Comments on Bruce Palling's anti-natural wine article

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Bruce Palling’s article on natural wine has been the subject of a lot of debate over the last week or so.

I’ve read it twice. Three times if you count the abbreviated version that appeared in the New Statesman. He writes well, and he makes some valid points. But…

The ‘but’ is because I think he’s actually wrong. He’s wrong because of his perspective. From where he’s standing, it’s all rather alarming.

Concerning natural wine, he states:

Its not exactly true to say people don’t talk about it, but there is a tendency amongst serious wine writers to try and keep their head down for a quiet life and never actually articulate how much of it they believe to be undrinkable rubbish.

Palling loves classic fine wines. He mentions a number of them fondly. But he’s distressed when he goes to restaurants whose wine lists are predominantly natural. He feels he is being forced to drink wines that he doesn’t like. From the Palling perspective, natural wine is cultish, and is a fad. Its time is passing, and soon we’ll all be returning to the old classics, that we know and love.

From my perspective, as a wine journalist, I see natural wine in a very different light. Forget the discussions about the term ‘natural’, because that’s a sideshow. This new wave of natural wines is a vital, dynamic stream of fine wine that is really exciting, and which connects with a lot of punters. Go to RAW or the Real Wine Fair, and you see people engaging with wine.

Among wine journalists, natural wine divides them into two groups. There are the more traditional, who – like Palling – are distressed by natural wines and (usually without having tasted all that many) trot out the mantra that they are all faulty and that the emperor is naked. They find it personally upsetting that people can enjoy wines that they don’t, and they seem to regard themselves as the defenders of taste in the realm of fine wine.

Then there are those who have an open mind; who are curious about new flavours; and who actually bother to spend time with these wines and the people who make them. You don’t have to be a true believer to like natural wines; nor do you have to dismiss non-natural wines if you are to enjoy those that are naturally made. After all, who decides what is ‘fine wine’?

The natural wine movement has been good for all wine, I reckon. As I said recently, it’s important that it doesn’t become a closed-off niche, and that there’s some open-mindedness on all sides. Because some natural wines are truly great, in my opinion, and to ignore these because our palates are afraid of new flavours seems a bit sad.

In short, Palling’s perspective is that of an older drinker who hasn’t got the energy or inclination to go beyond his flavour comfort zone. I’m sure he’s not, but in this slightly smug article he comes across as a bit of a snob. It’s a shame, but it’s not going to stop the dynamic natural wine movement in its tracks, or spoil the fun of younger drinkers who are having a good time exploring these wines.

24 comments to Comments on Bruce Palling’s anti-natural wine article

  • One of my greatest drinking pleasures at the moment is trying something new. Something different. Something with pizazz. I love a grand old Hermitage as much as the next man, but the thrill is currently in the unknown.

  • Anchois

    A shame that what apparently set out to be a reasoned response ended up being a put-down. If you want to convert people to your point of view probably better to stick to facts rather than supposition about somebody’s likes and dislikes.
    The problem about the so-called natural wine movement is dogma. And of course associated with this is evangelism, which is why wine journalists are likely to take the easy route and keep their heads down until some perspective returns. We would all like to drink wines which have had as little intervention as possible, but most of us want to imbibe something drinkable as well. Experiment by all means, and evaluate the results objectively, but to think that all manipulation is unnecessary would be foolish.

  • will chambers

    I love natural wine because of the slight uncertainty the techniques introduce and i suspect ultimatley that is what other people like too. We all know Latour can make a mega (and predictable wine) whatever the vintage. Interestingly I find the natural orange wines remind me of my best cider making attempts when quite alot of yeast is left in a bottled mix- I love them!

  • Mark

    Academic – artistic convention distinguished by a conventional correctness forms while rejecting spontaneous expression. Also occurs in the other forms of artistic activity. For example, in winemaking.

  • keith prothero

    I am with Bruce on this as you would probably expect Jamie :)

  • Damien

    Far from “becoming a closed-off niche”, natural wine always has been such; the vast majority of wine drinkers haven’t nor will come into contact with them.

    Unless, and I think Palling’s point is very valid, an enthusiastic somm has filled the restaurant’s wine list with them leaving no choice for those who prefer the alternative.

    Even if you take the success of the Fairs, we’re looking at a tiny percentage of wine drinkers taking the plunge, and until the high street (including independents) takes a different view, that’s how it’ll stay.

  • Igor

    The natural wine movement will always have to face to criticism from the drinkers of ‘fine’ wines, however; these people cannot influence someone’s preferences and tastes. In France, the natural wine movement is growing each and every day and the logo ‘AB’ appears on more and more bottles. The tolerance, however, has to be present on both sides. Bruce Palling’s article creates a distance between conventional wine drinkers and those who like natural wines.

  • I’d welcome some informed pushback against Nicolas Joly of the famous “Avant d’être bon, un vin dont être vrai” comment (Before being good, a wine should be true). Many minimal-intervention winemakers (I can’t bring myself to use a term as nebulous as “natural”)make delicious wines. Some make wines that may be delicious, but are unable to withstand the rigors of international distribution. After opening any number of not-inexpensive bottles that were fizzing with re-fermentation, I would suggest that such wines be drunk only in situ. And there are a few (Frank Cornelissen comes to mind) whom I think are simply cranks.

