Perfection, Perception, Personality, People, Philosophy and Flaws, or: Here We Go Again
Let me tell you a story.
Somewhere deep in the heart of Anjou there is a man who may be France’s worst vigneron (his wines are not imported into the US at this time, so don’t worry importers). On paper he has all his ducks lined up to be making interesting, idiosyncratic, “natural” wines. He works biodynamically, with minimal treatments in the vineyard, ferments with nnative yeast, works a variety of interesting terroirs, and is sulfur free. Sound great, right?
Fact is the wines are undrinkable. Arriving at his cellar we were horrified to see several pallets of pet-nat cooking in the morning sun, clear bottles and all. His wines were a horror-show of every imaginable wine flaw you can think. Brett, reduction on some, oxidation on others, VA on everything, refermentation, lambic notes, you name it. There wasn’t anything on these wines that speaks of terroir, of vintage, or of grape variety even. And yet the winemaker still sells the wines, to bars all over France with nature-nature wine lists because it is perceived as good because of what it is on paper, not what it actually is.
i was thinking about this vigneron when i was reading the latest article to cause a stir in the natural wine world “Natural Isn’t Perfect” (an incredibly unfortunate title if you ask me). In the article Dave McIntyre gets to the by stating the obvious, that natural wine, when made poorly, can lead to flawed wines. Which is to say that natural is like anything else in the world.
He then goes on to ask the question “If the natural-wine movement makes us question the additives and techniques used in the winery, all well and good. But why reject all the winemaking advances of the modern era if they help us avoid the occasional stuck fermentation, correct an acid imbalance and ensure that the wine reaches the consumer in the best possible shape?” This line seems to be the controversial article seller, and since it’s the last paragraph of the article it’s the one that will stick with the reader, a sort (as they on the internet) “YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG” statement of purpose to natural winemakers and natural wine lovers.
That natural wines are flawed and that some people believe that this style of winemaking can oftentimes be wrongheaded and purposefully bone-headed aren’t really new arguments, and as such they aren’t really interesting and not particularly worth arguing anymore. But there is something interesting about the article. The lack of vignerons and wine.
What the article does, in essence, is it reduces a range of wines into a single category, and forgets any sort of human element to the wines. This isn’t simply a problem on the side of people bothered by natural wine, many proponents of natural wine (including me) have gotten caught up in the dogma of the thing, apologizing for poorly made wines because they adhere to rules, as if rules were able to replace talent and real work in the vineyards.
There are vignerons like the one above who have given up on trying to make good wine and instead have relied on the term “natural” to sell his wines. On the other hand there are brilliant vignerons toiling over their wines, obsessing about them and constantly re-evaluating what needs to be done from year to year and from cuvee to cuvee and from grape to grape. People like Manu Houillon, Didier Barrouillet, Paolo Bea, Eric Texier, Anselme Selosse, and Marcel LaPierre amongst many other people. These are people who believe that making wines naturally will produce the best wines, but they aren’t people who believe that natural winemaking automatically produces good wine. The work is there.
i’m not going to become one of those people that believes that “natural” wines shouldn’t be a category at all, because i still think the term has some value, but if we’re going to talk about the wine without talking about the wines and the vignerons making the wines we should give up the conversation right now, because we will keep having the same stupid debates about easy to knock down strawmen.