Day 31: A Natural Wine Romance
Joe Dressner is an owner of Louis/Dressner Selections, an importing company based in New York. He is partners with Kevin McKenna and Denyse Louis. It is through the efforts of folks like him and the vignerons he has doggedly stuck by that we are able to drink great wine.
A Natural Wine Romance
Jean-Paul Brun’s 1991 Beaujolais à l’Ancienne was one of the most beautiful wines of my lifetime. I drank it in February of 1992 while it was in the red concrete vat on the left side of Jean-Paul’s sub cellar vat room, all the way in the back.
I had tasted through God knows how many wines that day and this was the last wine a vigneron was going to pull out of a barrel, steel or concrete vat. What a sublime beauty it was….1991 was a great year and I had in my hand a Gamay from limestone which could not be reproduced elsewhere, which was the perfect convergence of soil, grape, field work, vigneron and vinification.
It had urgency, freshness and a liveliness that was almost hypnotic. I could have stayed all night sipping from the vat in the cold of winter. The wine was en masse and I feared it would never reach the same level when forced into a bottle.
There is nothing more unnatural than trying to compress a vineyard and year’s work into a 750 milliliter container. One of our first vignerons used to say that if you wanted to make a great pot au feu you didn’t make it for one person. You got out an enormous pot and let it bubble and simmer for as many family members and friends you could gather around a table.
Brun’s wine was not politically correct or politically incorrect. It was simply delicious. The bottled form was good but could not match my experience in the cellar.
There has been great improvement in natural vineyard work since the early 1990s. Some vineyards will take years, if not decades, to come back to natural form after years of chemical soaking and abusive treatment. This is particularly true in richer and “prestigious” regions where potassium and pesticides were bought and spread extravagantly in the 60s and 70s. Poorer regions often did not have the budget to indulge.
In these poorer regions of “small appellations” the improvements starting in the early 1990s had been enormous. The raw materials became more precise and more expressive as vignerons moved to low yields, organic work and hand harvesting. But the results were often lost when the finished wine was forced into bottle by mobile truckers and heavy-handed treatment. These results were disheartening for those of us who spent much of our time tasting and drinking raw wines that were still a blank slate in the their infancy only to discover they had become elderly and stingy after their bottling.
In many ways, the natural wine movement is a movement to bring that immediacy into the bottle. By reducing treatments in the cellar and in the vineyards, vignerons were able to bring a more vibrant wine into that bottle. The first technique to go was filtering and then many vignerons took risks making non-sulfured or low sulfured bottling.
There were many initial excesses, some of which were proudly imported and refunded by Louis/Dressner Selections. But like any movement which wants to change our lives, the excesses were essential in reaching a reasoned course which preserves the wine while not killing the very qualities which were so seductive before the wine was squeezed into a shippable form.
The problems were different in the “prestigious regions.” Winemaking too often followed a formula of two or more years in barrel. Combined with sloppy vineyard and cellar work, many wines were unapproachable in their youth and too dried out as they aged. Old Barolo tasted like old Rioja tasted like old Burgundy because they all suffered from a lack of charm and a raspy dryness that critics found a complex and profound experience. White wines had wild doses of sulfur that remained potent 30 years later. Many of the red wines were not far behind.
The natural wine movement in these regions is trying to bring the fruit back into wines. Michel Rolland and other gurus also confronted this situation by looking for extraction that would be big, plentiful and potent for those who enjoy a knock across their head. But the more charming, truly hedonistic way forward is to keep a core purity of fruit that evolves and changes, making the wine beautiful young and beautiful but different when old. Not an easy task.
Wine is complicated. What exactly is a natural wine? For me, it’s a wine that tastes like it fell off the vine and into a bottle, fermented, packed its bags and arrived in America.
Of course, no such thing can happen. But the closer we can get to that sensation, the happier we will all be with the wines we drink.
Until then, I will occasionally write silly, generalized articles based on no science and no clear rules about my love for natural wines. I’ll also drink wines from Marcel Lapierre, Stefano Bellotti, Antoine Arena, Marcel Richaud, Dominique Hauvette, Marc Ollivier, Agnès & René Mosse, Jean Foillard, Christian Binner, Paolo Bea, Pierre-Marie Chermette, Philippe Pacalet, Dard & Ribo, the Puzelats, Roussel & Barrouillet and an occasional Clos-St-Hune to prove I’m not dogmatic.
Badge Carrying Member of the AVN (Association des Vins Naturels)
Follow day by day here: https://saignee.wordpress.com/31-days-of-natural-wine/
Up next: I finish that post about Dard et Ribo with Linecook415 that fell by the wayside due to me getting sick; or: VLM was WRONG (Day 30.2) and a coda to this entire thing.