I love natural wine, but...

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I love natural wine, but I worry that the natural wine movement (whatever that is), is becoming a subculture that’s self-contained, self-referential, and living in its own bubble.

Let me try to explain. I like interesting wine. Wine with a story to tell; wine with a sense of place (whatever that is); wine that is articulate in its expression of flavour; and, above all, wine that tastes good.

I really don’t care how much sulfur dioxide a winegrower uses. I don’t mind whether she or he uses cultured yeasts. I don’t mind whether they filter their wine or not. I don’t mind whether they acidify or chaptalize – I understand that sometimes this can be necessary. I don’t mind whether they ferment their wine in stainless steel, new oak or concrete eggs.

But before you stop reading, I need to clarify that I don’t care about these factors in an ideological way. I do, however, care about them when they impact negatively on wine flavour. What I have found is that ‘natural’ winegrowers tend to make the sort of wines I love. I have such fun at events like the Real Wine Fair, or RAW, where there are just so many great wines on show.

My experience is that working with low sulfur, with wild yeasts, with alternative methods of elevage (large oak, concrete), choosing not to filter, and avoiding acid additions tends to make more interesting wine. But should someone choose to work more conventionally and still make interesting wines, then I haven’t got a problem with it.

I do like the idea of adding nothing to wine. But I’d rather drink a wine that has a sense of place with some additions used in the winemaking process, than one that has lost its sense of place through the development of microbial problems.

But let’s not get too simplistic. In my experience, even where nothing has been added to natural wines, the incidence of ‘wine faults’ is surprisingly low. It’s wrong to characterize natural wine as being full of faults. And I’d also argue that there’s a place for some natural wines that display what wine scientists would classify as ‘faults’, such as brett, volatile acidity and some oxidative characters. It all depends on the context. Some wines just work, even with quite high levels of fault characteristics.

One further point. This is the large overlap between natural wine and conventional wine at the high end. Most of the world’s truly great fine wines are made quite naturally. We don’t have a fixed definition of natural wine, of course, but if you take the definition as follows:

    Organic/biodynamic viticulture
    No added yeasts
    No added acidity
    No sulfur dioxide additions, except a bit at bottling if needed
    No filtration

Then lots of fine wines that aren’t considered ‘natural’ would fit this definition. It’s for this reason that I think it’s important that the natural wine movement doesn’t disappear into an essentially private subculture, but stays connected with the rest of the wine world. Natural wine has already had quite an impact on winegrowers who wouldn’t count themselves as ‘natural’. It has encouraged people to work in more natural ways. It has probably helped, also, to shift attention away from the winery and the cult of the winemaker. So it’s important that natural wine stays part of the broader wine scene, in my view.
Natural wine should be inclusive and welcoming. It shouldn’t behave like a bad religion or a cult.

The diversity of wine

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Wine is unusual among drinks on many levels. And one of the most remarkable things about wine is its diversity.

It’s a function of the fact that wine quality is dependent on grape quality, which is largely determined by the physical characteristics of the vineyard site. There are gazillions of these, and there are 1400 different commercial grape varieties, to boot.

Take two vineyards a few hundred metres apart, in a region such as Burgundy, and you’ll find that one makes 10 Euro wine while the other makes 100 Euro wine. This sort of complexity leads to a mind-blowing array of options once wine reaches the marketplace.

There are some 40 000 different labels on sale in the UK (this is an estimate). And quality varies massively. For professionals, this diversity is almost impossible to keep track of. Factor in the added complexity of vintage, and it’s quickly apparent that for normal people, wine is a fabulously confusing sector, with most purchasing decisions made blind.

Can we help punters by ironing out some of this diveristy? This would seem to be a noble goal. The problem is, would attempts to iron out diversity impact negatively on wine quality?

I think that, for all its frustrations, the diversity of wine is one of its strengths. I know there’s so much about wine that I’ll never understand or know, but this is a cause of hope and happiness, rather than frustration. We’re digging a rich seam, and there are plenty of surprises on the way. Why should everything in life be easy and immediately accessible? Isn’t it good to have something complicated, multidimensional and profound for us to sink our teeth into?

Of course, we want to encourage people to fall in love with wine. But wine’s lack of accessibility never stopped you or I from falling in love with it. So why should diversity be such a problem now?

