Orwellian Wines

I’ve been flummoxed. Recently I tasted a variety of wines from two different “natural” producers, both French.  “Natural” in this instance meant not just that they’d not been fined or filtered, but that they’d been made completely without sulfur.  Apart from the first wine, a pétillant Chenin Blanc, which the vendor touted as a nice “vin de soif” – (nice and harmless it was, but I think $27 should deliver far more than a picnic wine) I found not one wine compelling.  More than that: some of them were marred by excessive volatile acidity; several were lifeless on the palate (my notes said that the wines had “no pulse.”)

My tasting colleagues, both educated and respected sommeliers, who work at a restaurant renowned for its wine list, were also baffled.  “I just don’t get it; these wines are just not very good” said one, as the other shook his head in agreement, “X is just not a good winemaker.  The wines are unbalanced; they have no complexity or elegance. What do people see in these wines?”

I pondered that question a while as I turned to the vendor’s portfolio.  The wines of winemaker X were touted as “sing[ing] their land in a way that few wines that I have ever encountered.”  But the importer continues: If you are afraid of bottle variation, cloudy whites, and slight amounts of residual CO2, then these may not be for you.”

The implication here is that bottle variation, cloudiness, and CO2 all contribute to terroir expression.  I’d like to evaluate the logic here, though I’m going to take the elements in opposite order.

There are plenty of wines outside the so-called “natural” camp with residual carbon dioxide, either because they were fermented at very cold temperatures so that it remained dissolved in the wine, and/or because it was deliberately retained – whether for its preservative qualities, to give the wine additional zip, or to highlight the wine’s acidity.  But point one here is that carbon dioxide retention is a winemaking choice by the winemaker disguised as a “natural” process and expression of terroir; a bit of emperor’s new clothing, as it were.

Second, there are many consumers who are uncomfortable drinking cloudy wines, unaware that clarity does not a brilliant wine make.   A clear wine can be a pure expression of terroir, or it can be a manipulated beverage wine.  Conversely, I’ve had plenty of young, somewhat cloudy wines, from New World Pinot Noirs to Barolos to  Burgundies.  Indeed, as most wines age, they often get murky.  So again, nothing new here: cloudiness means little on its own terms.

But it is this third element I find so curious, if not baffling: bottle variation heralded as a virtue.  (I am not going to critique the wine for not delivering the consistency most consumers look for in their wines, because these wines obvious seek a different clientele.)  Is that variation how the wine “sings?”   On the other hand, what is the terroir really saying, or how can you read it,  if it varies so from bottle to bottle?    My friend Mark deVere MW told me of studies at the Robert Mondavi Winery years back demonstrating that in any given case of wine bottles sealed with a natural cork closure, cork variability is such that the bottles could be ranked – often, admittedly, within a narrow range, one that even experienced tasters would have difficulty distinguishing – from 1 to 12.  But in this instance, the variability is not attributed to the cork, but presumably to the vineyard.

My frustration here is that even small parcels are actually a composite.  Were bottles of wine made from individual vines, significant variability could be justified, given the variables among individual vines and the specifics of their cultivation.  But that is not how wines are made.   Grapes, sensitively tended, give expression of the terroir; it is the winegrower’s job to shepherd those grapes – assembling a cuvée —  to become the “best” expression of the parcel in question.  Selections are made of the grapes, first at harvest, and then of the wine, before bottling, in determining the final cuvée.  This is, perforce, one of many decisions a winemaker makes in determining how that vineyard is expressed in a given vintage.

So, winemakers  (call them winegrowers if you prefer) make decisions; they make wine; it’s tautological, but that’s the reason they are called winemakers.   Whether the cuvée is a single vat or multiple vats, it is the composite cuvée that is deemed to be the “expression” of a vineyard, and not, say, how it subsequently has morphed into a different wine in each of the 300 individual bottles that could be produced from a 225-liter barrel.

Moreover, I am flummoxed over the notion of these wines as being “pure.”  What, exactly, does purity mean in this context?  I would think that careful grape-growing would be followed by a series of practices designed to protect the purity of the fruit expression.  Thus, the grapes would be protected from oxidation, degradation and spoilage throughout the winemaking process, whether left alone in inert vessels, or perhaps given greater complexity through blending or some form of barrel ageing.

My suspicion is that, unwittingly or not, natural wine aficionados use the term “pure” in its Orwellian sense. (See G. Orwell, “Politics and the English Language” (1946).)

