[I recently contacted celebrated Australian winemaker and consultant Brian Croser to get a few quotes on the topic of natural wine in Australia, and its sometimes uneasy relationship with the more conventional side of the country’s wine industry. He ended up penning an essay, and with his consent, I’m publishing it here in its entirety. I think it’s an important contribution to the discussion on naturalness in wine. I’m not saying I agree with everything he says, but it’s a considered viewpoint that has a lot of merit.]
ACCIDENTAL WINES AND WINES OF TERROIR
By Brian Croser
The universe of fine wine making is not binary, it is a continuum from high degrees of informed intervention through to benign neglect.
There is a valid argument that neither of these extreme styles of wine making produce fine wine. Highly manufactured, technologically mutated wines do not reflect their origins and neither do the wines that have lost the clarity of their origins because of extraneous, uncontrolled microbiological/chemical mutations and their over-riding random sensory effects.
Early on beliefs enter this discussion and it is my belief and that of the vast majority of fine wine producers, that fine wine is defined by its origins. Fine wine reflects the still mysterious effect of the vineyard environment on the physiology of the vine, which in turn produces a fingerprint unique grape composition. It is here the argument starts.
How that unique grape composition is converted consistently and recognizably into a unique wine composition and pleasant sensory experience is the core of the question of the legitimacy of the fine wine making endeavour.
My thesis is that the carefully observed and minimally modulated wines made by modern conventional methods achieve the conversion of the vineyard defining essential grape components into sensorally consistent and pleasant aromas and flavours.
This broad category also dominates the commerce of fine wine.
These fine wines can be made with minimal intervention, starting with organically or biodynamically grown grapes, They can be made with natural fermentation in small vessels, gravity transfers in a cool cellar with no mechanical conveniences and no ameliorative additions fining or filtration. The exception is the addition of small additions of SO2 to pause the entropic effect of oxidation.
The effect of scale of production is to force winemakers to reach for mechanical advantages, pumps instead of gravity, refrigeration instead of cool cellars, otherwise the chemistry and microbiology of the process and the composition of the end product is the same.
They are in every sense natural wines made from natural grapes.
This leads to my only protests at the accidental wine movement.
I reject their appropriation of the term natural, inferring that all other wines are less than natural.
I reject their appropriation of the term authentic implying all others have less authenticity of origins and or process?
Rootstock they can borrow but to me it means the bottom half of my vines.
There my protests at the accidental winemaking community stop.
They do occupy a legitimate space where consumers rejected corporate, conventional, science and technology because of the established power and pervasiveness of technology in our lives. The parallel universe of rebellion against science has a quasi religous dimension and at least with wine only the willing consumer stands in harms way as opposed to the broader infection of society caused by the anti-vaxxers.
To understand the sensory chemistry of accidental wines versus conventional is to understand changes to the generic components of grapes and wine, not those that depend on the vineyard site for their presence and concentration. All wines contain alcohols that can be converted to aldehydes, organic acids and esters. Site doesn’t determine the presence or concentration of these. The fermentation conditions, temperature, presence of oxygen, grape solids and the microflora that conduct the conversions dictate the sensory outcomes here. The compounds that dominate are sometimes described as spoilage compounds, organic acids, aldehydes and esters.
In the special wines of Jerez, the Jura and Tokay these compounds are part of a regional style, their composition established by consistent methodology over the centuries. These are far from accidental wines.
However the random concentration of these same compounds can dominate accidental wines to the detriment of terroir expression.
The argument reduces then to which winemaking method better preserves and converts the unique compositional finger print of the grape to a unique and reproducible wine composition and sensory effect?
Which winemaking method most effectively suppresses the over-riding sensory effects of the microbial conversions of the generic compounds in grape and wine allowing the more subtle, complex and pleasing sensory effect of variety and site to shine through? The answer to that question has been my mission in the winery for the past 50 years.
To the makers of accidental wines, have fun, please your devoted cohort of consumers and add some colour and excitement to wine as a beverage. But please don’t steal my legitimacy as a dedicated producer of natural and authentic wines.