Tuesday, October 4, 2011

How natural wine changes your palate

One of the things I’ve noticed since I started drinking natural wine regularly is how much it’s affected my palate. I can not only spot a natural wine in a tasting line-up but am also much more aware of winemaking practices such as chaptalisation and acidification and of what I now regard as excess levels of alcohol.

I wince at the harsh artificial acidity of a warm climate white and what now seems the excessive dosage of many champagnes which suddenly taste uncomfortably sweet. It’s like the moment when you realise you don’t need that spoonful of sugar in your tea. I really don’t like reds so lush that they taste like a fruit liqueur. I feel the effect the morning after when I drink wines that have commercially acceptable levels of sulphur.

Conversely I love the pure, pristine flavours of many natural whites and the vivid, delicious fruit of so many reds - like eating a bowl of freshly picked berries. It’s got to the stage where the wines we buy for our own consumption are almost all organic or biodynamic or made following similar practices. (I’m not religious about sulphur or certification.)

Is this a problem for a wine writer (for those of you who don’t know I write a weekly column for the Guardian)? I like to think not. Wine writers have probably always had a different taste in wine from their readers if for no other reason that we get to taste a great many more wines. And our passion for wine means we tend to spend more disposable income on it than many of them will choose to do.

Jancis Robinson, for example, has a passion for riesling and I seem to recall her stating that she's not a big fan of Sauvignon Blanc. Tim Atkin has a weakness for white burgundy.

A generation ago patrician wine writers like Edmund Penning-Rowsell would have had a superb cellar made up largely of Bordeaux. Critics who review cars probably drive a more expensive car than their readers. Enthusiasts invest in their hobby.

Your tastebuds also change. I remember in the early ‘90s when I first started taking an interest in wine I was crazy about New Zealand Sauvignon. Now I find the flavours of many of the cheaper examples overpowering and unsubtle. Even in the states there’s a move away from the ‘Parkerised’ reds to which so many producers and consumers were in thrall just a few years ago. The article Eric Asimov wrote in the New York Times last week on the lack of structure of many New Zealand Pinot Noirs almost certainly wouldn't have been written in 2005.

There’s an element of fashion about all this. We don’t drink the same wines as we did just as we don’t wear the same clothes - though I’m obviously waiting for someone (probably my husband) to tell me he still wears the same coat he bought 20 years ago.

So how - if at all - have your tastebuds changed and if so what wines do you like now and which have you left behind?


  1. Fiona, this is a great post on a subject I've been thinking about a lot lately. The great majority of the wines I've been drinking over the past two years have also been natural and I've noticed a change in my palate very similar to what you describe. I too now find unsubtle wines like NZ sauvignon and Napa pinot and cabernet high alcohol fruit bombs, and I find myself craving the purity and subtlety found mainly in wines made with a natural philosophy.

  2. I wonder if this taste of 'purity' is wishful thinking in fans of self proclaimed natural wines. Having attended the natural wine fair in Borough in May for two days I too can often spot a natural wine in a line up as the most common tastes I encountered were wine faults from a shockingly high percentage of wines. If a wine is oxidised, or has excess VA or aldehydes it masks its origins, terroir and 'natural' flavours. Of course there are good natural wines too but I prefer to praise results when the process works and not fetishize that process regardless of result. Jefford was quite interesting on the subject this week on Decanter.com

  3. Excellent post.

    I can't say that I know a natural wine from a lineup but I'm becoming attuned and desiring certain tastes that I identify with a natural approach.

    I would love to taste with you sometime.

    Thanks for writing this.

  4. Q. are "pure, pristine flavours" and "the vivid, delicious fruit" only achievable in proclaimed natural wines ?

    I don't believe so. Sure there are many natural wines that exhibit these qualities, but not all. Just as there are also good wines that don't proclaim to be natural.

    I agree one should not be too hung up on certification, as good wine should be seen as just that.

    As to your question...
    My taste buds have evolved and even as an Australian I now give a wide berth to the big shiraz as I prefer the more restrained European styles.

  5. @Martin Moran He was. Here's the link for those of you who haven't seen it.


