I love natural wine (well, whatever that is…), but as with any style of wine there’s good and there’s bad and then there’s some stuff in the middle. So, here in a spirit of friendly fun-poking, here is my prototype clichéd natural wine producer review. [Just in case you were trying to guess, this doesn’t refer to anyone in particular. It’s a composite bit of satire.]
Two weeks ago I visited Domaine XXXXXX in the XXXX region of France. XXXX and XXXX met when they were both working vintage with famous natural producer XXXXX in the XXXXX. They fell in love and decided they’d like to have their own vineyard, so in 2005 they each sold their Paris apartments and bought a remote, semi-derelict farmhouse. 14 years later the farmhouse is still being renovated, but around it they have planted 3 hectares of vines, using fourteen different varieties that they like a lot. They farm using cosmohyperorganics, which is a growing system they found out about while on a yoga retreat in the Austrian Alps, and have two horses and six cows in addition to their vines. They hosted me on a Sunday afternoon and were clearly still hung over after spending Friday and Saturday at a big natural wine fair in Lyon.
The first wine I tried was a Pet Nat. They decided to make a Pet Nat because their Japanese importer was asking for it, and they had some spare press wine fermenting in barrels that they didn’t know what to do with. So while fermentation was still progressing they took the wine out of barrel and bottled it. They think it had around 20 g/l sugar but they weren’t sure because they did it by taste on a Monday morning after a hectic weekend where they only got four hours sleep over three nights. After three months fermenting in bottle they tried opening a couple, and found out the hard, messy way that roughly one-third of the contents gushed straight out. After googling ‘nucleation sites’ and calling up a (trained) winemaker friend for some advice they realized that they’d have to disgorge the wine. The result is a slightly sweet, modestly fizzy wine that tastes like an alcopop, but goes down a storm in natural wine bars. The label was designed by one of their children – their six-year-old boy XXXX (it was a picture they had on their fridge that he’d bought home from school) – and the bottle is sealed with a crowncap.
Then we went to their white, a blend of most of the white grapes on the estate. Chardonnay, Sauvignon, Pinot Blanc, Garganega and Petit Manseng. These were all harvested together and whole-bunch pressed, and went to old barrels without settling, where it fermented using indigenous yeasts and no sulfites. Two of the four barrels went reductive and one developed a bit of mousiness. After 8 months in bottle, the wine was blended into tank and bottled unfiltered and unfined. Analysis showed it had a pH of 2.8 and a TA of 14 g/l, but they are happy because they say that they are acid freaks and you can’t have too much acidity. VA was 1.3 g/litre, and residual sugar was 6 g/l because one of the barrels stuck. The wine has strong matchstick reduction with searing acidity and flavours of lemons, lime, honey, bruised apple and disappointment. There’s also a slight vinegary edge, and a gentle taper on the finish into strong mousiness. This demonstrates that it is possible to have reduction and oxidation in the same wine. The wine is also slightly spritzy because it decided to do some malolactic fermentation in bottle. They say that they are quite happy with this because the carbon dioxide protects the already partly oxidised wine from further oxidation (no they haven’t heard of Fick’s law about diffusion of gases), and if the wine is carafed for an hour it diminishes. One of the leading natural wine critics gave this wine a stellar review and their New York distributor took most of the production at a very good price. So they are happy. Label design was by their 11-year-old daughter.
Next up: their orange wine. They were quite upset when a previous visitor accused them of jumping on a bandwagon, because they had been planning to make a skin contact wine for at least a year after their Dutch importers asked them for one. So they took a couple of tons of white grapes (Catarrato, Muscat and Riesling) and fermented them on the skins in a couple of macro bins, one of which was whole bunch (the destemmer broke half way through vintage). After fermentation slowed down, they covered the bins and added some carbon dioxide and left them in the corner of the cellar. Six weeks later after a holiday to New Zealand they were moving some barrels and they rediscovered the ferments (which they sheepishly admit to having forgotten about), so they pressed them off to and old foudre and left the wine without sulfites for another 6 months, before bottling from the cask in clear glass sealed with a crown cap. The wine is a copper colour with a hint of vinegar, some grippy tannins, attractive apricot and peach notes, and a strong medicinal, phenolic, germolene edge. When someone suggested the wine might have brett, they were surprised, but lab analysis showed a 4EP level of 2600 mg/litre. They admit that this might have something to do with the pH of 4.2 and the absence of any added sulfites. There is no label: instead they write the name of the wine on each bottle individually using a white marker pen, a process that seemed a good idea at the time but which they admit is now a time-consuming chore.
Finally, we tasted the red blend, which comes from their solitary hectare of red grapes. This block is planted to Pinot Noir, Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, Lagrein, Ploussard, Merlot and Petit Verdot. The grapes hand picked at varying maturities (the average was 19 Brix, and they picked five weeks earlier than their neighbours in late July) and then were fermented whole bunch in five macro bins, with minimal extraction. After an initial quick treading by foot, the fermenters were closed and left for a week, with the caps kept wet by using a watering can whenever they remembered to check. After six days of fermentation the wine was pressed to old barrels and allowed to finish fermenting, before blending and bottling with a prophylactic dose of sulfur dioxide (10 mg/l added before bottling). This infusion-style wine is a pale red in colour, and tart and acidic, with notes of cranberry, herbs, undergrowth, green apples and regret. With a volatile acidity of 1.5 g/l, it’s not for cowards, and there’s no doubting its natural credentials. Once again, the label was designed by one of their children (their eight-year-old girl, this time), the bottle sealed with a DIAM closure and wax dipped. It has sold out, despite an ex cellar price of 40 Euros.
It was a great visit.