Odd flavours, off flavours

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! 

About Henry

I’m a drinks writer. My day job is features editor at the Master of Malt blog. I also contribute to BBC Good Food, the Spectator and others. You can read some of my work here. I’ve done a bit of radio, given some talks and written a couple of books (Empire of Booze, The Home Bar and the forthcoming Cocktail Dictionary).
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16 Responses to Odd flavours, off flavours

  1. A really good, balanced piece Henry. And I sympathise/agree with almost every word. Re the real ale, I’d guess that the culprit here was brett. The problem is that brett comes in various forms, one of which is very familiar to brewers (who know how to handle it).
    The point to be made about Vin Jaune, Rancio wines and Gueuze beer (not forgetting stinky cheeses) is that these are made by people who know what they are doing – and trying to do. The same can be said of successful “natural-wine” makers. My bitch is with the ones who plainly don’t know what they are doing – or don’t care – and behave like experimental chefs who expect their customers to pay full prices for all the dishes that fail.

    • Henry says:

      Thanks Robert. I think you’re right. Having done a bit more research, it seems the right word for this fault is ‘mousey’ which makes it sound more endearing that it is.

  2. cosmicfarmer says:

    Hello Henry – great post as always; I particularly liked your summation of the Europe debate and the well-deserved plug for Jura’s excellent Vin Jaunes. As a trained oenologist and viticulturist, I will also try and help you out on the technical side.

    I very recently spent two days slurping and spitting my way through in excess of 400 wines at the excellent RAW wine fair, which was showcasing more than 200 ‘natural’ producers. As a winemaker, albeit one who has always favoured organic or biodynamic grapegrowing over chemical means, I must admit I was slightly sceptical of ‘natural’ wine.

    For the most part, however, my scepticism was misplaced. There were, of course, a few duff wines but the majority were well-made, well-grown and had startling intensity and length. I haven’t tasted the wine you write about but I think the ‘stale ale’ taste you are referring to might be the leesy/cheesy smell that comes from the wine sitting for a long time on its lees. Lees, or dead yeast, can add a wonderful creamy, biscuity richness (think Ovaltine) to wines and is strongly anti-oxidant, a property which many ‘natural’ winemakers utilise in lieu of adding sulphites. Too long on the lees, however, and you can get a stale cheesy note which I find quite unpleasant.

    The other common fault I noticed, mingled in with this cheesy note, was a build-up of acetic/ethanoic acid as the wine slowly (or sometimes less slowly without the protection of added sulphur in the form of potassium metabisulphite) turns to vinegar. Of the 400 or so wines I tasted at RAW, less than 50 were too leesy or too oxidised/acetic for my tastes. I must stress that the majority of wines, with or without, sulphites were excellent, vibrant, living wines, and a joy to taste… if only all wines were so good.

    Anyway Henry, I hope that was helpful. I’ve written in more depth on natural wines and biodynamics on my new blog: http://blackhandwine.wordpress.com – I hope you don’t mind me plugging it but I so far have 0 followers! Keep up the good work, and chin chin,
    Your fan,

  3. Henry says:

    Thanks you Sam, I will follow your blog with interest. ALways nice to read someone who really knows what he’s talking about.

  4. Wink Lorch says:

    Love your thoughts on this knotty subject, Henry.
    Regarding the Jura wines you enjoyed at the tasting – Vins Jaune, Savagnin (that has been aged the same way but not reached the requisite 6+ years) and the traditional Chardonnay/Savagnin blends some under AOC Arbois but many as you say Côtes du Jura, are technically not oxidised, they are oxidative, which means they have been aged with some exposure to oxygen but have not gone all the way to being oxidised. The ‘voile’ or veil – a mix of yeast similar to Sherry’s flor – that is allowed to settle on the surface of the wine in Savagnin barrels destined for Vin Jaune ageing actually protects the wine from full oxidation. As for the acetic acid, well that should in theory be held in check with these Jura wines, though naturellement certain producers who are more ‘natural’ than others will have a slightly higher level.
    Jura does indeed produce seriously peculiar wine that can become addictively interesting…

  5. Lovely piece. Something similar could be said of olive oil. The oil from around Beit Jala is rancid, which I think makes for something distinctive and delicious. It makes it difficult to sell – but it’s drunk domestically and highly prized across the region.

  6. Henry says:

    Hello I hope you don’t mind that I was vastly simplifying Jura wines for a lay audience. It was a fascinating tasting. I’ve loved Vin Jaune for a few years now and it was a great experience learning more about the region. Hope to run into you soon. Henry

  7. Henry, nice post. I would only add two things. Firstly, many of the world’s finest growers produce wines that are “made with no additives and little or no sulphur…” but they feel no need to use a marketing term like ‘natural wine’ to sell their wine. You have suggested that there two sides to this debate, those who are for natural wines and those who are against it. I would argue that there is a third position. Those who are totally open minded and in fact delighted with the myriad wine styles and wine growing/making approaches available in the market today (so no issues with the wines themselves) but have ‘issues’ with the term “natural wine” as they see it as a gimmick used to sell wine not on the basis of quality, but rather with the misleading suggestion that they are more natural that many other wines. They also, by extension, suggest that the wines of the finest growers, those pioneers of BD or organic and terroir driven viticulture (who in my experience, to a person, cannot stand the term ‘natural wine’ and therefore refuse to use it) produce wines that are somehow less natural – a great injustice. I am in this latter camp. I am a complete pluralist when it comes to wine – people will like what they like and the more diversity the better, but I do think it is a great shame that we now have such confusion in the trade about what authentic wine is these days. Just when we had made so much progress with the distinction between authentic, terroir driven wines as opposed to their mass produced, conventionally farmed counterparts…

    • Henry says:

      Hello Robert

      That’s just it! Good wines have much in common whether they’re marketed as ‘natural’ or not. In my own rather roundabout way, this is one of the points I was trying to make: polarised positions serve mainly to confuse outsiders and create false oppositions.

