Some post Rootstock thoughts on naturalness in wine

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[This post was written immediately after the authentic/natural wine festival Rootstock that I attended a month ago. I’ve held off publishing it until now.]

The subject of natural wine is still controversial. Rootstock, which is pretty much a natural wine fair, has many friends, but also its critics, and I feel caught in the middle, slightly. I love natural wine, but I am not fully Rootstockian. Post-event, here’s how I’m feeling.

First, do I have to choose? Sometimes it seems this way. Are you in or are you out? I want to be part of the Rootstock scene, and I love natural wine. But I also love wine that wouldn’t meet the strict Rootstock criteria, but which express their place beautifully, and are made by sensitive people who listen to their vineyards and interpret them through what they do and don’t do in the winery.

Can’t I like both? Does one (moving in a natural direction) have to lead to the other (the destination of nothing added at all)? Working more naturally is often a key to producing more interesting, expressive wines. That’s why I was drawn to the natural wine movement: because I liked many of the wines. They were really beautiful and elegant. Some wines, though, are beautiful and elegant and they have 100 parts per million of total sulfur dioxide. I love grower Champagne, which inevitably uses some cultured yeasts for the second fermentation. I don’t want to give that up. Sometimes I’m in the mood for cloudy Pet-Nat, sometimes not.

It clearly isn’t my job to set the rules for Rootstock or to tell the organizers what they should do. But I have a slight concern. Let me explain. I stayed with Michael Dhillon at Bindi last night. Aren’t the Bindi wines beautiful? They’re pretty natural, by most counts. But Michael may occasionally have to add a bit of acid (he rarely does), and he adds enough sulfur dioxide to make sure the wines age properly (although some no-added sulfites wines age well, he’s not sure that his would). So when he was invited to Rootstock, he had to decline because he didn’t think he could honestly say he fitted the criteria. That’s honorable, but producers such as Bindi would be a great addition to Rootstock.

I don’t care for the (admittedly unspoken) ‘you’re in, you’re out,’ nature of Rootstock, but I do understand the need for entry criteria. Could these criteria be more results focused, though? People who work pretty naturally, but who are invited on the basis that their wines are really interesting? There’s just too much obsession with sulfur dioxide levels are the moment.

Rootstock, along with the natural wine movement, has to go back to the vineyard a bit more. It has to return to the place where the wine is really grown. And it’s not just as simple as organics and biodynamics. In some ways, to consider a wine natural simply because of stuff not being added or done to it in the winery is a bit bonkers. I could buy a couple of tons of grapes, rent some winery space, make a few barrels with no additions, design a zany label, and declare myself a natural wine grower. If it went wrong, I could turn it into Pet-Nat. But this isn’t really meaningful or interesting, unless the real focus was where the grapes came from, and in some intelligent way I interpreted that place.

But then again, Rootstock makes me question my own beliefs, which is a good thing. One question I am posing myself: do we make too much of stability in wines? We complain if every bottle isn’t the same. But should wines be living and vital, changeable and unpredictable? Have we listened too carefully to the wine scientists? Yes, an acidified, fined, clean, sterile filtered wine with healthy free sulfur dioxide levels will be stable. But what about a wine that has a healthy microbial ecology all through its life, and is never sulfured, never fined, never filtered? Aren’t some wine problems hospital diseases, caused because over-cautious interventional practices have created a microbial desert so bad bugs can come and have a field day? Is it a bit like the vineyard: once you begin with the mentality of immediately spraying in order to deal with some microbe or insect problem, then there’s a strong risk you are committing yourself to increasing intervention like this because you have created an imbalance, in the vineyard as well as in your mind.

We’re sometimes so close to wine that we lose the ability to keep a perspective. This is shown time and time again in discussions on natural wine. You simply can’t think of wine as this one single thing. Segmentation is absolutely necessary, because the rules that apply to one segment of the market don’t apply to others. To think of natural wine with a commercial/commodity wine viewpoint just leads to a ridiculous discussion where no one really connects.

If you are a wine buyer for large retail outlets, such as supermarkets or wine chains, then natural wine fairs are not for you – in a professional capacity, at least. Of course these wines are irrelevant to large retail. They are hand made in relatively small quantities and they need to be explained or understood. If you come at them with a commercial mind, then you’ll find problems with them. This doesn’t stop them being delicious and commercially valid, in their segment.

