Friday, December 27, 2013

A Brief Meditation On "Natural" Wine

 Somebody posted a query about "natural" wines and what anyone though of them. I wrote a response, and thought it might be okay to break with the usual wine reviews and post it here, too.

I remember tasting Thierry Puzelat's "Le Telquel" for the first time and being startled at how alive it seemed in the glass. Not long afterward, I learned that if you got 9 good bottles in a case of 12, you were to consider yourself fortunate. Then I had a conversation with a friend in the biz, who wondered whether Puzelat had any notion of the attrition rate on his wine.

In the years gone by, I have purchased any number of wines imported by Louis/Dressner or Jenny & Francois--not inexpensive wines, either--which turned out to be fizzing with refermentation or with the burnt-hair stink of reduction, or varnishy, or just plain unpalatable.

To put the best possible face on it, I suppose it is possible that the people who made these wines had no concept of the rigors of not just the trans-ocean but the U.S. transcontinental distribution chain. I prefer to think they did not just ignore the reality of it. But I don't know. The wines were bad, and they were bad because the winemaker had put dogma before quality, as promoted by Nicolas Joly, they guy who thinks wine must first be true and then be good. Sorry, I'm not having any. I don't ask wine to make me virtuous; I want it to taste good.

Even so, the fact of that first, startling encounter with a well-made and properly stored biodynamic wine remains strong in my memory. Enough to encourage me still to tempt fate from time to time with one of Joly's Coulee De Serrant bottles. (Opened a 2004 recently--just a touch of VA, and some astoundingly exotic fruit.)

At the other extreme, I've tasted many, many deluxe bottles from the Napa Valley that appeared to have been adulterated with boysenberry syrup. And more than one or two "garagiste" wines from Bordeaux. You know what I'm talking about, and you know it is why I still have murder in my heart for The Wine Advocate. (Only in my heart, Uncle Bob, only in my heart...)

The issue isn't whether something is natural or unnatural. It's whether the wine is good to drink. To use my preferred example, most people would be shocked if they knew how Champagne was really made. For the large houses, their NV bottling is not so much wine as it is a beverage. Economics rules all; growing the grapes and making the product are done in the most risk-free way possible. (To this day, I look at the chapter on quality in Tom Steveson's World Encyclopedia of Champagne and Sparkling Wine and see the headline "Quality Begins In The Vineyard" and cringe.)

And yet. And yet: The big houses crank out a reliable, and reliably tasty, product, year after year. They are not interested in terroir, their selling points are consistent style, image, and strength of distribution.

Things are changing in Champagne. These days, the Recoltant-Manipulant, the guy who grows his own fruit on his own land and makes the wine himself, is ascendant. He is not interested in making a consistent product, but in making the best of whatever nature gives him. This is admirable, even if it does not always result in a wine that much resembles what the big houses make.

I believe, then, that what matters most is not whether a winemaker follows a particular philosophy, but his intent: Are you making a beverage, or are you making wine? Sometimes a beverage--like a bottle of Mumm's--is just the thing. But for the most part I prefer wine, myself.

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