The concept of ‘naked’ or ‘natural’ wine is best understood by what it is a reaction to. On my honeymoon a couple of years ago my wife and I stopped at a winery in the Napa Valley. There was a tasting room in varnished pine with a marble floor. We paid $25 (it may even have been $25 each) and the man behind the counter poured out a glass of something approaching the consistency of cough syrup. It smelt of coffee and Ribena. So thick was the wine that sipping it proved to be a challenge. On swallowing my mouth was overwhelmed with tannin, alcohol, sweetness, chocolate and coconuts. I made a face and the man behind the counter smiled and said ‘it’s good isn’t it? Our wine maker designs them so you can still taste it fifteen minutes later.’
Alice Feiring has a word for wines like this – ‘spofolated’ – high alcohol wines made from over ripe grapes pumped up with added tannin, enzymes, yeast, tartaric acid, and smothered with sulphur dioxide to make them stable. These are expensive wines designed to impress rather than to drink with food. Naked Wine is her exploration of people trying to make wines with as little manipulation or addition as possible; wines that reflect where they come from and the vintage. Her last book, The Battle for Wine and Love, was a not entirely successful blend of autobiography and wine manifesto. I enjoyed it but also found it frustrating. The new one though still eccentric is much tighter, more thoughtful and surprisingly unpolemical. It’s both a voyage of discovery and a snapshot of an exciting time to drink wine.
The book can be split into three parts. In the first part Alice attempts to make her own wine at DaVero winery in Sonoma from the sagranto grape and is frustrated with the compromises that she has to make – adding water to the wine to temper the high alcohol and using sulphur. Perhaps California really is only good for designer wines. The second part is a quest through Europe to find the best way to make ‘naked wines.’ Is it possible to make a wine without compromise? There are echoes of great quest stories especially The Wizard of Oz with Alice as Dorothy looking for home. The wizard role is played by a French vigneron called Jacques Neauport. All along the way she keeps hearing his name sometimes in praise or sometimes mentioned as a once great man who had lost his way. The second part ends with an anti-climactic meeting with Neauport who claims no great wisdom only to want to make wines that he can drink in large quantities. Could the great wizard be merely a drunk?
Neauport isn’t the messiah but in refusing this role he imparts the wisdom that Dorothy, sorry I mean Alice, knew the answer all along: ‘naked wine’ is an ideal not a formula or a dogma. Each vintage must be approached anew. You might have to compromise and use sulphur, add water or, heaven forbid, use cultured yeasts because in the end your livelihood depends on making something to sell. Part three has her visiting a Californian wine maker called Coturri who produces kosher wines that would probably appeal to M. Neauport. Finally at the end she tries her own wine again: ‘the wine was good and I was proud.’ Alice realises that her country can make wines free of artifice. She is home. The book, however, ends for me on a melancholy note as her wine will be sold, to Alice’s dismay, by DaVero for $75-100 a bottle. Most of the European wines that she loves cost between $15-$30. Wine in California is still and probably always will be a rich man’s hobby whereas in Europe it is imbedded in the culture.