Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Natural Wine: Know Your Palate, Not the 'Fad'....

The problem with 'fads' is probably less than half of the 'fad followers' actually really believe in, like or understand the fad itself.  The majority of these 'fad followers' are just that, followers, and are the entire reason that whatever the subject or item is, is only a 'fad'.  The followers will loose interest, forget, move on to the next thing, ect., and so on.  This leaves the rest of us that were probably the ones that 'started' the fad in the first place, frustrated and scratching our heads.

What am I referring to?  Yes, Natural wine.  I know, I know, the internet is spilling over with blogs, articles, opinions, arguments, debates, celebrations and praises on the subject, but after the wine fairs this year in Verona I had for the first time an incredible urge to put my 2 cents in.  I heard just too much bull**** to not write.

The 'fad followers' I'm referring to in the first paragraph are hearing and reading about 'natural wine', 'organic wine', and 'biodynamic' wine.  They are seeing it more and more present in the market, they are hearing in their shops and restaurants more and more requests for this 'natural wine' stuff.  So, like good bloggers, buyers, sommeliers, and collectors, they are going out and tasting it, trying it, and talking and writing about it.

The truthnatural wine is not for everyone.  Some of these fad followers are trying natural wine and having their entire wine-geekdom-world shift, and that is what happened to me personally, becoming believers and not just followers.  Others want their worlds to have shifted... but they didn't, and so they 'fake it', or keep trying.  If you grew up drinking coca-cola, and you are still drinking and enjoying it, you are not going to all of a sudden start drinking wheat grass and loving that instead.  This is not an insult, just a fact, and a matter of what you and your palate is used to.

I am a full believer in the shift that has taken place in the wine world, the step backwards that many producers all over Europe are taking.  A return to traditional methods; cement, amphora, natural fermentation, following moon cycles, no pesticides or herbicides.  None of these things are new, and were never a category of wine making (which they fall into now), but instead, simply how wine was made, period.  I hope that all wine production (and food production... but that is another subject) moves in this same direction, whether 100, 100 thousand, or 1 million bottles are produced.  Hopefully this shift will also help the 'coca-cola' palates to evolve into wheat grass lovers as well.

Back to the reason I am writing this little piece in the first place.  I can't even count how many times I've had buyers tell me they are into natural wines/organic wines, just to start listing all the 'defects' they have found in the wines I've brought in my bag.  Not only are the so called defects they are finding not defects, but they are confusing brett for VA and VA for brett.  Oxidation for a wine being 'corked', and so on.  The buyers are insecure, they don't understand the wine, and possibly, they just don't like it.  This is fine, however I would like to just clear up a few simple points:

  • There is a small amount of brett in all natural wines... otherwise they would not be natural wines, the amount can reach levels where it becomes a defect, but in 9 cases out of 10 it is not a defect but a part of the wine's character, adds nuances and another level of complexity. By definition, brett is known, in small amounts, to improve red wine complexity. 
  • Reduction; again, not always a defect.  In fact, many producers want their wines to go into reduction while they are in barrel or tank before they are racked and oxygenated.  This adds (yes again) character, nuances and another level of complexity.  
  • Volatile acid is not a defect.  Once again, when reaching certain levels can take away and cover up some of the other aromas in the wine making it more of a defect than an attribute.  However, living at the Iuli estate - where we love acid, the slight VA Fabrizio has in all of his wines are what make them so unique and for me, one of a kind Barbera's.  Let's remember that tannin and acid are what give's wine longevity... and again VA adds character, nuances and another level of complexity.  
  • Oxidation is a tool that every single producer plays with... whether raising the wines in steel tank and bottling with synthetic corks not allowing any, to working in Amphora and oxidizing completely the wines.  I have my own level of oxidation on wines where it goes from pleasant and interesting, to over the top, rendering the wine no longer enjoyable for me to drink and instead purely academic.  This depends on the individual pallet.  Oxidation will also add: character, nuances and another level of complexity (are you noticing the theme yet)...
  • Sediment: NOT A PROBLEM!  As defined by Jancis Robinson, "Basically, filtration speeds the wine-making process and allows better control, thereby lowering production costs"and, "Filtration is a physical alternative to natural settling and requires more expensive equipment but much less patience."  These two quotes say it all for me, reiterating everything I personally believe in and preach in wine.  Slower is better, natural is better, traditional is better... keeping these particles and the sediment in the wine, for every single wine maker I've asked adds: character, nuances and another level of complexity.  
  • Vintage and bottle variance.  Really, I shouldn't even be dumbing down this list by taking the time to list something so obvious, but just incase; yes, in natural wine, there is an incredible vintage variance... because, yes, every vintage is different.  Moreover, not every vintage will be produced - if mother nature decides not to cooperate, there is no fighting against her.  This is also true for every bottle... again, a living breathing product, not a beverage, not stabilized, over filtered and fined, and so each bottle will be slightly different.
  • A science lab and sterilized cellar does not make natural wines.  The yeasts that live all around, on the grapes, in the cellar, and even on us are what make the magic happen and all part of what 'terror' is.  Terrior is not only defined by the actual soil that the vines grow in, but the energy and life all around the vine and wine.  This can not exist in a sterile environment.  Terrior driven wines can not exist in a sterile environment.  Using a lab to analyze and 'adjust' a wine does not make a 'wine' but instead a 'beverage'.  Natural wines are not 'made', but instead they are created and born from vines that are cared for by a vigneron.  Everything in the cellar happens naturally...with some care and direction.
Basically it comes down to whether you want a beverage, or wine.  It depends on if you want to taste where your wine has come from, who made it, and when and how it was raised.  

If you want a so called 'investment banker' wine; that perfectly tailored suit that will fit perfectly every day, with not a thread or seam out of place, then you do not want a natural wine.  If you instead want to be surprised, impressed, confused and thoughtful every time you open a bottle, then yes, natural wine is most likely for you.

If you take the time to buy organic foods, clothing, products, and free range meats, then natural wines are for you.  If responsibility for our land, our children and ourselves is important to you, then natural wines are for you.

So please, I beg all of you out there that are following to the fad, but do not really enjoy the natural wines, to just come to terms with that.  Do not continue to pick out all of characteristics of these wines that make them interesting and unique, that keep us talking and learning, and that maybe confuse you, calling them 'defect's.'  I ask you instead to take a minute to think about the word defect.  It's definition is, "a shortcoming, fault or imperfection."  Friends and fellow wine lovers and wine makers... let's let this idea of a 'perfect wine' go, and instead keep enjoying what nature gives us each and every year - and get excited to keep learning from the wisest of us all, Mother Nature.


  1. Great post. Couldn't agree more with what you say, especially about the so-called 'faults'.

  2. L'imperfezione non è un difetto.
    Dibattito a questo indirizzo:

    1. esatto... l'imperfezione é la bellezza che rende tutte le cose uniche...

  3. Great post.

    I agree that not all that is unique is good. I agree that there are levels of 'interesting'.

    Where we differ somewhat is in two areas:

    -That there is a sameness in palate and taste across the category of 'natural'. Maybe...but this approach has as broad a range of characteristics and levels of greatness as any other.

    It is not incorrect to favor this approach. I do. But after that first level of filtering, a lot more comes into play.

    -What's a fad? A Hula hoop? Urban fashion? House or rap music?

    I build communities for a living and find that the truism that the future is already here, only a small group know it is true often.

    I think it is true of this approach to wine by a new population of drinkers.

    Thanks again.

    You might enjoy this post:

    Natural wine…evolution, revolution or a blip in time?

  4. Complimenti Arnold!! Beautiful post...

    "This feels like rock and roll.
    Maybe unplugged and at low volume but certainly natural wine is out of the closet. With a beat the mass market just may be able to dance to."

    Genius... love that you used Rock and Roll as a metaphor here, we often spend hours sitting around our table discussing which song, musician or group the wine in our glasses brings, or 'sings' to us.
    Thank you for your words Arnold!