timid palates. If Lagrein is more at home with game meat, it certainly comes to a pizza party willing to play. If only we’d decanted it earlier in the day.

2000 Marcel Deiss Gruenspiel Alsace (Importer: New Castle Imports)
What is it about Deiss that seems to irk natural wine folk? Is it the price? The acceptance in the mainstream world? Some strange Alsace animosity? I adore Jean-Michel Deiss’ wines, not only for the quality but notably for Deiss’ overt commitment to terroir. His “vins de terroir” receive only their vineyard name, intended to reflect the soils, site and specific blend for each location. Gruenspiel, a south-facing amphitheater in the town of Bergheim, is planted to Riesling, Pinot Noir (vinified white) and Gewurztraminer.

Even at nine years old, this specimen was still too young, slightly dominated by the gloss and sugar of the Gewurztraminer. Opulent citrus and spice notes kept returning, the sort of thing that begged for seafood, but if some other Deiss wines might peak at a decade (the eloquent Engelgarten, for instance) the Gruenspiel still needed time to dry out and firm up.

That said, we put it with our sourdough take on a flammekuche, the traditional Alsatian onion tart, and the Gruenspiel found itself a happy corner in which to hang, rolling its eyes at all the Italians.

Wolfgang’s Group

I’m often at a loss trying to explain natural wines to people who might not otherwise pay attention to debates over style in the wine world. And really, most people don’t care. They just want something that tastes good. Happily, save for some extreme cases, naturally made wines are often the most approachable available.

So beyond farming practices and a non-interventionist philosophy in the cellar, there’s a lose definition, or understanding, that I keep coming back to: wines of modesty, showing a transparency of flavor that feels honest. Those traits make for delicious and nourishing wine.

Pierre-Marie Chermette 2008 Beaujolais Rosé ‘Les Griottes’ Rosé (Importer: Weygandt-Metzler)
I picked this up after trying it at Terroir last week for the whopping price of around $16. Rosé how I like it, without a lot of fruit sweetness, a balance of wild strawberries with orange zest and a zippy, minerally finish. Long and delicious, it was a lovely foil to several pizzas that night, especially the one topped with goat cheese. Pierre-Marie Chermette makes some of my favorite Beaujolais – look for the Cuvee Traditionelle Vieilles Vignes (very drinkable) or their Fleurie (more complex, needs some time) – but I hadn’t had their rosé before. Delightful, and the best pink wine I’ve had all year.

Olivier Cousin 2006 Pur Breton Anjou (Importer: Jenny & Francois Selections)
Here’s a truly funky wine. There’s a little troglodyte on the label riding an anchor Dr. Strangelove style and maybe that tells you something right there. This needed time to come together; with air it balanced savory, earthy character with ripe raspberry flavor. It felt silky and long (the texture was glorious in fact), and the tannins felt like fruit-skin and stem tannin more than anything else. Well-structured and fairly complex – ultimately rewarding if you’re willing to be patient with that funkiness. Or if that’s you’re thing, then bring it. Olivier Cousin’s vineyards are certified biodynamic by Demeter and he doesn’t add sulfur, sugar, etc. A lot of the Jenny & Francois wines aren’t available on the West Coast (hopefully this will change), but this is worth tracking down. I picked it up in New York.

Bartolo Mascarello 2006 Dolcetto d’Alba (Importer: Robert Chadderdon Selections)
Absolutely lovely. I’m biased with this producer, already infatuated with the Barolo. But Mascarello’s Barbera and Dolcetto are both wines to look for. This ’06 Dolcetto, a portion of which is grown in the Monrobiolo, a cru just east of the commune of Barolo, home to the Mascarello cellar is silky and fine, with a depth and clarity of flavor that’s stunning. Classy stuff.

Bartolo Mascarello (well, now his daughter, Maria Teresa) would have described himself as a traditionalist rather than a natural wine producer. Still, the wines conform to a type espoused by the naturalistas and in fact Mascarello is one of the founding members of Vini Veri, a group of Italian winemakers working with natural viticulture and methods.

Conclusions, such as we can make them.

On the pizza:

Jon: Since we didn’t make side-by-side pizzas from the dough, rather alternating them, it’s impossible to know exactly how the dough terroir unfolded. I found a bit more crispness and lightness in the Hayes Valley dough, though the Pac Heights dough had a crusty sourdough density that was enjoyable, if more like pain levain than pizza dough.

Because we both had some issues with seeding and yeasting the dough, I’d frankly want another experiment before I’m convinced — which is why I have another starter sitting on my counter already (and taking its sweet damn time to rise). I’d also like a better control on temperature, since our usually 62-degree kitchen seems a touch cold to create a warm, happy dough rise.

