The Slippery Slope
I had a bad natural wine last night. Once I recovered from the shock--a supermarket cremant helped--the dire writing was scrawled on the wall like graffiti in a dirty Paris metro station: as it is with all other genres of wine trends, some natural wines are good, and some are not.
In an emperor-has-no-clothes condition, there is an automatic reluctance to blow the bad wine whistle on natural wine. The problem extends from two directions--the definition of “natural wine”, and the image of natural wine. One is producer-driven, and the other is a manifestation of the consumer.
Natural wine is said to strive to embody everything that is pure and unadulterated, shirking technology and gross human intervention, but in practice it remains a liberally-defined category maintain a wide spectrum of technical attributes. For instance, some natural wines are filtered to a bright polish, and others are left as cloudy as if they’d never seen a single racking.
But when we begin to discuss components of wine such as VA and brettanomyces, components which can render a wine unpalatable but whose proliferation can be controlled in the winery, the natural wine tag offers an easy out. Because of--or for the sake of--being natural, there is suddenly a leniency in the what-is-sound-wine criteria.
Can a natural wine ever be faulty? Or, in the case of a transgression, it happened naturally and therefore we embrace it?
Let’s take the Guy Breton 2007 Beaujolais-Villages that I opened. 11.5% ABV as stated on the label had me thinking he doesn’t like to chapitalize, which I have no problem with. It’s more natural. The cloudy haze of the liquid suggested unfiltered--again no problem with this. Flat colour indicating perhaps little sulphur used in winemaking or at bottling (since it wasn’t a particularly old vintage). Again, no issue here as I am always in favour of limited sulphur addition.
But the brett. No matter how much I aerated this wine, it wouldn’t dissipate to reveal any fruit. While I don’t like brett, I am fine to tolerate it provided it does not obscure the more interesting characteristics of the wine. Here, the real flavour was lost.
Some Googling later, I noticed other anecdotal suggestion that other Breton wines heavily burdened by brettanomyces. In fact, this descriptor surfaces frequently when there’s talk of the Gang of Five (or perhaps there are more members now). The explanations of “morgonner” and “pinoter” come up, and perhaps they are being used in legitimate ways (I have tasted wine in barrel that I thought was fringed with brett but tested clean), but brett is brett like a spade is a spade and when recognized should be treated with extreme caution, both in the winery and by anyone laying these wines down to age.
Winemaking techniques, cellar practices, and bottling regimen (use of sulphur, clean equipment, and filtration) could help control the brett in Breton’s Beaujolais. In my books, it would still be a natural wine. The difference is I’d be able to drink it.
Contrast this to Paul Barre’s Fronsac. Arguably as natural as you get in Bordeaux, I was stunned by the purity of fruit in his wine. It is an immaculate taste of the region and the fruit, natural in its creation, and not obscured by too much natural in the bottle.
Drop the credo: do what it takes to make good wine, but don’t do any more than you have to.
Issue number two is us drinkers. I’ll be happy once the natural wine trend has run its course (thankfully the month is almost over) and we can get back to wine as a beverage.
This weirder-than-thou bug hits all facets of popular culture, and now that wine is taking the stand, it is subjected to the “alt” tag too. Counter-culture in the wine scene. Further still, wine now gets the dogma treatment--causing me to shudder even more. I rue the winemaking manifesto.
It now appears to be kool to like wines that are strange, wines that no one else would really think are great specimens--but the coolness factor is in the “natural” handle. Profess to like something that no one else does, and this select identity is yours for the taking. It’s nothing new, but elitism bothers me.
The cost of some of these natural wines bothers me, too, and further exacerbates the elitist umbrella. It’s nothing new in the wine world of course, many terroirs don’t come cheap, but when a natural wine is $50, $100, $150, what are we paying for? Celebrity and exclusivity--but this time it’s not just the repute of the land or chateau, as much hype is in the price as there are lees in the bottle. For a wine trend that’s back to basics, I don’t see much fundamentalism in the retail cost.
As the sage Marge Simpson once said, “We can’t afford to shop at a store that has a philosophy,” I hope we can continue to drink wine that has a philosophy.