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.


Oxidized wines

The September 2009 issue of Imbibe Magazine features an interesting article about the growing interest in oxidized wines. Co-owner of New York City restaurant L’Artusi Joe Campanale is quoted saying:

These are not ‘in-between’ wines… All the fresh fruit aromas and tastes diminish, making way for cooked or candied fruit; nutty, yeasty flavors; and a ton of complexity. Fans of these wines find their individuality and character is unsurpassed and, because of that, they are some of the most fascinating and compelling wines in the world.

Not surprisingly, the story starts off with the most famous oxidized fortified wine known to man: sherry. But it also discusses lesser known non-fortified oxidized wines such as the classical Rioja wines from Spain, a tradition that is still kept alive by patient producers such as López de Heredia. The prime example of non-fortified wine is of course Vin Jaune, the “yellow wine” from the Jura region in France that was highlighted a little while ago on this website in an entry about wine for lambic drinkers. The Imbibe article mentions some other developments and producers that would have been appropriate in that context such as the natural whites made in the Friuli region in Italy by winemakers such as Damijan, Gravner, and Radikon.

Interestingly enough, the article features Portland’s Liner & Elsen, a wine store with a decent selection of Jura wines, Cabernet Francs from the Loire, and sherrys, indicating that Portland is not just a good city to purchase traditional lambics, but also to locate oxidized and “wild” wines as well.

Expect more coverage of Jura wines in 2010 after the author has visited Château-Chalon and Arbois in France.