I attended earlier this week a natural wines dinner hosted by well known Australian wine writer Max Allen at the genial Montague Hotel in South Melbourne. The food and wines were good, and so worth mentioning, as well as the underlying premise of the evening – a practical debate on the merits of natural wines led by probably Australia’s leading advocate of sustainable wine.
While various more formal definitions might be bandied around (of natural wine, not Max), the general idea seems to be that it is wine made with minimal intervention during all steps of the production process. Jamie Goode and Sam Harrop MW cover the issues in detail in their newly released book, Authentic Wine: Toward Natural and Sustainable Winemaking (University of California Wine Press, 2011). In their words:
“What is a natural wine in this context? There is no strict definition, but there are common approaches that most growers who align themselves with the [natural wine movement] take. The chief desire shared by all is to make wines with the fewest possible manipulations or additions. Interestingly, the main emphasis among natural wine producers is on what happens in the winery; while many practice organic or biodynamic viticulture, some do work conventionally. Most commonly, though, a natural approach in the winery is coupled with vineyard mangement that seeks to preserve the life and fertility of the soil, eschewing herbicides and widespread use of agrochemicals. Natural wine production relies almost exclusively on yeasts present on the grape skins and in the winery environment to carry out fermentations. Sulfur dioxide additions are kept to a bare minimum or done away with entirely.”
I think the concept of natural wine does not seem objectionable. In fact it seems rather friendly and furry. I suspect that many people, given the choice, would probably prefer their wine without wood chips, excessive sulfur dioxide, non grape tannins, gobs of tartaric acid, bags of sugar and some of the other more obvious non “natural” additives. This is probably because they wouldn’t customarily, at least without phoning ahead, order these items separately on a restaurant menu. But there is a catch. At least in its drinkable format, wine seldomnly will appear (or survive) without human intervention, and chemically and hedonistically, many of these additions may help rather than hinder a wine. Thus, questions of the naturalness of wine, or otherwise, are somewhat fraught, for wine is not particularly natural – assuming, of course, as these debates often do, that humans are unnatural. Fortunately, this catch seems mostly well understood.
These debates, a bit like organics more generally, have a tendency to morph into a quasi political narrative, with good v evil cartoon like caricatures available for the key players (mass market homogenisation v artisinal anyone?) Me? I admit while I’m attracted to some of the fluffy sentiments that go with the territory of keeping products natural for the reasons just mentioned, ultimately, I am governed by the hegemony of taste. My local organic retailer who seems to prefer to prominently display rotten bananas is perhaps a case in point. Rotten bananas are rotten bananas, organic or not, expensive or not. Yet my guess is that few, including me, are close minded to the idea of embracing, or at least letting exist, wines that are a bit different or out there (perhaps nee faulty). So, I remain open minded, and yes, the splinters on the fence do hurt from time to time.
Being somewhat late, I quaffed an unnoted prosecco on arrival that was really quite good, and somehow managed to miss Adam Foster’s (winemaker of Syrahmi) renowned salami, which was hidden in plain sight. So, that is a highly useful start for the reader. Dinner instead commenced for me with an unexpected entree of chicken wings, Thai fish cakes and, I think, a kind of meat dumpling, offset by three really rather interesting white wines. The first wine was close to wine of the night, being a Domaine Meyer-Fonné Alsace Riesling 2009. I wasn’t entirely clear as to what made this wine “natural”, though I see that it was vinified using natural yeasts. Anyway, that didn’t matter, because the wine was glorious. A pure aroma of talc, citrus and honey was accompanied by long length, high acidity and a touch of petillance. Simply an excellent riesling (12.5% abc, Very Good).
The second wine, the Thierry Puzelat Thésée Touraine 2009 (a sauvignon blanc) was a bit cloudy, and had, if I am to be frank, a terrible aroma. In polite company, one might call it “flor yeast” like. Another description is a blend of toothpaste and freshly cut grass. I can still smell it now writing several days later. It was certainly distinctive. The palate was better with high acidity, medium length, menthol, but was too funky for me (13.5% abc, Acceptable). I understand from the importer’s website that this wine was made “totally naturally without any chemical additions”.
