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.

Voodoo Vintners

There has been a recent spike in books about organic and real wine making. I was intrigued to read about Katherine Cole’s Voodoo Vintners: Oregon’s Astonishing Biodynamic Winegrowers because it does not just aim to provide the story of the peculiar world of (Oregon) biodynamic winemakers, but I also hoped it would enable me to get a better grip on who is doing natural wine making in Oregon.

Like the author, I have mixed feelings about the “black magic” that is biodynamics. To the degree that it refers to a form of mixed agriculture that emphasizes biodiversity, self-nourishment, interdependency of organisms, and health of the soil, I find little to object to. But when Rudolf Steiner informs us that “a cow has horns in order to send the formative astral-etheric forces back into its digestive system” it is hard to remain serious. What becomes quite evident in Katherine Cole’s book is that many biodynamic wine makers (which include some of the most prestigious wine makers in France) who practice biodynamics are simply common-sense business people who just get better and more sustainable results from this approach. Another factor is that some of its methods go back a long time in the history of human agriculture, which creates a sense of historical continuity, something that is important to many Old World wine makers, and those who are inspired by them.

The chapter ‘Science..or Sci-Fi’ has some amusing observations about the attempts of some biodynamic practitioners to square their approach with quantum mechanics. As the author correctly observes, quantum mechanisms has become the ‘go-to’ branch of physics to explain mysterious things and grandiose ideas (other examples are the fields of consciousness research and religion). But this produces an odd situation for biodynamics. Writes Cole, “They tell us that modern science can’t calibrate their style of farming. At the same time, they draw from one of the most youthful and arcane branches of science, quantum mechanics, to claim that praying for their plants is a valid way to go about running a farm.”

Of most interest to me was the chapter ‘The Neo-Nateralists,’ where she draws some useful distinctions between organic wine making, biodynamic wine making, and natural wine making. Both biodynamic and natural wine making go “beyond organic” but biodynamics does not necessarily exclude irrigation or manipulation of the end product (acid adjustment, micro-oxygenation, etc.) provided that the label simply confines itself to saying that the wine is “made with biodynamic grapes” instead of using the stronger certification “biodynamic wine” (which still permits irrigation). It strikes me that most, if not all, that is good in biodynamic wine making is also practiced in natural wine making and to the extent that the two approaches differ, natural wine making is more explicitly aimed at capturing the expression of terroir.

Quite characteristically, organic wine making is so common in Oregon that it is often not even mentioned on the bottle. Similarly, there are a non-trivial number of biodynamic wine makers in the state, some who have chosen not to be certified by Demeter, the official biodynamics certification organization. And there is the Deep Roots Coalition, an advocacy group for the production of wine sourced exclusively from non-irrigated vineyards.

Organic wine making in Oregon is more prevalent than organic beer making, which seems quite typical for the rest of the world. Aside from demographics, wine makers are directly exposed to the effects of their farming methods whereas beer making has mostly disappeared as a farm-associated source of income, even among lambic brewers.

Voodoo Vinters is a witty little book about Oregon’s burgeoning biodynamic and natural wine movement. I personally would have preferred more emphasis on “plain” natural wine making but it would have been only half the fun without the hilarious, but not disrespectful, treatment of the mysterious biodynamic “preparations” and the role of the moon. It is not a guide to Oregon wines, but following the leads in the book will allow the reader to identify some great local wines. And — big plus (!) — when the writer ventures beyond the topic of wine, she is quite modest and level-headed, too.

Piquette and the lambik stoemper

Sometimes legitimate concerns about modern techniques and manipulation of beer and wine leave the impression that in the good old days people routinely drank and demanded the real stuff. In the case of wine this is highly doubtful. As Patrick Mathews writes in his book Real Wine: The Rediscovery of Natural Winemaking:

Since time immemorial wine has been an expensive drink…The historian Theodore Zeldin describes how until well into the 19th century, real wine was drunk only by the well off; the working class settled for the piquette, which was made by adding sufficient sugar to the crushed skins and pips left over after winemaking, to enable them to re-ferment.

In the case of beer, it is undoubtedly the case that for ages natural fermentation played an important role in brewing. But this fact by itself does not imply that these beers were invariably good and preferable to many of today’s more manipulated beers.

It is quite reasonable to assume that older generations of (Belgian) beer drinkers may have had a higher tolerance for “sour” beers, but the existence of the (in)famous lambik stoemper (an iron flat disk attached to a handle to crush and dissolve sugar into the beer) raises questions. For example, were the people who used the lambik stoemper as smitten with sweet beers as today’s youth? Or were these lambics so acidic that even today’s traditional lambic connoisseurs would be tempted to reach for the lambik stoemper? It’s hard to tell. There may be a few very old lambic vintages left but it is hard to know for sure how these ancient lambics actually tasted.

