Sunday, October 31, 2010

Should natural wines be more consistent?

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to my colleague Wink Lorch’s comment on my first post about lack of consistency in natural wines. Not least because we took along a bottle to an event last night which wasn’t showing at its best. (We decanted it into a jug and it was fine half an hour later but that wasn't much consolation to the people we'd poured it for. I’ll come back to decanting another time.)

Expecting wines to be consistent is a comparatively new thing of course. Thirty or even twenty years ago we all talked about vintages and expected wines to be different every year. Then wine became more marketing-led and we expected our favourite brand to deliver the same flavours from one year to the next. Of course champagne is made exactly that way, blended to achieve a consistent product.

Natural wines aren’t like that. The natural winemaker doesn’t have the battery of ingredients the commercial winemaker has at their disposal to make up for nature's deficiencies and so the wines can be, yes, quite different, sometimes disappointingly so.

We don’t expect consistency in food though, particularly if we buy organic produce. Yesterday I was at a cheese fair tasting artisanal cheese which tastes different at different times of year. Fruit can be more or less juicy depending on the weather while it’s ripening. Apples may crop more or less heavily from the previous harvest - and be different sizes. Lambs will taste different depending on the time of year they’re born and how old they are when they’re slaughtered.

When I go to the hairdresser I don’t get exactly the same cut every time. If I go to a gig the band they may well play my favourite numbers a different way.

We accept variation in other fields so why not in wine?

* One thing I would admit though. It’s a more hit and miss process ageing natural wines. The wine we drank last night - Hurluberlu St Nicolas de Bourgeuil from Sébastien David would have been better drunk within 3 months of purchase when it would have had more of a chance of retaining its youthful vibrancy. And not bottled in a screwcap bottle which I suspect doesn’t do much for natural wines.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Why drink natural wine?

Or, more to the point - why devote a whole blog to it? It’s a long story. My husband got into natural wine a couple of years ago and I have to say I was rather sniffy about it. I thought most of the reds I tasted were unappealingly rustic and a lot of the whites tasted of cider.

As the months have passed - and we’ve identified better producers - I’ve come round to it, discovering wines that have an incredible intensity and purity - and which don’t leave you wrecked the next morning. Most are produced organically, some biodynamically but the key thing that defines them as natural is that the producer uses a minimum of sulphur and other additives during the winemaking process.

The big difference I’ve found is that I don’t feel like going to sleep after I’ve had a couple of glasses - something I attributed to the high levels of alcohol in many modern wines but I now believe to be due to the high levels of sulphur they contain.

I’ve also discovered a whole array of new flavours in wine - not always attractive, admittedly. Natural wines tend to be tremendously varied and don’t always taste of the grape variety they’re made from. I’ll explore these and other criticisms over the coming weeks and months.

They’re also, of course, more expensive than the wines I feature in my other wine blog Credit Crunch Drinking which I'm aware will put some of you off but I hope to persuade you that they're worth it. Drink better, drink less is my new mantra.

What has triggered this blog is that we went on a fascinating trip through France last month, driving down through the Loire, through the Languedoc and up through Burgundy during the course of which we met a lot of remarkable winemakers I don’t have room to write about elsewhere.

By and large they’re one man (or woman) bands trying to sell their wine without the marketing budgets of large corporations and often without the support of their regulatory authorities.

There are also many independent merchants now specialising in wines from natural winemakers and other small producers who may not have taken the trouble to get organic and biodynamic certification but whose wines have a real sense of place. I plan to write about them too.

This is still a journey of discovery for me. I won't pretend I know much about the technical side of winemaking. I'm not an MW (Master of Wine) but I'm a passionate wine enthusiast who wants to see small winemakers and shops survive and flourish in these hard economic times. As I hope you do too.