  • Wine and Pizza. One of the lifes greatest pleasures

  • Ana

    Here is a simple thought. If you don’t like natural wine, don’t drink them, don’t go to restaurants that serve them, its simple as that.
    “De gustibus non est disputandum”

  • Carter Nicholas

    I can’t say that I have the confidence in this strange experiment in controversy, that I have in your appreciations of wines; and I can’t say that you make your point as well with ad hominem that you might have done by revisiting an exemplary wine of this derivation. Truthfully, the entry is not only unbecoming, it is unsubstantiated to an extent you should find embarrassing — except for what it portrays of your underlying innocence as a slinger of mud.

  • Ana,

    How do I know what is a natural wine and what isn’t in order to take your advice? I”m looking at a Napa Valley Rose. Is it “natural” or “unnatural”?

  • Having an open mind and thinking that most natural wine is not very good are hardly mutually exclusive, JG. What’s wrong with sulphur dioxide? The people with the closed minds are invariably the “naturalistas”, not those of us you dismiss as “traditionalists”. Possibly for the first and only time in my life, I find myself agreeing with Keith “Infinity Pool” Prothero…

  • keith prothero

    Tim old boy I do not have an infinity pool.Sorry to disappoint you :)

  • PJ

    Will Chambers in his comment above encapsulates my problem with natural wine.

    I have truly enjoyed one or two examples, but in the main, these wines are not cheap and if I’m shelling out £30 upwards on a bottle, I don’t want to play a lottery as to whether or not its going to taste like poor cider

  • Jamie,

    I side with you here, but my problem is the term “natural wine” . I am confused because I’m not sure what you mean by “natural”. Is it wine on the far end of the natural spectrum, meaning not even a mg of sulfer is added? Or not a pinch of correction acid on an off year? Life on the extremes is never good.

    Natural to me mean minimalist. It means minimal sulfur and minimal everything else, but NOT at the expense of the tastiness of a wine. There is so much good wine from small farmers that is minimalist, which is pretty damn natural.

    Plus, I thought the classics were on the natural side? Maybe not the far extreme of zero additions. But that is a world away from “wine makers” who bust out their chemistry set in the winery.

    You may enjoy this post I published today Natural Farming in the Wine World, it expresses my opinions and values as an importer.

    http://www.blisswineimports.com/blog/what-is-natural-farming-in-the-wine-world/

    Thanks,
    alleah

  • will chambers

    Hey PJ who said the cider was poor!

  • I don’t have a problem with natural wine. I am firmly on the side of people who dislike seeing tanker trucks riding through vineyards spraying fertilizer, pesticide, herbicide, or whatever, indiscriminately.

    I am with most of the other commenters, however, in that I don’t want a dogmatic approach to wine and wine lists. There is a wide gap between industrial swill produced in California’s Central Valley and those wines the extremists would say are the only “Natural Wine”.

    I know a flawed (faulty) wine when I taste one. If you like the taste of brett (and I do, in small amounts) then fine, but I know it’s a flaw.

    I’m offended when people try to tell me that a wine that is completely oxidized (leaving out sherry & vin jaune) is fine. I don’t want to hear that a wine that reeks of brett is “the way the winemaker wanted it.” That winemaker probably doesn’t shower, either. I think he calls it “going natural”.

  • I’m with Tim Atkin on this one. I do think I’ve approached natural wines with an open mind, maybe I haven’t tried that many, but they are not that easy to get hold of where I live.

    Perhaps I’ve tried 100 over the last 2 years. Of these at least 50, for me, were write-offs, 30 faulty, 10 not bad quite interesting, and 5 – 10 pretty good. Not one or maybe 1 or 2 max, blew me away. I’ll keep trying for sure, but if I’m going to spend the equivalent of 20 GBP or more, I’m going to want something that I like.

    What I think bugs some wine lovers about natural wine evangelists, is the implication that we somehow don’t get it and have our heads in the sand. I’ve been drinking wine over 20 years and so far I have really struggled to find a natural wine that I love. Whilst I feel I’m tolerant of “faults” this is not terroir speaking in my book.

  • Damien

    Will, I reckon PJ is with me; all cider is rank, sorry, that’s why we drink wine!

  • What exactly does the photo of Clos Rougeard represent in the article? It’s part of the rogues’ gallery but a bottle of it also appears in the photo of “Great wines in the window of a Neapolitan wine shop”

    It’s a natural wine that’s also considered the greatest red wine of the Loire.

    Did tasting it make Anton Ego depressed?

  • steve, it’s not clos rougeard (which is as you say quite lovely)but ageno from la stoppa

  • Hi Jamie,

    Sorry – I’m not being very clear. I can imagine that the Ageno would definitely depress Pauling but the strangeness that I mentioned was in the photos he se Great wines in the window of a Neapolitan wine shop. There’s a bottle of Clos Rougeard (middle row left) next to a bottle of Ch Latour. This appears to a collection of wines that BP thinks are OK.

    The other photos are of single bottles of natural wine that BP must not like, so it’s funny that the Clos Rougeard appears among these.

    Perhaps I have too much time on my hands. . .

  • KSL

    There are some glorious “classic “wines out there and there are some stinkers, even from great regions and producers. The same holds true of natural wines.
    Some will ask your palate questions that you don’t mind; or actually enjoy answering. Others will not hold your thrall and may indeed offend you and cleave an acidic tract in your palate.
    Either way it is good to have people making intriguing wines from a new perspective.

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