I first read about natural wine less than a year ago, but more recently the term just keeps cropping up. Unlike Bio and Biodynamic farming practices there aren’t any formal standards that define natural wine, it’s just a term coined by the media to describe a trend. The definition I like is 1) Grape growing to Bio or Biodynamic standard 2) No added yeast 3) No filtering or fining and minimal racking 4) No other additives such as sugar, tartaric acid and stabilisers including (the big one) sulphur.
Now I could fold my arms and state “so what” since all these practices have been a trend for many Languedoc vignerons for years even though they never seem to talk about «vin naturel». I find a great deal in common with the nouvelle cuisine fad coined by journalists to restaurant food in the 1970s. It was a move away from heavier usually overcooked dishes dominated by cream, butter and flour - techniques developed to make indifferent ingredients interesting. Many of France’s top chefs were cooking lighter, fresher last minute dishes where the flavours of local regional ingredients were allowed to shine. There are more than a few parallels here. Turning indifferent grapes into something drinkable is one. Then there is the contrast between international style wines that could come from anywhere vs. regional wines with the character and taste of the area (expressing the terroir). Natural wine making must be the way people originally made wine with the big difference being modern hygiene and equipment combined with global shared knowledge. Perhaps an extreme example of retro is fermentation in Amphoras (giant clay pots) - something one domaine in the Rhone is trying.
Going back to my “so what” stance I’ve checked details of domains I regularly imbibe. Of those where such info is available, most qualify as natural wine except in the yeast and sulphites department – by far the two riskiest aspects of natural wine production. I’ve heard of one small producer losing 20% of their vendage to a natural fermentation gone wrong. Nevertheless, many rely on indigenous yeasts such as, I quite quickly found, four top notch domains from the Terrasses du Larzac: Montcalmes, Mas Conscience, La Reserve d’O and La Terrasse d’Elise.
When it comes to the high-wire act of no added sulphur I’ve since discovered, following a cave and vines visit, that Ribiera in Aspiran is in that category (my October tasting notes, when I didn't know the wines were "natural", are here). A tasting of all ongoing cuves was fascinating. A barrel of 2007 Rousanne was at 15.5% and still fermenting (apparently it’s not like this every year). Oak is no longer used as it disguises expression, plus I suspect up front cost is an issue. Syrah is being phased out in favour of heat loving Cinsault and Grenache. More mysteriously, old Carignan has been grubbed up and that vineyard put up for sale. Bottled wines are kept in temperature regulated storage in Montpellier to ensure stability.
Returning to my nouvelle cuisine parallel, it was soon tarnished with a bad name as it was practised by chefs who jumped on a fad without the skills demanded by the style. It's also long dead when it comes to describing restaurant food today although, tellingly, all the principles are alive and well in contemporary dishes.
For now, I've made a New Years resolution to try some more extreme examples.
Fiona Beckett writes a great natural wines blog with plenty of links in her posts here Wine Naturally.
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