There’s a lot of talk at the moment amongst us wine bores about natural wines – wines made with no additives and little or no sulphur. Positions have become entrenched, harsh words have been said. I foresee a schism. The debate, as far as I can tell, boils down to this: those who don’t approve of natural wines say ‘some of them are horrid’ and those who do either reply ‘well some of yours are horrid too’ – this is known as the schoolboy defence – or ‘what is horrid? – the French philosopher defence.
The problem with heated debates is that they only serve to obscure the facts. Uncommitted bystanders are asked to choose sides when actually what we want is information. The novelist Nicholas Blincoe put this rather well recently when he said that the argument over Europe could be boiled down to one side shouting ‘cappuccino’ and the other side ‘gypsy.’ We’re left none the wiser.
As natural wine is made in a risky way, it doesn’t seem a controversial thing to say that there is a greater chance that some of them will have faults, some of them will taste horrid. The logical retort would be yes, there is this risk but it’s worth it for the highs that can only come from wine made in this way. I call this the cycling without a helmet defence. Perhaps it is dangerous but it’s worth it on a sunny day to feel the wind in your hair. It’s not one that anyone seems to use and I’m not sure why. Would accepting that natural wines have a greater tendency to spoil undermine the whole concept? Does anyone outside the wine world really care? Is anyone reading this post?
I will give you an example. I tried a wine called Fou du Roi 2010 from Les Temps de Cerise at a recent Roberson tasting. It had the most gorgeous ripe vivid fruit, a touch of CO2 sparkle, and a lightness and and sense of fun that shouted ‘natural wine’ Then, however, a wave of something I can only describe as badly kept real ale hit me. I’m not sure what the technical term for this is, or whether there is is even a technical term.
Generally I would describe myself as a natural wine enthusiast. I am also very tolerant of ‘faults’, vinegar, oxidation, etc. I can deal with. I particularly love old school Rioja, Chateau Musar etc with all their quirks and foibles. I like a bit of Brett – a yeast infection that makes a wine smell of old socks. I like white wines made with skin contact so that they turn orange. Basically I love wine. But one thing I can’t put off as a quirk is that stale smell. It means that I am reluctant to order any wine described as natural on a restaurant wine list. I’ve had this often with natural wines, gorgeous fruit and then old beer.
Some of these wine were from highly-lauded producers. What I want to know is whether they were meant to taste like that. Everyone else at the Roberson tasting was slurping and spitting without recoiling. Am I abnormally sensitive? In order to appreciate them do I have to get used to this taste?
The following week I went to a tasting organised by the wines of Jura. Now here are some seriously peculiar wines. Imagine a cross between white Burgundy and a sort of farmhouse sherry and you’re nearly there. The best wines – Vin Jaunes and Cotes-du-Juras – were oxidised and some of them had a sharp tang of acetic acid – vinegar. These wine were on the whole amazing. Last night I had a Rancio wine from the Roussillon – yes that means rancid – the wine is left in old barrels, not topped up and left to oxidise in the heat until they take on nutty, fruity flavours. All these things in a table wine would be considered faults but here they are elevated into something beautiful, especially with a nice piece of Gruyere.
If there is anyone out there who knows the technical term for the stale ale taste, please could they let me know. I want to learn!