Let’s use cheese as a comparison (it’s sometimes healthy to step away from a subject we are too close to). Supermarket cheese illustrates the point quite well. By far the bulk of the offering is highly standardized, commercial cheese. It just tastes of cheese. Or, more accurately, it tastes of a commercial version of the type of cheese that it is. Customers want mild Cheddar that tastes of mild Cheddar and which is affordable and offers no surprises. They want affordable Parmesan, affordable Mozzarella, affordable Manchego, affordable Gruyère – all of which will offer a bit of the personality of the type of cheese they are, but not too much. Then there’s the ready sliced or grated versions of cheese, and so on. A supermarket cheese offering delivers quite a range of familiar cheeses, some of which are OK, and many of which do their job perfectly well.

Then we have artisan cheese shops. They might have versions of the famous names, but these will usually be much more expensive and have much more flavour. And then they’ll have a range of really interesting, often strong tasting cheeses with a real story to tell. For flavour-geeks like me, this is very exciting. But take those cheeses and put them in a supermarket, and they won’t sell, and you’ll likely upset the customers who buy them without realizing what they are buying.

In the wine world we have the sorts of people who should really be sticking to the artisan cheese shop criticizing the supermarket cheese range. And we have a whole bunch of folks who don’t like artisan cheeses criticizing the artisan cheese shop for not being more commercial and for offering cheeses that normal people would find objectionable.

Natural wine is hugely commercially relevant, if you do your market segmentation first. Commercial wine? It will always be commercial wine, so we shouldn’t waste too much time worrying about it or writing about it.

I can imagine some readers seething in indignation at this point. How elitist! Normal people drink and buy inexpensive, fruit forward wines, so those are the ones you should be writing about! People love sweet reds and wines with added fruit essences, so how elitist and out of touch you are for ignoring them! We need new wine communicators who will talk to normal people about the sorts of wines they drink!

Well, I don’t think this way. For a start, ‘normal’ people – who the wine trade is so desperate to reach – simply don’t read about wine. It’s far too abstract. Second, it’s just not honest. I don’t think there’s much to be said about mass market wines. They taste of wine. There’s a need for them. But I’d be dishonest to rave about them, even if my motivation was to help the wine trade. I want to tell the world about wines that excite me. What’s the point of compromising my integrity to write something that no-one will read? It’s a wonderful lose-lose scenario.

Do you know what I think is really elitist? To think that normal people can’t cope with interesting wine. Many of them won’t ever want more than just simple, affordable wine, but there’s a small subset of the population who are interested in flavour, and unless they get a chance to develop that interest by experiencing interesting wine, then this interest will lie dormant, which is a shame.

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15 comments to Some post-Rootstock thoughts on naturalness in wine

  • David Crossley

    Yes, read that twice and I still can’t find a statement I disagree with.

    People who knock Natural Wine probably look for the same certainties in their Cru Classé Bordeaux as my mother looks for in her Laithwaites’ Rioja, or smooth Aussie Shiraz (half price, of course). Some of us just crave excitement in wine, even if that means we will find variability between bottles, including “faults”.

    There’s no need, however, for those of us who seek that excitement to look down on anyone who prefers their warm certainties to adventures on the periphery of wine, whether that be natural wines, less well known wine regions, or less well known grape varieties. As a phenomenon, natural wine is growing in importance. The key is to tempt people in rather than reject them, consumers and producers alike. The attitude towards outsiders from some producer groupings is dangerous when it suggests a kind of exclusivity, and the situation with people like Bindi is a good case in point. Magic wines from people striving to make the most exciting wines they can. Rules are required but some attitudes aren’t.

  • Bob Parsons Alberta

    Good thoughts from David. Will be interesting to see consumers reaction when natural wines show up here in AB.

  • A balanced post with interesting thoughts. What is perhaps not emphasized enough is that if you like interesting wines, you also like wines with bottle age. This is where many natural wines fall down. Ageing them is a bigger risk than wine under cork, and didn’t we blast cork the last 15 years.

  • Damien

    The cheese comparison isn’t new; but still naff. Also nightmare to pair with wines to boot! Mike Bennie, one of Rootstock’s organisers, has no difficulty giving opinion on “commercial” wines too on Winefront. So what’s all the hand-wringing about?

  • No group should own the word ‘natural’ as it applies to anything. It’s implicit that outsiders aren’t ‘natural.’

