Drinking Outside The Box

With Simon Woods – wine for people who have a life

Natural Wines Part 3 – The Gospel according to St Douglas October 22, 2010 at 9:33 am

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No company in the UK has done more to espouse the Natural Wine cause than Les Caves de Pyrene. I recently wrote a piece for Spectator Scoff on the subject, and contacted various wine merchants for their opinions. The reply from Doug Wregg of Les Caves was so stimulating that (with his permission) I thought I’d post it here. And if you missed the two videos I’ve just done on Natural Wines, the whites are here and the reds are here.

How and when did you first become aware of natural wine, and was there one particular wine that piqued your curiousity?
About three years ago I went to a few specialist Parisian natural wine bars and tried a few wines. They were all “Vin de Table” and the flavours were unfamiliar and exciting. I recall a red Rhone from Eric Pfifferling (Domaine Langlore), a Chardonnay from Olivier Cousin in Anjou and a supeb Macon from Clos du Vignes du Maynes. My interest was piqued!

How do you define Natural Wine?
Wine made with the minimum number of interventions, additions and subtractions. It has come to mean organic or biodynamic wines that are made with natural/wild yeast ferments, no enzymes, no filtration, no fining, minimum or zero sulphur dioxide in the winemaking process. I would add that a more philosphical note that it is wine that tastes of itself and where it comes from rather than a wine which is tricked up with winemaking techniques.

Some people have complained about the term ‘Natural Wine’ – what’s your opinion of it, and if you’re not a fan, what would you call it?
I don’t mind. It is like a banner – people will rally to it, or attack it accordingly. In one sense the vigneron is letting nature take it courses in the winery as far as possible, so the wines are natural. It is about respect for a natural product and not trying to change it into something else that tracks the palate of the mythical consumer or wine buyer. The reason why people don’t like it is that it suggests that other wines are not unnatural, which is debatable, because it is a matter of degree in the end. The other thing to bear in mind is that this is not so much a defined movement as a loose confederation of subordinate groups, friends and like minded growers who attend the same salons and festivals. It is a useful term in that in allows people to identify certain philosophical similarities between the growers whilst equally recognising that they are all individuals trying to make the best (and truest) wine they can.

What are the most misunderstood aspects of Natural Wine?
There are so many!
Some wines are made reductively (without oxygen) – this is a recognised technique not a fault
Some wines are made oxidatively – this is also a recognised technique
That no/low sulphur wines are inherently weird. They are not! No more so than conventional wines. Natural wines are meant to be primarily drinkable ie not forced, not extracted, not heavy, plenty of natural acid, low in tannin – the primary response that they are meant to evoke is not awe but pleasure. Techniques such a whole bunch ferment and carbonic maceration favoured by natural winemakers in many parts of France create wines pour la geule (for one’s gob), fresh and fruity numbers that are in no way bizarre.
That they go off quickly. A lot of red wines are meant to be drunk in the short terms.Perversely, one might say, the whites are for the longer haul. But natural wines do respond to temperature variation. The reds, in particular, want to be served at cool cellar temperature, otherwise they become diffuse.

In the vineyard, those making Natural Wines will obviously pursue either full-on organic or biodynamic viticulture. However, what’s the feeling about things like rootstocks, trellising and growing other crops among the vines?
There is less accord how what you need to do in the vineyard. This is partly because regional and local climatic and soil conditons dictate activities in the vineyard. In the Loire, because it is a marginal climate with lots of potential disease, oidium, rot etc the biodynamic treatments are seen as specially important. This is not the case in the Roussillon, for example. No crops would grow there and the old vines have deep root systems and the bush vines are not going to be uprooted in favour of trellised systems. The notion of organic and biodynamic viticulture is create biodiversity, healthy soils rich in nutrients, bug life and humus, and as part of an integrated pest management programme. Biodynamics (ignoring some of Steiner’s wilder notions) has a lot of practicalities for certain growers and serves to strengthen the resistance of the vine to disease. Vineyards which rely on invasive chemical treatments are dead vineyards.

Are there such things as good & bad processes in the production of Natural Wine? Clearly, alcoholic fermentation, good. But Malolactic fermentation? Acetification? Oxidation?
Not really. There are bad natural wines just as there bad conventional wines. You get secondary fermentation in the bottle, which is not necessarily a problem, but shows the active yeasts still at work. There is the danger of bacterial spoilage, but, touch wood, we’ve had hardly any problems. The wines have to be treated on their own merits. We have a couple of very offbeat wines that are so reductive that 99/100 people would say that they were undrinkable. However, if you carafe them and leave them, and leave them not just for hours, but for days, they get fresher and fresher and become totally delightful. Go figure. Science only knows what it knows, which is not everything. Some of the most natural wines develop internal defence systems against oxidation, but in their primary unevolved state, appear to be undrinkable. (Not very useful for restaurants, I admit!)

Controlled oxidation is not something which is to do with natural wine per se. It is true that there has been a rejection of new wood towards the larger foudre of vessel and there is a consequent oxidative process (particularly in white wines).

Do sparkling and fortified wines qualify as ‘natural’?
Yes, indeed. Petillant naturel wines are all the rage (ha ha). Second fermentation in the bottle, no dosage (unlike most champagne), no filtering off the lees, no added sulphur, put a crown cap on et voila!

In what ways do you see the philosophies of those producing Natural Wines having an influence on producers of other wines?
Well, the mantra now in winemaking is less is more. The point about natural wine is that the less you do to the wines, the more the terroir signature comes out. This is slightly controversial because some would argue that the wild yeast ferment signature obscures the actual terroir flavour, but I think this is bogus point and can be largely disproved by tasting the wines. It is interesting that organic is almost old hat, biodynamic is fairly mainstream even if the growers don’t subscribe to its philosphical aspects. Wild yeast ferment (for red wines) is commonplace and the use of sulphur is being reduced – although not just because of natural wines; the advent of screwcaps contributes to this trend. Finally, I think people are tired of drinking highly manufactured blockbuster-styles and the winemakers are beginning to understand that biggest is not necessarily best.

Natural Wine will never be mainstream, but how much penetration of the wine market do you think it will achieve?
I hope it will never be mainstream, because it articulates an artisan approach to winemaking which can never satisfy the voracious demands of supermarkets for scrupulous consistency – a clean wine is clearly a godly wine. We are witnessing the beginnings of the natural wine bar scene so evident in Paris now in London. Terroirs [the London wine bar part-owned by Caves de Pyrene] is only the beginning and I am pleased that it has inspired others to go down similar routes. I think these wines should surprise, intrigue and fascinate people; I don’t want them to get bored with the same old, same old. So it will be peripheral, but more significant than the volume of wine sold would indicate. Incidentally, I should probably mention that we are in the process of organising or being involved in organising the UK’s first ever Natural Wine Fair. It is still in the planning stages, but the other wine merchants are on board, as well as Slow Food potentially and other organisations.

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Brilliant Doug, and for more of his words of wisdom on natural wine and other subjects, check out the Caves de Pyrene blog – it’s a struggle to think of more entertaining, thoughtful and provoking wine prose on the Internet today…

And if you’ve not been to Terroirs, do yourself a flavour…

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