It is interesting to note how different writers report on the use of the lambik stoemper. Jean-Xavier Guinard (corroborated by Cantillon) writes that the lambik stoemper was usually presented with a small dish and two lumps of sugar to sweeten a Kriek. Jeff Sparrow and Jef van den Steen discuss the use of the stoemper to sweeten lambic and geuze in general, although van den Steen mentions that this practice was more common among the occasional lambic drinker and was met with loathing among real geuze drinkers. I personally have never seen a lambik stoemper being presented to a beer drinker and never felt in need of one (although aged kriek can get quite sour, indeed).

Interestingly, one theory about the thick bottom of the classic geuze glass has it that it allowed for the crushing action of the lambik stoemper. However, van der Steen mentions that it also allowed the pub owner to poor less lambic per glass! Again, before pub owners started fooling around with the definition of a “pint” there was a lot of shady business going on in the world of lambic, too. Perhaps I should say, especially in the world of lambic, because lambic allows for all kinds of blending and sweetening tricks to cover up problems.  Faro in particular has been known as a vehicle to rip off the customer – something that often went unnoticed with the stereotypical heavy-drinking Faro consumer…

It is now well established that manipulation of alcohol beverages (and the demand for them) is almost as old as making the beverages themselves – just like the concept of theft is almost as old as the concept of property. The real difference is that before the advance of modern beer and wine technologies, the manipulation consisted of misleading the public or cheapening the product using natural means such as the blending of cheap wine with good wine. This does not mean that there is no case to be made for real wine or beer. As the near-disappearance of traditional lambic brewing shows, modern developments can completely overwhelm good practices – resulting in mediocre and distasteful products.

I should close by noting that the word stoemper is not likely to disappear soon due to the existence of De Lambikstoempers, a local Belgian beer organization that was formed in 1999 in the Halle region in the Pajottenland.  Not surprisingly, de Lambikstoempers are known for their support and promotion of traditional lambic brewing and their involvement in the Toer de Geuze events. Not only does their logo feature the lambik stoemper, the person who is standing on the rim of the glass is Lambik, the famous character from the Flemish Suske en Wiske cartoon – the writer of those cartoons, Willy Vandersteen, was a dedicated geuze drinker.

Cantillon meets natural wine

Cantillon officialy announced their annual experimental Zwanze beer and a change in their distribution of this beer. Zwanze 2011 will no longer be released in bottles (except for tasting at the brewery) but will be made available on draft to selected pubs around the world on Saturday, 17 September, 2011. The reason for this decision is Cantillon’s desire to maintain reasonable prices and prevent speculation:

Because of my dedication to my work as a brewer and out of respect for the product itself, it is very important to me for prices to stay reasonable. Unfortunately, there are those out there who couldn’t care less about spontaneous fermentation beer but who do care a lot about making easy money. For this reason, it has been decided that not a single bottle of Zwanze 2011 will be sold by Cantillon Brewery.

Zwanze 2008 was a rhubarb lambic. Zwanze 2009 was an elderflower lambic (now occasionally available under the name Mamouche) and 2010 was a mixed fermentation wheat beer. The 2011 Zwanze beer is a collaboration with Loire winemaker Olivier Lemasson and reflects Cantillon’s longstanding interest and support for natural wine.

Like some other Loire natural winemakers, Olivier Lemasson has taken an interest in forgotten ancient grapes such as the Grolleau grape. The Pineau d’Aunis grape that is used for the Cantillon beer is another example of such an obscure (disappearing) local grape. Despite the “Pineau” in the name, this grape is not part of the pinot family (Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris) and also goes under the name Chenin Noir. Pineau d’Aunis is one of the oldest grapes grown in the central Loire and produces a light and pale wine with earthy, herbal and distinctly spicy notes (some characterize its smell and taste as a mix of Pinot Noir and Syrah).

Blending a traditional lambic with a natural wine made from an obscure local grape is exactly the kind of thing that makes Cantillon stand out from all the other lambic and wild ale producers. Ironically, their identification with the natural wine movement may result in increased attention for their beers from those quarters and even produce a greater challenge for Cantillon to keep up with demand.

For young people, it is now hard to imagine that 25 years ago traditional lambic itself was at the risk of extinction. One exciting consequence of this renewed interest in traditional beers is the rise of a new generation of sour beer brewers and blenders in Belgium and the rest of the world.

Cantillon Zwanze 2011 will be available on tap in a number of pubs in the United States but not in Oregon (or the Pacific Northwest in general), which, despite its annual Puckerfest and producers like Upright and Cascade, is more oriented towards strongly hopped ales.

The battle for natural wine

A number of factors led me to read Alice Fiering’s The Battle for Wine and Love: or How I Saved the World from Parkerization, a passionate book about the decline of authentic wine and the rise of global manipulated wine. The most influential reason was a recent trip to Paris and I assumed (correctly) that reading the book would enable me to make better choices in purchasing (natural) wine. Secondly, many of the wines that I like are organic or natural wines, but I had never really read about the topic in much detail. And last, but not least, although I rank traditional lambics among the best drinks in the world, I often prefer wine over beer, which is not that uncommon among lambic enthusiasts. As a matter of fact, I was quite pleased when I learned about Cantillon’s recent natural wine tasting event.