This of course begs the question of whether the deliberate oxidation of grapes or wine is a “manipulation” – can’t we just call it a “technique”?  It incontrovertibly changes the character of a wine and influences its style.  Roederer is more reductive; Bollinger is more oxidative: they produce different styles, differently complex; different interpretations of how their terroir is best expressed.  For some areas, such as Rioja, that can be considered part of the terroir, if your definition of
terroir includes “tradition.” – that some, like Anselme Selosse admitted to me that his solera and oxidative winemaking practices, allow his wines to “breathe,” as he puts it are, in fact, a stylistic choice: he believes these practices are necessary for the greatest expression of his terroir.  Fair enough; that is his interpretation of what his properties have to say.   For Lopez de Heredia, the same, along with generations of tradition.  But all of these producers control their oxidative processes, and all produce wines with complexity, finesse, balance and elegance.

But it’s not so much the oxidative nature of these wines that I find troubling.  It’s that the fruit also was not protected from bacteria and biochemical reactions that do not enhance complexity or finesse, rather, the opposite: they contribute to the degradation of aromas, flavors and structural balance of the wines.  The overwhelming majority of the “natural” wines I’ve tasted have a rosin-like astringency, a subtly gritty texture on the palate: I don’t mind it; it arguably adds interest; but it doesn’t add to elegance or finesse: indeed, the opposite.

I’ve concluded that the interest in “natural” wines is a function of a number of different forces.  First, it is a reaction to the creation of soulless, generic beverage wines.  Similar to that, and particularly for those captivated by the romance of wine, it is a reaction to the corporatization of wine production.  For some, and I think this is mostly relevant to winemakers, it is a revisionist, or iconoclastic view of winemaking.  In other words, even if Peynaud writes “sulfiting the must is vital,” what would happen if I, as a winemaker, experimented in not doing that, and then offered the result for sale?  Another example could be a wine resulting from not following the conventional wisdom that the winemaker needed to regulate the rate of fermentation?  These instances might lead to interesting wines, they might not, but they are more an intellectual exercise on the part of the winemaker that then gets packaged into something cool and novel: is that any less a marketing device directed at a self-defined wine intellectual than a beverage wine marketed to a casual consumer? All of which, ironically, has me plump “natural wine” in the same category as “beverage wine”: if, in the end, it excites some people about wine, and gets them interested in wine as a category, that’s great.  I’ve always said I want more people to drink some wine.  But don’t believe the wine is great, or even just better, because it is quote-unquote natural.   If you pay attention to it, the wine will tell you itself.  (And most of the wines have told me that they just aren’t very good!)

While in the end this may seen as a rebellion against the tyranny of the winemaker, or ‘manufactured’ wines, it obscures the fact that winemakers (even if we call them “wine growers”) exist to make wine.   Further, I would argue that these wines call even greater attention to the winemaker, ironically, since the wines’ texture and high levels of volatile acidity testify to the winemaker’s refusal to protect his fruit or wine from bacteria or other sources of degradation.

I need to stress here that I have nothing against ‘natural’ wines per se.  I don’t hold them to standards different from any other wine – if anything, I arguably am prejudiced towards them, as, if I understand them correctly, they are intended to have personality and reflect their origins.  I’m certainly not saying all natural wines are bad; I can’t even say they are coherent as a group, or even within an individual producer.  I’ve had a few terrific ‘natural’ wines, but plenty of undrinkable ones.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I enjoy them for the intellectual argument, as well as the challenge they offer to other winemakers to think through the choices they make as they craft their wines.  And just as I hope that some mass-market wine drinkers eventually will seek out more complex wines that tell a story of it’s origins, I hope the same will happen to some consumers of Orwellian wines.  But more often than not, I think these wines are a chimera.

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7 Responses to Orwellian Wines

  1. Michael Donohue says:

    We can know very precisely how much sulfur is in the wine and there is no shame in saying 1 to 150 ppm (preferably lower, maybe 100. I understand the industry wants 300- but I’ve had plenty juice in the 80-140 range that rocked) and being a natural winemaker, some is natural and some is not. If a wine is produced without any added sulfur it should likely be consumed within 100 miles of origin and 12 months of bottling. They do present the ultimate challenge in the life of a vigneron: the platonic form of winepurity in real life.