Wolfgang: While tending the starter, then the mother and then setting aside the several hours needed to make the dough (and let it rest), I felt like suddenly I had a pet – or rather, countless microbial yeasty pets – looking after it, feeding it and hoping for the best possible results pretty much commanded my attention during this whole process. I would catch myself at odd hours wondering how my dough was doing at that moment. Had it kicked off yet? Was it healthy?

Jon: The science of wine fermentation is obviously much more complex, since an ambient yeast fermentation is hardly the “using the vineyard yeast found on the grapes” claptrap that’s sometimes advanced. It’s an unpredictable combination of the Saccharomyces cerevisiae found on the grapes and stems, the indigenous yeasts in the winery and fermenter, whatever’s in the air, on the truck that brought the grapes, the bin that carried them and so on. One argument from proponents of a closed estate system — you make the wine where you grow the grapes — is that the yeasts are somewhat more localized.

Perhaps the best lesson from the pizza half came each time I opened the fridge door and stared at the jar of Red Star that usually begins my dough-making process. On a good day, with a teaspoon of cultivated commercial yeast, I can have pizza dough in two hours, certainly overnight. When trying to coax the apparently stubborn yeasts of my apartment, even a week wasn’t quite sufficient — and suddenly I understood why bakers refresh their dough mothers routinely and keep them well fed. Crucial lesson learned: Never disregard your mother.

I also realized how strong the temptation must be for winemakers to eye their own jars of Red Star, especially when fermentation is slogging along or grinding to a halt. Even natural winemakers have means to game the system — old fermented lees, early-harvest verjus and so on. The commitment to ambient yeasts means placing your trust in one of nature’s more unruly and uncontrollable processes, and in a wine world increasingly leaning toward logic and science, that’s a bold step to take.

On the wines:

On balance, our collection was perhaps a bit less esoteric than it might have been, certainly by the standards of some of Cory’s other contributors. (That said, Jon did bring some remnants of Frank Cornelissen wines from Etna he had been tasting, just in case we needed a multiple on the geek factor.)

Part of this was deliberate. As we said yesterday, fetishization seems to go hand in hand with natural wines, but what will help best evangelize for natural winemaking is for regular wine drinkers to realize that some bottles they already love, and find on their local store shelves, are being made this way. Some are admittedly obscure — you have to be pretty committed to drink Beaujolais Rosé though honestly everyone should be — but wines like those from Deiss or Mascarello make their own case for greatness without brandishing natural credentials.

One way to interpret that? Devoted winemakers are increasingly choosing methods like ambient yeast fermentations or biodynamics because they’re committed to improving their wines, not because there’s a current marketing cachet. And that’s why it was heartening to see how few of these wines were marked with anything that gave away their natural cred – not that there’s anything wrong with a Demeter or certified organic icon on the label, but when it’s not there, it allows the wine to speak on its own terms, without a presumption of virtue.

Which circles back to our original theme. Wine – especially naturally made, modest wines – always works better in context. And if we could use context as an excuse to make a lot of pizza, what’s not to like?

Follow day by day here:


Up next: An interview with Mike Dashe; or: Mike Mike, Mike Dashe

REMEMBER: Terroir tommorow @ 7 until close! Come meet me and hopefully some contributors! Buy and drink some good wine! Tide yourself over with Co-Blogger & Floor Model DJ Chris Osborn’s latest Mix HERE! Exclamation!

~ by Cory Cartwright on July 17, 2009.

10 Responses to “Day 27: Natural Wine, Natural Pie #2”

  1. […] (and challenges) of ambient yeasts through pizza dough and wine. Part I is here and Part II is here. And you can follow the progress of all 31 Days […]

  2. Jon and Wolfgang,
    Thanks so much for inviting us to share you pizza and wine. We had a really great time, and it was so interesting to see the difference in the batches of dough. I’m excited to try this myself to see what kind of dough San Jose yeast will make.

    I also wanted to mention that the lagrein is one of my favorite wines. I was going to do a post on it for the series, but Cory ended up needed my spot for someone else (to my great relief) so I’m really glad it got written up anyway.
    -Emily (Ms. Saignee)

  3. perhaps wines from Deiss irk people because they do not taste good consistently. maybe he looks over the shoulder of Joly.

    • many folks i would put Deiss in comparison with. Joly not being one of them. the wines can be strident and quixotic, but not nearly so many peaks and valleys.

  4. to be honest, i have not touched deiss wines in ages after an abysmal tasing at the winery. perhaps he has improved.

  5. 04 Deiss Mambourg a mindblower, crisp, mineral and ethereal.

  6. You have the pizza and wine pairing conundrum entirely new heights! great post(s)…

  7. Nice. I miss that Lagrein around these parts, as well as the “Tyroldego.” I shall enjoy it vicariously.

  8. great post guys. the mascarello dolcetto is a super glass of wine. love it. I like your point about not being overtly “natural” yet espousing everything that natural stands for. Now that’s style.

  9. […] […]

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