Authentic wine

Jamie Goode and Sam Harrop’s Authentic Wine: Toward Natural and Sustainable Winemaking is the most extensive (technical) review of natural wine making to date. The authors prefer the term authentic wine to recognize the fact that wine is not a spontaneous product of nature but requires a competent winemaker. As the authors point out on many occasions, “natural” is a matter of degree. So why aim for non-interventionist wine making in the first place? The answer that appeals most to the authors is that it allows for the purest expression of terroir. A fair degree of non-interventionism is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for making good wine. As such, the authors do not reject, and in some chapters seem to strongly support, some manipulation of the wine to allow for the best expression of terroir, a perspective that no doubt is controversial with those who practice natural wine making because they value non-interventionism as such. One could argue that the writers are terroirists first, and non-interventionists second.

I think the rejoinder to such a “terroir through manipulation” perspective would be to argue that if non-interventionist wine making leads to a poor expression of terroir, then either the wine maker is not creating the proper conditions for the grapes and wine to develop, or one is trying to make wine in an area (i.e., soil, climate) that is simply not suitable for their choice of grape, style, or even wine making at all. The authors actually seem to be quite sympathetic to this outlook because the book is full of examples of how many wine “faults” can be avoided without manipulation of the end product. Ultimately, the implied verdict seems to be that natural wine making is an advanced form of wine making for a specific subset of consumers, and does not permit a lot of room for errors or ignorance. I think there is a strong parallel with spontaneous fermentation in beer making here. Despite the rhetoric about letting nature take its course, lambic brewers usually have a deep and thorough understanding of the conditions and variables that affect their beer, even if they do not always express this in the technical language of brewing science.  In today’s world, natural wine making and spontaneous fermentation of beer is a choice and one that is usually made by people who accept and embrace the challenge — hence the (mostly) superior results.

One of the most interesting chapters in the book is about ripeness and alcohol levels. The authors show how syrah performs in cool and warm climates, and how picking times influence terroir expression. Picking the grapes too early will result in low alcohol, unripe, and harshly tannic wines, and picking the grapes too late will produce high alcohol, low acid and uncharacteristic “soupy” wines.  Of course, personal preference matters and that is why the authors show an “optimum window for terroir expression” instead of one single time point. For example, I personally prefer wines that are very dry, lower in alcohol, with good acidity and tannins, with restrained green notes, which requires relatively early picking of the grapes. As a general rule, writers on natural wine agree that (excessive) new oak and high alcohol overwhelm the expression of terroir. The authors quote winemaker Scott Burr: “alcohol is a masking agent…so taking it away reveals what’s there.” I am inclined to think that this applies to many beer styles as well. For example, a high gravity beer with a lot of post-fermentation residual sugar is not ideal for showcasing the differences between different fresh hop varieties. It may not be a coincidence that most lambic producers, and Cantillon in particular, keep their alcohol percentages on the lower side of the spectrum and generally avoid new oak.

This book stands out for a relatively detailed discussion of yeast and fermentation in wine. In contrast to brewing, the use of the indigenous (“wild”) yeast on the grapes has never really gone out of style in wine making, despite the increasing popularity of inoculating wine with commercial yeast. I suspect that, aside from the more traditionalist culture associated with wine, a major reason is that the differences between the results of spontaneous fermentation in wine and the use of commercial yeast in wine are smaller than the outcomes for beer. As a general rule, spontaneous fermentation in beer leads to distinctively dry, tart and funky beers that do not appeal to the average beer drinker. In wine, spontaneous fermentation can produce funkier wines, but the degree of funk is not of the magnitude that we see in beer – although it strikes me that it should be possible to “direct” a natural wine towards a far more funkier expression, something I suspect some French natural wine makers deliberately aim for.

Brewing with brettanomyces, or even 100% brettanomyces, is now quite popular in craft beer brewing. In wine making, brettanomyces is considered a “fault,” even among many natural wine makers. The reasoning is that brettanomyces inhibits the expression of fruit and blurs the distinctions between grapes and terroir.  Having said this, some of the most prestigious red wines have a faint brett character that some feel adds complexity. Even the authors consider the possibility that the presence of brettanomyces might work in some specific wine styles. I have tasted a number of wines where the presence of brettanomyces was unmistakable — in some wines I agree that it impoverished the wine, in others I think it positively amplified the dark, brooding, and rustic character of the wine. As far as I am aware, unlike beer drinkers, wine drinkers never express an explicit liking for brettanomyces. Whether this psychological barrier reflects a fundamental, and correct, recognition that brett generally has no place in good wine, or a reluctance to embrace the unorthodox results of spontaneous fermentation, remains to be seen. What is clear, however, is that brewers of funky and sour beers have a (practical) knowledge about the complexities of brettanomyces fermentation and expression that is usually absent among wine writers.


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