Nature’s Cred in Truth and RAW

My impression at the Real Wine Fair in March and this weekend’s RAW Artisan Wine Fair, both in London, is that the standard of wine-making at both of these shows, open to trade and consumers alike, has markedly improved.  I suspect a good number of producers whose wines were reeking of obvious faults over the last three years of these shows, have not come back.  I’m sure there was as high a proportion of good wines at these ‘natural’ fairs as at the mainstream and definitely not ‘artisan’ London International Wine Fair running this week.

Every year of course, the social media airwaves hum about ‘natural wine’ with pointless repartee and polemic that goes like this: on the one hand the totally relativist deniers of faults in wine. These people say anything goes, if I like a wine and it smells and tastes OK to me, then it is. You can like what you like. There are no objective standards of quality in wine, so expertise is pointless. Pile in and sort out what you like. This position of course will not accept any criticism of a natural wine. If someone likes it, it is just fine. If you don’t like it, that’s fine too; it’s all a matter of taste.

The opponents say this: a fair proportion of natural wines are either technically faulty (the whole gamut of lazy or laissez-faire winemaking, but oxidation, reduction, high levels of brettanomyces and some uncontrolled ‘cidery’ wild yeast effects are common) or break the rules of classic styles so markedly, that they are unacceptable.

I am always bemused by these fruitless discussions.  To the deniers of faults I can only say that from presenting wine to people in tastings for 20 years, most of them cannot bear to smell or drink obviously faulty wine.  They also quite rightly send it back in restaurants. I am astonished at the number of quite serious and experienced wine professionals who are silent or even praise many wines that reek and are disgusting. Worse still is the excuse that these wines are ‘intellectual’ or ‘cerebral’, implying you are thick if you don’t like them.

To the fault finders, and I do find more weird and distasteful smells and aromas in wines toted as ‘natural’ than in mainstream wines, but some non-naturals can stink too, I also have an answer – the faulty wines are in decline.  Soon most natural wines will probably not show faults as naturalistas get better at making them.

And if you think it is taboo to make styles that break the mould then have a think.  Most wines we like now started out as styles that were innovative.  Champagne for instance, even champagne made in wood, and the ‘new’ claret of the 18th century.  Wines made in stainless steel; I could go on.  If you don’t like ‘orange wines’ because they are tannic white wines and you think white wines should not be tannic at all costs, I think I part company with you if the wine in question has no obvious other flaws.  If the tannins are too unripe and dry that’s another matter, but tannin in white wine may be original or fairly recent, but in itself it is not original sin.

First, to be positive, there were some towering wines on show at RAW this weekend.  But as a start I tasted the best cider I have ever found: Cidrerie de Vulcain from Switzerland (unimported) and the wonderfully manipulated intelligent oak regime to avoid oxidative spoilage shown in the great Pinot Noirs of Mythopia from Hans-peter Schmidt of AOC Valais in Switzerland too.  (also unimported).  I hope the champagnes of Tarlant go without saying.  Highly technical viticulture and winemaking at Tarlant too, to interfere with and control the ravages of nature as well as utilise them.  And in case my champagne bias is too partial, let’s go to the deep south of France: the zero SO2 Banyuls’ of Vinyer de la Ruca are outstanding, complete in their handblown catalan flasks – see picture (unimported).

The whole range of Les Clos Perdus from Languedoc Roussillon was outstanding again, as were the subtle and complex wines of Olivier and Emanuelle Varichon from Domaine Vinci in Roussillon. The burgundies of Château Génot-Boulanger, especially the Meursaults, I found very convincing.  Equally the vivid wines of Weingut Judith Beck from Burgenland in Austria and the wines of Cobaw Ridge from Macedon, Victoria in Australia and Shobrook from the Barossa.  Eric Texier’s Domaine de Pergaud in the Rhône, uses highly interventionist (and so high non-green CO2) carbonic maceration to great effect. From Italy, Veneto, I tasted one of the few Proseccos I’ve ever thought worth drinking again, bone dry and flavourful at 2.2-2.9 bar pressure: Costadilà. (unimported). Finally, in Lombardy, Italy, the delicate and racy Nebbiolo wines of Valtellina from Fay, were remarkable (see picture).