    Winemaking is a process carried out by living organisms – yeast, bacteria and humans. Commercial yeast and sulfur dioxide are not magic bullets in winemaking. I don’t see how their use makes a wine less ‘natural.’

    Commercial yeast were just plucked from a fermentation. They’re freeze-dried and re-sold. A little warm water and they come back to life! Kind cool. What exactly is the problem?

    Yeast and humans make sulfur dioxide. How’s that not ‘natural?’ Why is sulfur dioxide allowed at bottling and not before? That seems arbitrary.

    Why not only wine from wild grapes? Never mind the practices used in a vineyard. Does anyone really want to argue a monoculture vineyard is ‘natural?’

    Why not only allow the fermentation to be in some container, not made by humans, left outside? Anything else would not be ‘natural.’

    Are wine bottles ‘natural?’

  • Nice article that sums up how I mainly feel about Natural wine but even though you started out saying the rules should be relaxed to allow “almost-natural” producers of interesting wines to exhibit, you end by going back to the Natural versus Commercial divide that we see far too often. As you know, there is a huge amount of wine – in fact all the greatest wines I know – that sit somewhere between Oyster Bay Sauvignon Blanc and Clos de l’Origine’s cloudy Muscat.

    Im my experience, once someone starts off by describing their wine as Natural, the chances are that it will be rubbish. If the methods a winemaker uses produce a wonderful funky and unique wine that is delicious, that’s great and that producer should be praised. If they did so by avoiding any additions, that’s even more impressive. But if they avoided additions and ended up with something that tastes like winery waste, there’s nothing to praise. It doesn’t do any good to defend such failures by saying that there are crappy industrial wines.

    The point is that if you are going to be an artisan. If you are going to do things naturally and by hand, you need to do it well.

  • I tried a few ‘natural’ wines over Xmas and like all wines, some I enjoyed and some I did not. And, whether or not I enjoyed them had nothing to do with their ‘naturalness’. Some were good wines, others were not.

    I think the concept of a ‘natural’ wine with a relatively short life, going from grape juice to vinegar in say a year (give or take) is an interesting one. When we buy a banana we might buy it slightly green and keep it until we judge it to our taste and then consume it. The choice is ours. Likewise other fruits and veg, milk, eggs, fish, meat etc. Usually refrigeration is used rather than preservatives to keep the produce in good condition until the consumer buys it, but after that it is up to the buyer to decide when and how they want to eat it.

    Wine, however, is different. It tends to be a more expensive purchase, so whilst the odd banana that is too black to eat can be accepted, the odd bottle to pour away is (for most) too much of an expense. With most other food stuffs we can see a colour change, feel a change in texture or smell if the items are unripe, ripe or over the top. Not so with wine. Its sealed and, until opened, a complete mystery as to its quality and condition. How, therefore, are natural winemakers to produce and sell wines that the public will have the confidence to buy? Should all natural wines be refrigerated from farm to customer? Should they have a sell by/consume by date so that the public have some guide as to their shelf-life? Should they only be sold in bars, restaurants etc where a sommelier has control over stick-keeping and can serve the wines when they are a point? The problem is a real one and needs to be addressed if natural wines are to gain friends in the wider wine world. I don’t think natural wines are going to go away and as vineyard owners and winemakers discover ways of making wines with less intervention at all stages, all wines will become more ‘natural’.

  • Steve Connolly

    Analogies can abound here. This one, I think backs up stephen’s point. Our washing machine died and so we needed a new one. We could have decided to buy one from a small local craftsman who takes spare parts from old machines, makes new parts in his forge if he needs to. The machines are all unique but have a reputation for being inconsistent. We bought Miele on line from a well known department store.

    I’ll buy the odd wine now and again which may be called natural, artisanal or quirky, but usually with the recommendation of the seller. I will try new regions, new grapes and new producers, but as Stephen points out, I can’t afford too many mistakes. So a degree of consistency is important even for people who by definition (I read your blog) are not normal.

    A good balanced article as ever Jamie.

  • One of your best posts Jamie and some great comments too. I’m finding it interesting that the whole natural wine “argument” seems to have shifted a bit as the year has gone on to be less “them and us” and more inclusive. Hopefully more great wines will evolve in 2016, officially natural or not.

  • Making wines “naturally” is tricky. It is necessarily small-scale, intensely manual and dependent on almost-continual human supervision and control, but it is also highly satisfying (“quod potui feci”) when you get it “right”.

