Natural Dilution by Josh Elias

Stepping outside his usual role of editor of Alquimie Magazine, Josh Elias talks candidly on his affections for ‘natural’ products.

I have a beard and I wear Oliver People’s glasses. I’m part of ‘new wave’ media and I love to drink Riesling. I used to be the stock in trade of punch pushing sommeliers and now I write. My horoscope projects a daily love of ‘natural’ wine and indeed, I love gulping the good stuff. What I’m not so fond of is the label for this category of wine. ‘Natural Wine’?

‘Natural wine’ is a movement that is very much defined by what it isn’t; no pesticides in the vineyards, no additives in the winery, no critics, no ‘winemakers’. ‘Natural wine’ is a truly democratic movement. You heard me. It is democratic. No listen to me, you aren’t listening. It is democratic. By the people, for the people. It is a new wave. A revolution and so “the beat goes on, yes the beat goes on.” – Macho Man Randy Savage

I can’t help but be repulsed by the general aura of vociferous and sycophantic ‘realism’ that has piggybacked on this particular wine category. By creation of the category, it seemingly renders all other wine ‘synthesized’? As an asthmatic, I can speak to ill-affects of excessive sulphur-dioxide levels in wine. However, does the inclusion of any additive render a product artificial? What then of dried fruit? It’s not quite grape drink vs grape juice is it? Consult Dave Chapelle on those definitions.

No doubt, the most industrialized bulk produced wine undergoes a plethora of mechanical intervention. With modern technology, almost any element of a wine can be manipulated. No doubt, this is something more consumers should be alerted to. However, I’d have thought that this distinction is amply covered by organic and biodynamic certifications without the need for a new religious sect.

I’m wary that this little rant is like sticking my hand into Rudolph Steiner’s beehive, so I’ll tread carefully on this most sacrosanct turf. I’ll draw my subtle line in the elusive continuum of the many first world wrong’s scratched into my soul. The dogma that has become the ‘natural’ wine Conga line, I believe, is it’s own worst enemy.

For all of us that read about wine, which includes you, yes you, most importantly, you, we learn to embrace the beauty of the variables; the vineyard, the vintage, the varieties, the peacefulness of the land, the fauna, the flora, the richness of agriculture and between all of us, almost anything and everything that makes wine such a true and agriculturally reflective beverage.

I contend that the moniker of ‘natural wine’ is the witness protection for wine. Once it is categorized as such, the variables that went into the production of the wine, most frequently, disappear. They are swept under the iron curtain of ‘natural’. They are marketed to the consumer as ‘wine… but… a new type of wine’. The grape varieties; unimportant. The vineyard; some place. The vibe; natural. At best, it initiates some of ‘less-initiated’. Join us. Be included. And even then, would you consider yourself one of the ‘unfortunately’ less initiated?

To borrow / mis-appropriate / steal / vandalize a quote from Kurt Vonnegut – “It was sort of ice-cream cone on fire.”

The artisans and vignerons that make this sort of wine, I’m fairly confident, largely disregard the label of ‘natural’ wine. They craft a wine that suits their expression and they largely do so, in solitude. It’s the chanting masses marching behind them, in cities far away from their vineyards, that need chiropractic re-adjustment.

Take for example two of the elder-statesmen cast under the projected moniker of natural within the Australian Wine Industry; Anton Van Klopper and Tom Shobbrook. They are two, very different men, so amazingly vibrant, richly engaging bounties of humanity. When Tom hugs you, it is a sort of warm human blanket of an embrace that shifts internal organs and bestows happiness upon the recipient. Anton on the other hand, is seasoned to the point of piquant. He’ll talk you through the night until all but his consciousness waiver. They are real people, every bit as much as Michel Rolland or Aubert de Villaine.

Their wines shine in the glass. Tom’s Didi Giallo; a golden yellow sort of Sauvignon Blanc elixir with tropical notes, herbal complexity and lip-smacking acidity - it is a delicious drink. The hedonistic fruit reflects the Australian sunshine. It speaks of with bold personality of a variety, a place and a friendliness. It’s so much more than ‘natural’. On the other hand, I enjoyed a gander at Anton’s 2014 Lucy Margaux Syrah at a wine bar recently. The wine is bristling with cherry and plum fruit, anise spice and sappy tannin. The wine is a rich, bold and an irresistible juggernaut of energy.

Anton’s wine is crafted in the Adelaide Hills and Tom’s in the Barossa Valley. The wines are expressions of those people, their place, their grapes and they evoke unique, beautiful and different reactions.