      I think I’m mainly in your camp though I’m not really concerned about whether the grapes are farmed conventionally or otherwise as long at the wine is good.

      thanks for reading

  8. Hi Henry, Wine can be good from conventional vineyards for sure, but it will never be as terroir expressive as it could be if the grower is not maximising life in the soil. The vine needs microbiological life in the soil to truly engage with its environment. To me this makes conventional wines less authentic. And it is obviously a great shame in great terroirs to limit how a vine engages with its soil. This is the logic that has driven almost all of the great growers to organics or BD. Not a fundamentalist, ideological approach which seems to drive many ‘natural wine’ zealots, but a practical, quality first approach. How do I make the best possible, most terroir expressive wine in a way that will maximises vine and soil health and ensure future generations can do the same? The answer to this question will always lead to methods that maximise life in the soil. Herbicide, the foundation of conventional viticulture, (not to talk of pesticides, chemical fertilisers, soil compaction, etc) does the opposite.

    • Henry says:

      I agree that overuse of synthetic fertilisers, herbicides etc can do tremendous damage to soil, vines and wine quality (or rather I have read that they do), and perhaps all things being equal, organics is better than conventional farming, Yet I don’t ever try an old Bordeaux or champagne and think, how much better would this be if they’d farmed organically? Many great wines have been made from conventional farming. Organics is the new orthodoxy and, not knowing terribly much about farming, I’m not dismissing it but there are still many great wines being made with a little help from man-made chemicals especially in marginal climates. I think the problem comes when growers are wholly dependent on them.

  9. @WineLaird says:

    I’m with Robert walters, he’s got it right.
    . Vins jaunes were the forst white wines I got really excited about in about 1973 at a wine weekend at the Imperial in Torquay. Yes, we did have such things then. They may even have been the first!

  10. Sally says:

    Living where I do, I haven’t had the opportunity to taste natural wines but will try and make amends in Europe this summer. As an observer from afar it does seem that there are two camps but I really hope that the open-minded third camp prevails. Such an interesting post and comments section. Learned so much reading this.

    • @WineLaird says:

      Key to early wine trade education in the seventies was establishing ‘faults’ – mousey (bacterial)etc – rather dour to those of us with Arts background. However the discipline I find that has dropped out since then was the importance of colour assessment,not only for ageing, but also how it would clearly show on a corked wine. Try it next time. Dullness and brilliance told one straight away if something was up that you suspected on the nose.
      Honestly, pretty much all white wine had bits in, utterly normal then, unacceptable now, insects were common, filtration primitive..The consistency of finished product is amazing compared with thirty years ago RJ, incidentally, was massively, almost single-handedly in the early stages ,responsible for driving improvements in the reduction of cork taint ..
      Perhaps the great thing to have come out of technical improvements has been the diversity of tastes revealed . Take Italian whites – bar the odd frascati and verdicchio, the wines we imported were universally dreadful, oxidised, tasteless. Now you can look at six different versions of Fiano di Avelinho and find them all interesting and revealing.. We are lucky, but only because others have done the hard work.

  11. Henry, don’t disagree that great wines can and are made with conventional farming but the question is would they be better, and equally, would they express more character (and by extension more terroir) if they were farmed without chemicals? As far as France goes, with the exception of Bordeaux, today, very few wines widely accepted as great are made from conventionally farmed soils. It doesn’t necessarily follow (in a purely logical sense) that they are great because of they way the are farmed but this reality tells you a lot about which type of viticulture tends to lead to the best wines. The finest French growers are no fools and they work the way they work because they have found it makes better wines. By the way, when you say old Bdx, if you are talking pre the 60’s and certainly pre WW2, then the wine was almost certainly not farmed conventionally, in the sense we use that term today. It was “organic”, only that there was no need to use such a label as this way of farming was the norm. It was really the 60s and, even more the 70s, when agrochemicals became the norm. I don’t need to tell you how many disappointing wines were produced in these decades.

  12. Henry says:

    Sadly nothing terribly old. Quite a few 85s, 90s, 96s etc. I should have said mature rather than old. I did once have a 1961 Malartic-Lagraviere a couple of years ago which still tasted young.

    I’ll leave this debate for now because on the whole, I agree with you. Most vigenerons I meet who make superb wine do farm without synthetic aids. But for me the proof is always in the tasting, and I wouldn’t want to ignore farmers just because they might think it best for their crop to spray with fungicide occasionally. They know better than I do. (I met a grower in the Languedoc who made the best Picpoul I have ever tasted who was certified organic but then faced the choice between losing his crop to mildew or spraying. Of course he sprayed)

    I find the dogmatic side of organics etc. off-putting. I think you have to start with growing the best grapes possible and go from there. This takes many people down the organic route but others don’t. There’s also a lot of irrelevancies, for me, bound up in the organic movement – it’s healthier! it’s greener! it’s ethical! I just a really good glass of wine.

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