As for the wines masquerading as wonderful because of the ‘naturalista’ methods they were made by – I’ll never accept a wine judged by how it is made and not by how it tastes. Assess a book by the way author lives, not by reading it?  A car by what the factory does, not by driving it?  I’ll just give two examples of what I consider the emperor’s clothes of natural wine at the RAW fair:  I do think the wines of Frank Cornelissen from Etna, Sicily are largely suspect, with fleeting perfumed strawberry cream Nerello Mascalese notes but then spoilt by acetic volatile acidity and finally a huge hit of bum-clenching dry, hard, clumsy green tannin.  These wines are for me not just daft prices, especially Magma, but often poorly made.  There is no doubt nobility of intent behind them, fanned by critics into a cult, but the jury is out.  I also question the wines of Catherine and Gilles Vergé from the Mâcon, zero SO2 but very hit and miss with reduced and cidery flavours often, yet lauded to the skies as high priests of ‘natural’ by some.

It would be a shame though to pigeonhole natural wine for some of its current failures in the bottle, or its obviously successful lifestyle appeal to young chic London gunslingers (RAW was packed) and set in hot East London’s Brick Lane.

Likewise it’s too easy to ridicule the pontificating psychobabble about ‘Wines that have a humanlike, or living presence.’ (RAW catalogue), when there is much total babble written on the back labels of conventional wines. And it’s easy to poke fun at the disingenuity of the way marketing’s most suspect word –  ’natural’ – has been hijacked by people who profess extreme dislike of trendy marketing.  Or the arrogant implication that all non-natural wines are somehow beyond the pale.  Or the conceit of calling any wine ‘natural’ when even the lowest intervention viticulture and winemaking is a huge operation aimed at controlling and modifying the course of nature.  And some so-called ‘natural’ wines have been protected from early spoilage with reductive hi-tech winemaking which may well minimise oxidation faults or from careful barrel regimes to achieve settling without filtration.  I have no mainstream objections to either approaches or both together but they are hardly ‘natural’ and need both expensive technical kit, elaborate and expensive barrel cellaring and often pricey and hardly ‘green’ refrigeration.

I have concerns too about the quality claims for ‘natural’ wines which imply these are often superior in finesse and subtlety to what is called the ‘international’ style of fine wine.  Yet having tasted hundreds of ‘natural’ wines at RAW and the Real Wine Fair over three years and in between, I find there is a ‘generic’ natural wine, especially for red wines.  It may not have any technical faults or unpleasant flavours.  But many are ‘potty wines’ – which stands for POT.  ’P’ for the fruity primary nose and attack one often meets.  Then ’0′ = zero for a lack of flavour or interest on the mid-palate, and then ‘T’ for tannin – hard, clenching dry over-extracted tannin from clumsy winemaking.  There’s nothing new about ‘natural’ wines like this.  They can be fun and everyday but are basically rustic. They were called ‘country wines’ in the 1980s and Steven Spurrier’s book French Country Wines (1984) and Rosemary George’s book of the same title (1990) sang their praises as ‘not too sophisticated, satisfying and genuine.’  Many of today’s ‘natural’ wines are like that, but are not exactly new wave.

My main reservation about RAW is that ‘natural’ is becoming a bit of a misnomer for the wine producers under this banner or similar groupings.  The huge range of techno intervention on show from little to thoroughgoing makes it hard to justify putting all these producers under one ‘natural’ banner.  The declaration from RAW and others that nil or very low total sulphur levels is one of the ‘natural’ criteria is simply untrue.  Half of the producers on show at RAW had at least one wine to taste in their range and often the whole range, with total SO2 at or above 40mg/L.  At pH 3.4-3.6 50mg/L total for red wines is seen as a minimum in traditional winemaking, but 40mg/L is hardly nothing.  What in fact is the commonest link between the RAW producers is that all of them profess or are certified for being organic or biodynamic in the vineyard and that they are, on the whole, very small, hands-on producers.

But heck, it would be stupid to call this the ‘Small Producers’ Organic Wine Show’.  There were many joyous wines to taste.  And just a bit of stretching Nature’s credentials too.   Long may it continue.

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