I learned about Alice Fiering when I was searching for the most recent vintage of Clos Roche Blance Touraine, a wine that first challenged me, then intrigued me, and then started a passion for Cabernet Franc from the Loire region in France. As it turned out, Alice Fiering did not only seem to share this preference, but also others such as the traditional Rioja’s of Lopez de Heredia with their distinct oxidized and nutty flavor, and the traditional Nebbiolo wines from Italy.

Her first book is a sustained, but often witty and funny, rant against the phenomenon of Parkerization, named after the American wine writer Robert Parker. Alice suspects that Parker has a palate of clay and holds him greatly responsible for the tendency of wine makers to produce Parker-friendly wines; big, fruit forward wines with a lot of new oak, which are usually produced through a fair amount of manipulation. It is not always clear whether Alice is against manipulation of wines as such (irrigation, whopping amounts of new oak, coloring, reverse osmosis, etc.) or whether she rejects these technologies because they are generally used to make these horrid sorts of wine. But since she rejects the idea of wine as just a drink without terroir and culture (picture Robert Parker tasting 100+ wines in a hotel room), it is more likely that she values traditional methods for their own sake, too.

Alice is an advocate of natural wines or, as she calls it, “authentic wines.” Natural wines are more than organic. The “natural” in natural wine extends to the winemaking itself. In particular, fermentation with indigous yeast from the grapes and the use of low or no sulphur. In her book she gives a more extensive list of criteria to distinguish authentic wines from manipulated wines:

Healthy farming practices
Hand Picking
No extended cold maceration
No added yeasts or bacteria
No added enzymes
No flavors from oak or toast
No additives that shape flavor or texture
No processes that use machines to alter alchohol levels, flavor, or texture or that promote premature aging

The Battle for Wine and Love is sometimes characterized as a one-sided, angry book but I found myself mostly nodding in agreement. I think some of the anger is triggered by the fear of losing a certain tradition of winemaking altogether – just like traditional lambic beers were close to disappearing in the early 1990s. In such a world, it is not a lack of tolerance that gives rise to a combatant mindset but a feeling of alienation and the desire to persevere.

Perhaps the most disturbing chapter in the book is her visit to the big Champagne maker Moët & Chandon, with its pesticide-drenched “cadaver grey” vineyards and excessive emphasis on reproducibility and the image of the product. Strangely enough, I found myself thinking that all the dollars that bid up such champagnes to astronomical prices are not available to drive up the prices of good wines. Alice also managed to visit traditional champagne makers, a field that I had never even considered.

The book starts with an introduction of her youth as a supertaster and her growing love of wine – which eventually brought her all around the world as a wine writer. The individual chapters focus on various regions in France, Spain, and Italy where she meets traditional and not so traditional winemakers (or worse). The book ends with a chapter on the Loire in France, an area with a lively community of natural winemakers. Woven throughout the book are reflections on her love life, which, depending on your outlook, are an unnecessary distraction or reflect the broader theme of passion.

The chapter I liked the least is where she relays a phone conversation she had with Robert Parker himself. In this chapter it becomes quite clear that she sees the changing of taste in the wine world as top-down development instead of the reflection of a population of wine drinkers who actually prefer the sweet and oaky stuff (think of the development of lambic as a useful comparison). It’s not so much that in the days of old people were true wine connoisseurs but simply that there was no other choice than to drink wines that were made in the traditional way. Manipulation brings down cost and not all (occasional) wine drinkers want to pay more for authentic wines. Interestingly enough, in the beer world it is exactly the use of modern techniques (the use of commercial yeast, malt extract, glass carboys etc.) that allowed the homebrewer to develop alternatives to the big brewers.

In various parts in the book she appears to link a preference for authentic wines to left- leaning politics – which, in my view, is the fastest way to prevent natural winemaking from reaching a larger audience. It is also highly arbitrary. One could just as well reason that traditional winemaking should give rise to a traditionalist outlook on culture, too. Or one could argue that non-interventionist wine making is most compatible with non-interventionist views on society. In my opinion, it is best to remain as inclusive as possible when advocating a certain kind of winemaking.

One thing that intrigued me were the multiple references to perfume in the book. On the one hand she mentions that perfumes (or any dominant fragrances in the home) can interfere with the life of a professional wine taster. On the other hand, she also refers to perfume in a more positive context, at least on one occasion using the aroma of a perfume as a descriptor of a wine.

Aside from some minor quibbles, I can fully endorse this book. Obviously, I am quite biased because she seems to like the same wines as I do. But I do think she is on to something disturbing: the fragility of traditional wines. I am holding out for the ability of modern techniques to give rise to similar sensory profiles of those wines, but at this stage the traditional methods produce the best and most intriguing wines. In some cases, the link may be indirect (as with organic food) because wine makers who employ traditional techniques prefer more interesting aromas and flavors.

Natural winemaking also introduces an element of unpredictability that, within reason, further adds to the enjoyment of these wines. In that sense, natural winemaking is quite similar to spontaneous fermentation in beer making as well.