Two 1996 Bordeaux wines: right and left

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Had a splendid afternoon with extended family today. Brother-in-law Beavington was kind enough to open two clarets (three bottles, we got through two of the VCC) from the 1996 vintage. It’s a vintage that is in a good place at the moment, it seems. Also, it reinforces the fact that you have to treat each wine on its merits, without filtering perceptions through knowledge of the vintage and producer.

Vieux Château Certan 1996 Pomerol, Bordeaux, France
Very aromatic and quite developed with cherries, herbs, sweet berries and some spice and undergrowth notes. The palate shows supple fruit with fine-grained chalky structure. Stylish, elegant and balanced with real finesse. Drinking perfectly now, with no need to hold any longer. Right bank isn’t supposed to be great in this vintage, but this wine is in a good place now, and is delicious. 95/100
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Château Ducru-Beaucaillou 1996 St Julien, Bordeaux, France
Grainy, chunky and spicy with lovely black cherry fruit and spice, as well as a savoury earthiness. Showing nice evolution and drinking well now, with good focus and structure. 93/100

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Terra Lemnia, a lovely pair of Greek wines from Limnos

terra lemnia

Terra Limnia is a new producer making impressive wines from local varieties grown on the island of Limnos. They’re made by Vicky Samaras (ex-pat Greek) and Jonas Newman of Hinterland in Canada’s Prince Edward County, in collaboration with a Greek partner (Nikos Vakirtzis).

The white is made from Muscat of Alexandria, which is a traditional variety here and produces really interesting wines. The red is made from the ancient Limnio variety, from volcanic soils on the east of the island. They both have a lot of personality.

Terra Lemnia Muscat 2012 Limnos, Greece
12.5% alcohol. First vintage. Very pretty, but with some substance: notes of citrus, grapes, fennel and some subtle pine and mint. Very pure but with an attractive texture. A really sophisticated dry Muscat with great food compatibility, and notes of minerals, herbs and scented Mediterranean evenings. 91/100

Terra Lemnia Limnio 2011 Limnos Greece
12.5% alcohol. Cherry red in colour with a slightly bricking rim. Nose of spice, herbs, earth and a hint of mint and pine as well as red cherry fruit. The palate is fresh, light and savoury with some grip. Good acidity and spicy cherry and plum fruit. A food-friendly style with grippy tannins – it reminds me a bit of Nebbiolo, in that there’s fruit but also grippy tannic structure and good acidity. 89/100

No UK agent yet.

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Domaine Saparale 'Le Saparale' 2012, a lovely Corsican red

domaine saparale

I’ve had a few really impressive Corsican reds of late. This is a lovely wine, a blend of 80% Sciacarello and 20% Nieulluccio, which spends 6 months in oak.

Domaine Saparale ‘Le Saparale’ 2012 Corse Sartene, Corsica
14.5% alcohol. Beguiling with hints of cherries, herbs and spice, as well as almonds, tea leaves and cedar. This leads to a textured, ripe, finely grained palate with supple cherry and plum fruit and a very fine structure. Warm, balanced, harmonious and quite beautiful. 93/100 (£14.95 Yapp)

Some thoughts on GM technology

York Station

York Station

So yesterday I took part in a careers session for the brightest and best undergraduates in plant sciences at the Gatsby summer school. Held at the lovely Hawkhills centre near York, the idea is to enthuse these students about a potential career in plant sciences, and area which is vitally important but which has trouble attracting the best talent. It is tutored by the UK’s top plant scientists, and our session was an add-on, with six people who started out in plant scientists sharing with students about their own particular career path, showing that there are lots of different ways to use a plant science degree or PhD.

The session was followed by a barbecue, and I had a nice chance to chat with some of the scientists. One of them was Johnathan Napier, a researcher from Rothamsted, who has spent the last couple of decades working on developing trangenic (i.e. GM) crops that produce omega 3 fish oils. We had a good discussion about the role of GM in plant science, and the way that this is perceived by the public.

Why would you want to produce fish oils from plants? Principally, food security. Living in a society with surplus food, it’s often easy to ignore the grave threat that global food security faces. The world population is increasing, yet the area suitable for agriculture isn’t. In particular, water for agriculture is under threat, with the depletion and contamination of water supplies. This is going to become a huge issue, particularly in Asia. Whatever our sensitivities to GM technology, this is a powerful tool for plant scientists to use to increase food production efficiency. Currently, fish farming, for all its attendant environmental impact, is by far the most efficient way of producing animal protein. Yet much of the feed for these fish farms comes from fishing itself. A cheap, alternative plant-based source of fish oil would be really useful.