The third wine was the unusually named Dandy in the Clos, Birds … No Boundaries 2011 from the Hunter Valley, a blend I recall (Google reveals little on this occasion) as being of chardonnay and verdelho and macerated on the skins of gewurtztraminer. Somewhat tricky for a “natural wine”, then. It was also somewhat cloudy. This wine kind of worked, if a touch simple in result. An aroma of musk sticks (the candy ones), flowers and lychees. On the palate, nice length and acidity. A generally pleasant drink that doesn’t overly excite (14% abc, Acceptable to Good). I wonder if it is easy to sell wine with this name.
The reds were accompanied, in my case, by a classic steak frites. Though I have never yet been to a restaurant before where I have been asked whether I would like my steak cooked “medium”, “medium-well” or “well done”. Did the “rare” or “medium-rare” get off at the wrong stop? Oddly enough then, I was surprised to see the steak arrive medium-rare. Accompanied were two flights of three reds. The first was the Pierre Gonon Les Iles Feray Vin de Pays de l’Ardeche 2009 (a syrah). Now, one of the more unusual things I have done was to compete a few years ago in an annual bike ride/race call the “Ardechoise“, which introduced me to the possibility that a hill could be so long that you could get cold descending it. The Ardeche however despite its proximity to the Rhone, is not well known for its wine. Adam Foster suggested that this wine was not eligible for the well known St Joseph appellation due to a technicality. Anyway, the wine had an aroma of plums, spices and confectionary like red fruits, and didn’t taste unlike a St Joseph. The power of suggestion. Its natural attributes were not discussed, though I understand from the importer’s website that it is bottled without filtration. On the palate, short of medium length, good acidity, plums and spice were there. This was a lovely balanced wine but is not a vin de garde (12.5% abv, Good).
The second wine was the wine of the night, in my opinion. The Syrahmi Heathcote Shiraz 2009. A lovely aroma of plums intermingled with good French oak. The palate was classy and understated, with plums and very good length (15 to 20 seconds) evident. An excellent balanced wine (13.2%, Very Good). Winemaker Adam Foster described his approach as non-interventionalist, if only on the grounds of (an unlikely story) laziness.
The third was the Foster e Rocco Heathcote Sangiovese 2010. This wine had a typical aroma of sour cherries, with good length and firm tannins on the palate. There was however some hardness to the tannins (13.5% abv, Good).
Undaunted, the third and final set of three wines arrived. Clos du Tue Boeuf Cheverny 2010 led the charge. For someone who follows French wine fairly closely, Cheverny was a new appellation for me. It is in the Loire Valley, with the reds predominantly a gamay-pinot noir blend. The light strawberry colour was perhaps the giveaway. The aroma was of stalks, cut grass and a touch of that “flor yeast” character again. Interestingly, Clos du Tue Boeuf is made by Jean-Marie and Thierry Puzelat (see above), so this appears a signature of sorts based on these two wines, be it terroir or the winemaking. I thought it handled better though in this wine. The palate had medium plus acidity, length, and cherry flavours (11.5% abv, Good). The wine was made from grapes that are grown biologically and made naturally without any chemical additions.
Next, quite an interesting Cotes du Rhone, namely the Renaud Le Clos de Grillons La Pointue Cotes du Rhone 2010. A typical juby, rasberry fruit aroma with a touch of deli meats. On the palate, medium plus acidity was accompanied by spices, length, medium tannins and a touch of heat (15% abv, Good). Despite its alcohol level, the wine proved quite popular. And finally, and perhaps poetically, we ended with a disaster.
The Bobar Yarra Valley Syrah 2010 (not shiraz …) It had an aroma of Sicilian olives in brine. Now, don’t get me wrong, I like Sicilian olives. I just don’t like my wine to smell (and taste) like it. The palate was the same, except that there was also evidence of re-fermentation in the bottle. I understand that the wine is bottled without filtering or fining, made with natural yeasts, and sees minimal sulfur dioxide additions. This bottle, in my opinion, was faulty, naturally made or not (12.5% abv, Faulty).
Overall, what an interesting set of wines! I feel fortunate to have attended a dinner like this, where clearly quite some thought has gone into the wines. Natural wine or not, the vast majority of these wines tasted extremely good.