    • granikmw says:

      Michael, your comments offer perhaps unintended support for those who would advocate “bottled on” or “consume by” dates on labels. This Pandora’s box would be only messier with an additional caveat emptor: “To be consumed within 100 miles of origin.” Of course, the bottles I opened of re-fermenting minimally-sulfured wine from across the pond were messy as well!
      Thanks, all, for your supportive comments.

  2. Clark Smith says:

    Though I would have to taste wine X to be sure, the cloudiness, fizz, flat taste and bottle variation all suggest an unplanned spontaneous malolactic in the bottle, affecting some bottles and not others, or others going later. This is to be expected in wines without sulfites which are not sterile bottled. To fail to take such a wine through ML at the winery or otherwise stabilize it violates the prime directive that a label should indicate a consistent product. As you point out, otherwise the wine cannot be reviewed, discussed, or repurchased with any expectation of its characteristics. Inconsistency is simply bad manners, and cannot be justified by the winemaker’s philosophy.

    • granikmw says:

      Clark, you do make me think! In this instance, I admit I’ve never thought of winemaking in terms of propriety. Has Emily Post addressed this issue? That said, I appreciate the argument that winemakers who are indifferent to their wine’s stability are, in a word, rude.

  3. Strappo says:

    To approach this valuable discussion from a crassly commercial perspective, I have to say that, as a small importer of Italian wines, there is a great deal of Doublespeak going on in the [New York] marketplace about “natural” wines. Aside from a few shops that have built their positioning on advocacy of natural wines–and few, very few, restaurants and wine bars–there is a yawning indifference whenever you state that this or that wine on your list is natural/organic/biodynamic. A polite, “Oh really? That’s nice” is as far as most buyers will go on that topic. This suggests that the whole nature-wine movement, such as it is, retains a hold on a small, largely uncommercial (i.e., hobbyist and pundit) coterie.

    Like most dichotomies, the one opposing natural wines to “commercial beverage” wines is a false one. They are, as you suggest, born more of marketing/positioning impulses than of real distinctions of quality or trust of in what’s in the bottle. In Italy alone there are hundreds of wine producers who adhere to neither the “biologico” neo-orthodoxy nor the commercial beverage camp. They can’t compete in the latter camp (not enough volume, no access to large-scale distribution, refusal to make plonk), nor do they choose to go officially bio due to higher costs and financial and quality risks (e.g., they must spray copper and sulfur in bad years even if they prefer not to, otherwise they lose their year’s income).

    That’s enough polysyllabic words for a Sunday morning. I appreciate the discussion, and particularly the “Orwellian” reference to the slippery meanings of words in the “natural” wine movement and its articles of faith.

  4. I generally find it strange how so many people in the wine establishment are so very eager to debunk or otherwise discredit the “natural wine movement.” Leave aside the fact that “natural wines” are a perpetually moving target, unable to be pinned down or defined in any meaningful sense. There is truly a lot of hokum involved in the “movement” and there is a distinct danger that the energy behind this “movement” will be channelled toward nothing more than marketing. That is usually the argument of why various wine insiders deem it necessary to shed light on natural wine’s many imperfections. But what I want to know is, where is the line of wine professionals willing to stand up to the ocean of industrial plonk marketed to the mass consumer as distinct wine from distinct terroirs? Where are the “intellectual” investigations into how ridiculous it is for any wine from Chile to boast of a Colchagua or Maipo appellation of origin, when the greatest mass of them taste of nothing more than overripe grapes and oak? I suppose, more simply, I wonder why so many people seem so eager to undermine a nascent and ultimately small movement in the wine world, as if the status quo were only sweetness and light.

  5. granikmw says:

    traillspencelow, I can’t speak for others who have critiqued the so-called “natural” wine movement, but I can say that whether it has been challenging (unsuccessfully) the Gallo family move to increase the acreage of the Russian River Valley appellation, or the litigation to restrict the use of “Napa” (just to cite two examples), there have indeed been people who have spoken up to challenge the use of geographical place names when, in fact, they are being manipulated for commercial ends. It is a woolier concept to address, however, because most New World appellations of origin have been political and commercial compromises from the outset (one exception being Gimblett Gravels in New Zealand), and the meaning of their “terroir” largely remains undefined. That said, I stand up for industrial “plonk,” as you call it – I don’t choose to drink it, but as I will write in a forthcoming post, some people actively like it and seek it out, and it is not for me to judge them. Consumers vary; many want simple, consistent beverage wines; I’m just happy they are drinking wine. My own frustration has been the degree to which I believe wine enthusiasts are being misled about what constitutes wine quality, or whether that should even matter.

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