Most of the really interesting work in plant science revolves around transgenics. Yet there are big obstacles to commercializing this work. One is the societal attitudes towards GM. The opposition can be understood when it comes to the worst uses of GM: engineering herbicide resistance into crop plants so that you can then nuke fields with that herbicide and kill everything apart from the crop plant, for example. But there are elegant, beneficial uses of GM, such as golden rice, which is a beautiful bit of technology that could have had huge health benefits, and which was given as a gift by its developers, but which has been strongly opposed.

The other obstacle is intellectual property issues. Many of the techniques used to produce transgenic crops are themselves patented, and if you are going to produce a GM plant and commercialize it, then you enter an IP nightmare where you need to licence a lot of the techniques you have used in producing your GM plant. This can be a real problem, particularly if the people you are dealing with have an unrealistic view of the value of their step in the process.

What of GM vines? Vines need a lot of spraying. Agrochemical use in vineyards is really high, and there’s no way to avoid it. Even organics relies on spraying sulfur and copper to combat powdery and downy mildew. American vines are resistant to these mildews, but they make bad wine. This resistance has a fairly simple genetic basis, and it would be possible to produce GM versions of vinifera grape varieties that didn’t need spraying just by engineering in a few genes.

At the moment, any attempt to field-trial these vines would be hugely controversial, and they’d likely be ripped up by protestors who feel very strongly about this. It’s frustrating for researchers, who have this elegant technology and who could use it for clear societal benefit. I have no doubts that such GM vines would be safe, and not present a threat to the environment.

My only misgivings are the unintended consequences of such a development. One could be a loss of diversity in terms of grape varieties. People would rush to produce GM versions of famous varieties, and these would prove commercially irresistible because of the reduced cost of managing them without spraying. But what about less fashionable varieties? The cost of producing GM versions of more obscure varieties would be prohibitive. Thus GM could produce a vine variety bottleneck with undesirable consequences.

Careers advice, from me?

As I write I am on a train heading to York, where I will be taking part in a careers session for a group of 80 high acheiveing graduate plant scientists who are attending the Gatsby Plant Science Summer School.

They want careers advice from me? Are they sure?

When I was doing my PhD, my dream would have been to have become a research scientist, with my own lab. The pay is terrible, you have to deal with awful departmental politics, and you spend a lot of time and energy applying for grants so you can keep doing research. And there’ll probably be a flash colleague in the lab next door who’s just landed another multimillion pound grant who has three times more postdocs than you, and whose lectures are packed. But it’s the dream for most of those who start out doing a PhD.

As my PhD drew to a close I realized fast that my prospects as a researcher would depend on getting a post-doc in a top lab, preferably abroad. And this didn’t turn out to be an option: my supervisors weren’t well connected enough, and my PhD topic a little too niche. So I applied for a job as a science editor, got it, and stayed in the same organization for 15 years. This wasn’t planned: it’s just that it was a good enough job with a nice working environment and it was just well enough paid that any potential move would have been sideways. So I was stuck in a career dead end.

This is where wine came in. About half way through my employment, I began a wine website. I just did it because this is what people were doing at the time. The Internet was new, and lots of people put up hobby sites. It was initially a Geocities site, and it became wineanorak in about 1997/8 after a girl at a tasting I was hosting in Portsmouth described me as one. In November 1999 I registered the domain name wineanorak.com and took out my own hosting. And I was really active on the various wine bulletin boards, where I got to know like-minded folk.

This is not career planning. I was just having some fun. But in 2000 I started getting advertisers on the site, and later that year got my first paid writing work, producing a glossary and some copy for Virgin Wines, who had just started up. In 2001 I started blogging. In 2002 I got my first commission from a print magazine: Harpers. In 2004, I began discussions with Hilary Lumsden at Mitchell-Beazley about writing a book: she suggested one on wine science, and in 2005 this was published. In 2005 also, I was approached by The Sunday Express with a view to writing a wine column for them.

So a hobby was morphing into a way of earning money. But I didn’t have the guts to kick the day job. Without kicking the day job, I wouldn’t be able to spare the time to make a proper go of wine writing. It was almost too hard a decision to make. I was the sole income at the time in my family, and we’d recently adopted two boys, so our expenses were high. What would a careers adviser say to me?

In the end, the decision was sort of made for me. The organization I worked for lost its funding and we were all out on the street, albeit with a decent redundancy cheque. This was the time to see whether or not I could make a proper living as a freelancer.