    I disagree with you - and Gregory - though on natural wines. I do think there is a purity and minerality, a live quality in the best wines that is particularly characteristic of biodynamic viticulture. Obviously there are exceptions to that. Just making wine naturally doesn't make you a good winemaker and there are many great wines that wouldn't classify as natural though my own definition (see top right of the page) is probably more inclusive than most.

    I think we also drink many reds too young. Those big shirazes (is that the right plural?) would probably be delicious in 7-8 years time.

  6. Natural wines extend your palate by adding new taste sensations to your experience, or help you to accept and include more. At the same time they make your palate more sensitive to badly-made wine or wine that contains what it shouldn't. This is only normal. If they do change your palate, it can only be in a good way.

    I remember standing, a few years ago, on the colline de Corton with a great sommelier who was comparing two vines from two different winemakers, one grown in biodynamy, the other not. Same age, same variety, same soil. Not exactly same soil; the biodynamic soil was lusher and darker in color, it looked moister and richer. The difference in the vines was outstanding: the biodynamic leaves were shinier and of a brighter color, the branches were springier, the whole plant was seemingly bursting with life. He simply told me: "You see, this sums up the difference between natural wines and classicaly-grown wines."

    However many wines not labeled as natural or biodynamic are extremely well made; I love natural wines but I will always be a fan of Bordeaux and Sauternes crus classés, as I am of all well-made wines. Now in France I don't think there are many grands vins left that are not at least grown in "agriculture raisonnée". After Pontet-Canet, Château-Climens switched to biodynamy a couple of years ago, and I think more grands crus will follow. Not everybody likes natural wines but they certainly are helping to change not only our taste but also the way we look at wine, and the way wine is made.

  7. Great contribution, Sophie, thankyou. I think your last point is exactly right - it's the knock-on effect the natural wine movement is having on conventional winemakers that in many ways is the most interesting development.

  8. For some reason Fabio of Vinos Ambiz hasn't been able to post his thoughts so he's asked me to add his comment on this post:

    Very interesing post.

    Addressing Martin Moran's doubts about 'purity': OK, some (most? I don't know) natural wines have
    come characteristics (eg, acidity, levels of oxidization, VA, etc) that are beyond the limits of acceptability for conventional wine-tasters, who are usually quick to assert that the wine is
    'faulty', though I've noted that the general wine-loving public seems to be more tolerant.

    I think this is a question of personal taste, ie the limits of acceptability, or drinkability, are
    different for each individual, and for professionals these limits may be rather narrow, as they're too accustomed to the homogenized international standard that is considered 'good' today. I believe of course that there is a limit somewhere on the scale, where terroir is masked by extreme values, but I also believe that globalization is forcing traditional regional wines styles to be judged according to criteria that is not appropriate to them.

    It has to be borne in mind that there are many widely different natural wines out there, and that
    this niche is not at all like the conventional, globalized, homogenized, international standard of
    wines, where the range of 'acceptability' is limited.

    I think that all we sensible people know that not all natural wines are good just because they were
    made in a certain way, but should be considered on their own merits. "The proof is in the bottle". I would walk away backwards from a person who affirmed that all natural wines were better than non-natural ones!!

    Also to be borne in mind is the fact that oxidized wines are not considered to be faulty by the consumers who buy them or by the winemakers who make them! They're a genre of wines in their own right, made that way on purpose! Like blue, mouldy cheese, for example. A conventional cheese-lover would recoil in shock and horror on being presented with such a cheese for the first time, and would immediately assume that it was 'faulty'.

    There's also the 'quality' question. Does one just want a wine that 'tastes good' no matter what it takes? Or does one care about the ingredients and the processes. Food analogies spring to mind, eg an industrially produced pie tastes just great, but is there any comparison with one that's been made by your local butcher? I mean 'real' quality here, not just mere compliance with legal or technical

  9. There is no doubt that once you wholeheartedly fling yourself into exploring natural wines it becomes very difficult to enjoy conventional wines.
    They often seem clunky and heavyhanded afterward, as well as 'dead' in the mouth.
    There is a vitality and freshness to natural wines that chemically induced wines cannot emulate. Also, a celebration of the mineral and the savoury aspects of wine, not simply the fruit character.