    The product of this labour, in which the costs of fertilisation, stabilisation, conformation and the capital costs of production equipment are substituted by the labour costs of the land proprietor, is difficult for commercial structures to adopt as the product is naturally (ha!) variable and of very small scale.

    Surely the answer therefore is to celebrate both disciplines (/creeds)? Marvel at the industry of the large-scale, uniform-product commercial winemakers. Buy their wares when you want or need a predictable and reasonably priced solution (there’s a need in modern life for pre-grated mild cheddar.) But, once you’ve found your equivalent of the artisan cheese shop (an online natural/organic/biodynamic wine specialist) also delight in the one-off, hand-made gem that blasts your senses with intense and extraordinary creations.

    As for that odd bottle – don’t pour it down the sink. Re-cork it and give it to someone else (or swap it!) – one drinker’s poison is another’s delight and the conviviality of sharing is part of the joy of wines, both industrial and natural.

  • Great article Jamie. As an independent retailer, analogous to the artisanal cheesemonger in your piece, I wrestle with the issue of consistency when it comes to natural wines. I offer to refund or replace faulty wines, along with most of the trade, and I can’t see that natural wines should have a different ‘caveat emptor’ policy. I have refunded a lot of natural wine particularly when customers buy cases. Staff are nervous about recommending them, distrustful about the buyer’s enthusiasm about the ‘good’ bottles they have sampled. As in the Bindi example, ageability and some consistency are crucial for the reputation of both the winemaker and the retailer, both because wine is expensive and once in the hands of the consumer completely out of your control to explain/control/influence. It is different for restaurateurs who can control quality at the point of service. I love good interesting wines and many natural wines are that but unless we can confidently retail them ‘normal’ people won’t have access to them. More wrestling with the issue in 2016.

  • “… Natural? Well, not quite. There is little that’s natural about a vineyard, be it biodynamic or businesslike. Grape vines in nature do not line up in regimented rows, nor trim their own trunks. Their natural inclination is not to make hooch for humans. It’s to climb trees, seek sunlight and make baby vines. We severely subvert that natural endeavour by annually offing their offspring and drinking their blood.

    There is even less that’s natural about wine. Grapes in the wild do not change into Grange. They turn into new vines or sour grapes. Wine is a much manipulated beverage and is no more “natural” than raw-milk cheese, brown sugar or Brazilian blondes …”

    http://www.timatkin.com/articles?272

  • An interesting piece Jamie, with some even more interesting comments.
    I know that I have gained a reputation for being broadly against ‘natural’ wines. To be precise, I have no problem with the concept of making SO2-free wines, or any other form of experimentation. My main problem has always been with the holier-than-thou attitude which has always put me in mind of the Life of Brian: the proposition that any wine produced outside the (less than established) ‘natural’ rules is fundamentally less ‘worthy’. At least one well-regarded naturalist reportedly refuses even to taste ‘conventional’ wines, which I find downright silly.

    But I have other problems, alluded to by Stephen and Hal: if it is acknowledged that ‘natural’ wines are almost bound to be less consistent and long-lived than ‘conventional’ ones, it seems only reasonable to expect their producers to indicate this in their back labels. Gerard Bertrand’s SO2 Naturae wines come with a best-before date. I’ve tried them before and after that moment and there is no doubt in my mind that buyers should follow the back label advice if they want to enjoy the wine at its best.

  • There is something inherently weird in the concept of “natural” wine, as if wine were a product of nature like fruit hanging on trees. While grapes may be natural, wine is a cultural product, at the core of the history of Western civilization. I am all for winemaking with minimal intervention, but that is generally accepted practice for many high-end wines, not just “natural” ones. And as others have pointed out here, it’s often just a way of selling stuff with off flavours, sometimes at ridiculous prices.

  • Robert Walters

    Thought provoking Jamie and followed by some excellent comments. I agree with the comments above that state that that the cheese analogy does not work at all – most of the worlds greatest wines are artisanal (i.e., not industrial) but use enough SO2 to ensure stability and age worthiness. They do not fit in either camp. Also, not often discussed is that most of France’s greatest winemakers can’t stand the term (even though many such producers are revered in natural wine circles). To quote a man who is often described as one of France’s finest white winemakers,”Natural wine is simply a marketing term.” No one who thinks deeply about wine should use this term. It is either deeply naive or deeply disingenuous.

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