Looking back it seems a no-brainer. I could have jumped earlier, but the buffer of the redundancy money was a real help in smoothing the transition. And because I was earning money from my website, I had some control, and wasn’t just in the hands of commissioning editors.

So what careers advice would I offer, based on my experience?

    First of all, be brave. Fear keeps people in jobs that they don’t enjoy, or from moving on at the right time. Most safety in terms of employment is illusory these days.

    Get a job where you’ll continually be networking and meeting potential future employers. This is the best way to find your next job.

    Learn to see things from the perspective of others. That includes you. Ask trusted friends to give you (kind) feedback. What would your CV look like to an outsider.

    On the subject of CVs, let yours tell a story. Don’t let this story get lost in the details.

    Choose your compromises. Life is full of compromises, but it’s best if you decide in advance which trade-offs you are going to make.

    You spend a lot of time at work. So it’s vital, as far as you have the power to, to make sure that you are spending it with nice colleagues in a supportive environment where you feel valued and empowered.

    Nothing is wasted. This is the only way to make sense of the past. Even wrong turns and dead ends can be of great use.

    Be careful lest you achieve your dreams.

    Beware workplace psychopaths. Avoid them. They are often plausible and successful, but their lack of empathy and ability to use and abuse their collegues is very destructive. Make sure you don’t end up reporting to one.

    You can’t have everything. [Why would you want everything anyway?]

    Don’t be a slave to ambition. Rather, let it work for you. Dream big, reach for the sky, but learn contentment, too.

Ganevat Les Chamois du Paradis 2011, an amazing Jura Chardonnay

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Jura wines are becoming increasingly popular, and when you taste bottles like these, it’s not hard to see why. Jean Francois Ganevat is perhaps the most highly regarded producer in the region, and he works naturally: biodynamic in the vineyard and with very little SO2 added in the winery, and – of course – indigenous ferments.

He also courts controversy with the label for his J’en Veux cuvee (‘I want some’), which I have a picture of but won’t post here. This wine is uncontroversial, though. Just a brilliant expression of Chardonnay, with edges and depth. I’ve made the bottle last two days, and it’s just as delightful on day 2.

Jean Francois Ganevat Les Chamois du Paradis Chardonnay 2011 Cotes du Jura, France
Full yellow/gold colour. Lovely nose of stone fruits, citrus, apple pie and spice with a hint of toast. Rich but detailed. The palate is dense, broad and intense, with some almond and toast notes as well as spicy peach and pear fruit, with a mineral core. A brilliant wine that’s broad but balanced with a hint of wildness. 94/100 (UK agent Les Caves de Pyrene)

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Si Vintners Chinchecle Semillon 2011, a wonderful wine from Margaret River

si vintners semillon chinchecle

Si vintners consists of Iwo Jakimowicz and Sarah Morris, and they have 20 acres of mature vines in Margaret River. They work naturally in both the vineyard and winery, with organics/biodynamics in the former and an additive-free approach in the latter – with just a little sulfur dioxide added at bottling. This Semillon comes from 34 year old vines and is fermented in concrete eggs, where it remains for two years under a natural flor. It’s remarkable!

Si Vintners Chinchechle Semillon 2011 Margaret River, Australia
Full yellow/gold colour. Amazing nose of matchstick, minerals and lime oil. Really vivid and lively. The palate is tangy, mineral and bright with some rich grape and melon notes under the zippy lime characters. High acidity keeps things very fresh. Pure, complex and detailed, this is essence of Semillon. It’s sensationally good. 94/100 (UK agent Les Caves de Pyrene)

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Churchill's Quinta da Gricha Vintage Port 2011

churchills quinta da gricha

OK folks, a real-time tasting note. I’m off early in the morning, but for some inexplicable reason I thought it would be a good idea to open a bottle of a really good Vintage Port (a sample half-bottle, to be precise), before going to bed. I’ll have to drink it all.

It’s Churchill’s Quinta da Gricha 2011. On opening it has a slightly creamy, dairy edge to the lush, sweet black cherry and blackberry fruit, with some spicy notes. We shouldn’t be overly concerned by the nose of a cask sample, however: it’s the palate that matters. And this wine really delivers once it is in the mouth. I’m getting sweet black cherry, some over-ripe blackberry, a bit of spice, a hint of black olive, and lovely integrated yet firm tannic structure. There’s some tar and cedar, too. It’s concentrated, tannic, dense, and ripe yet fresh. A really impressive wine that will be good for the next two decades, and possibly longer. 93-95/100

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