Day 13: Attention
Edward Behr is the founder of The Art of Eating magazine, which in my opinion is what every magazine should aspire to. He has been putting it out for 25 years now. He brings a lover’s passion and an academics love of the esoteric to his food writing. I’m deeply honored to have him here.
Which wines make us pay attention? It’s perfectly fine and maybe important to have wines that don’t interfere with conversation, especially about something other than wine — wines that just go with the food in front of you while acting as little more than refreshment. But the wines that are the most rewarding and fun call attention to themselves, because they are so good or so interesting.
Did the ’82 Cheval Blanc red that I once enjoyed capture my attention because it was so elevated, or was it mainly the name? Was the wine just a little boring — not because it really was boring but because it had no edges? My strongest memory of it is impeccable balance and a lack of defects. The conditions for tasting it weren’t ideal, and at another time I probably would have perceived a lot more.
Years earlier, I drank a fizzy red, my first fizzy red, from a bottle with no label purchased from a grocer somewhere in Emilia. We didn’t know the wine would be fizzy until we stopped for our picnic lunch by the side of the road. We opened the bottle and I was fascinated. The wine as dry and the taste confounded what little knowledge I had of wine in those days.
What for each of us makes a wine soar? What forms of perfection do we prefer over others? What makes us ask for another glass? Are there wines that tend to come across as so well-made and smooth that we don’t care about them? Of course, we pay attention to the unexpected, and that includes defects, though in wine we hope they’re not major. Natural wines, more often than others, fall into the category of unexpected with, sometimes, let us call them shortcomings. (Having read Joe Dressner’s brilliant Manifesto on Day Six, I’m not going anywhere near attempting a definition of natural wine, which when I use it in print I put in quotes, hoping I won’t have to explain further.) I tend to like high acidity, as long as it comes with balancing flavor. But if acidity is missing and some provoking flavor is present, then often that’s all right.
With a natural wine, you may taste and ask yourself: Can Sauvignon taste like this? Can Chardonnay taste like that? What the heck are Loin du Cœur and Ondenc, two varieties from the South of France said to be in a bottle of Gaillac from Domaine de Causse Marine. I tasted and, never before having come across them, I asked myself how on earth those two should taste. The wine might have been a mistake, but I suspect it was an achievement.
I suspect the “natural” wines, with or without imperfections, give us pleasure because they make us think more, if only about whether or why we like them. I think they are expressing more of their terroir, especially soil and stone, although maybe certain flavors come from a faintly deviant fermentation. When you don’t know a region, or when its natural wines don’t include bottles from the best vineyards and thus don’t paint a portrait of the region, you don’t entirely know what to think.
Natural wines tend to be deliciously drinkable. That’s a big reason why I prefer them. But even though the economics are tough on a small-scale producer, we could use a few more bottles that take ten years to lose their old-school bitter tannins and become ready to drink. I suspect they age differently. There’s fun in variety, an eminently natural quality.
Most of us want authentic wine, in the sense of wine that tastes of the grapes used to make it — of nature — and not of the methods and equipment or new oak. (Well, consistency is elusive. Sometimes we are attracted to the method, such as the one used to make sous-voile wines in the Jura.) And if we care about nature, we want the grapes to be raised in a non-toxic, Mother Earth-friendly way. Speaking for myself, I don’t mind if some tradition goes along with the emphasis on grapes and nature. In fact, “natural” to me implies a good dose of tradition, since I have an optimistic belief that most of the things done over and over in the past were done for good reason. And old ways do tend to be closer to nature.
But tradition is a moving target. When you ask a smart winemaker about it, he or she may respond: What period of time you mean? On the other hand, I once asked a 20-year-old in the Sancerrois who had been made a key figure at his family’s relatively large winery, “What is the traditional fermentation vessel for Sancerre?” I was thinking it might be a barrel of a particular size, maybe a demi-muid. But he answered, “A stainless-steel tank.” Some people don’t know the culture of their own appellation. And in the past not everyone in a region made wine with the same methods or used the same container. The botti grandi, the great oak casks of the Langhe in Piedmont were often made not of oak but of chestnut. It was less expensive, because it has a more open grain, more tannin to a fault, and it lacks new oak’s vanilla, so often relied upon today to underline a wine’s fruit. Whatever you may think about new oak, chestnut is an inferior container for wine. And sometimes stainless steel is a good thing.
I tend to prefer the taste that results from using large oak casks, but how well were they cared for in the past? It’s not easy to keep wood free of undesirable microlife. By all accounts, not that many years ago much red wine, including Burgundy and Barolo, suffered from volatile acidity. It wasn’t desired, but it was normal. (The French city of Orléans gained its former vocation of vinegar-making, because a good portion of the wine shipped down the Loire tended to turn into vinegar during the run; barrels were checked at Orléans and those that were piqué, vinegary, were sold off.)
But are the natural wines, even with their low, minimal technology, really traditional, or are they reflections of our times and tastes? Most are ultra-drinkable right away, which, as Levi Dalton (Day 4) once pointed out to me, is exactly the aim of makers of modern, fruity Parkeresque wine. There’s a big difference between the tactics of the two, of course, and those of us who love natural wines hugely prefer the results that come from the lower technology of the naturalists.
Their wines are the most fun. I wish every wine were natural wine.
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Up next: David McDuff rides in before the Tour starts; Or: i procrastinate too.