The modern wine critic champions crisp fruit, clean acidity and freshness. I too search for wines with ‘vitality’. A slogan not unlike that of an Australian supermarket chain, we are the fresh wine people. What of it? What relevance is this to the moniker of ‘natural’ wine? In fact, when ‘Natural Wine’ is pronounced in the accent of an Australian wine-judge, the phrase can infer microbial fault or oxidized juice. To this extent, natural is a prerogative term. Go figure. All of a sudden you are part of the gang. But apparently gang smells like wet Band-Aids?

I’ve watched consultant winemakers pull their hair out about certain ‘natural’ wines only to praise others. I’ve seen battle hardened wine critics do the same about bulk produced, super-market wines. Surely, producer must be our first consideration, not ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ or ‘kosher’…. I jest. We all respect Kosher wine. (mood is sarcastic)

The mood is now serious.

Natural wine deserves neither special treatment nor prejudice. It should be welcomed into the fold of all the wines of the world, if that would be diluting the brand, so be it.

The wine is here to stay, the label, not.

Feeding the Ox by Doug Wregg

Doug is known for pioneering a new way of thinking and communicating about wine to make it exciting and engaging. Doug previously working in London as a Sommelier, is now a core part of the team at Les Caves de Pyrene

When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be ~ Lao Tzu

Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go ~ T. S. Eliot

We speak confidently about faults and flaws in wine, yet these are not cut-and-dried issues. Wines that are truly oxidised are dying the moment they hit the glass. They are brown, rusty, musty and lifeless.

Wines where oxygen is a factor in the elevage – either overtly (such as rancio Banyuls and Maurys from Roussillon, traditional yellow wines from Jura, Oloroso from Jerez, Madeira and Marsala), or more subtly, (think Loire Chenin, Chateau Musar Blanc, and northern Italian whites and Istrian wines with a certain amount of skin contact) – these wines not only last, but improve over the course of time. 

Whilst I may enjoy uncomplicated fresh wines – they are as snapshots of bright fruit – I do also appreciate the profound qualities of oxidative wines which are like paintings with a rich impasto of texture.

Yes, oxygen contact may confer fascinating secondary notes and layers of vinous flavour – it can soften and enrich the wine and bring forth aromas of honey, truffle, walnut, cooked pastry, humus, spice and toast. Those seductively complex integral liaisons of aroma and flavour can persuade one to return over several days and discover something new in every sniff and slurp.

Yesterday, I drank a beautiful natural wine that was fresh, utterly vibrant and charming beyond belief. Throbbing with health the flavours were clean and crunchy, the palate full of sap and zip with a trace of graphite minerality bringing the wine to an exhilarating close. This was real grapes-to-bottle stuff sans funk. This was an oxidative, low-sulphur wine.

Cue reeling and writing and fainting in coils from sceptics.

Yet I would venture that no-one would find such a wine remotely objectionable. Once enough people acknowledge that natural low-intervention wines are not only not “off”, but can also be deliciously flavoursome, then we will have advanced the tenor of the debate.

Stefano Bellotti from Cascina degli Ulivi explains how this might be achieved.

“The other way we can do without sulphites is following the natural way of wine making using “managed oxidation” where oxidation is no longer viewed as a monster to fight but as a friendly component of wine. But this is only possible when using grapes of excellent quality. No yeasts, no enzymes, no vitamins, no salts. A natural fermentation and a careful use of lees. Lees contain many colloids that have an anti-oxidant and protective function but to do so, one needs to vinify in wood and that entails more effort and higher costs.

By using this method I have always produced red wines with no sulphites and a guaranteed stability of decades and lately I have also managed to produce white wines with no sulphites added that not only they are stable, but have – if anything – the opposite problem: they need a couple of years in a bottle to reach optimum harmony, a quality that they will maintain for several years thereafter.”

 “Reaching harmony.” Slow and fluidic elevage produces wines that are not fixed fruit-bombs instead they unveil their personality by degrees. Mutability, in my book, is to be celebrated – glasses one to five give you a thoroughly different experience as the wine moves and changes shape. Oxygen aids this process – a wine may not be oxidised if the addition of air enables it to articulate its nuances rather than rudely terminating the fruit. Yes, it serves as a kind of “inoculation”.

Meanwhile, there are numerous misconceptions about low-sulphur wines. One is that they can’t age because, deficient in sulphur preservative, they are unarmed to combat the process of natural decay. Whilst it is true that some wines are intended to be drunk in the freshness of youth (and are usually protected during their vinification by a layer of CO2), others have the wherewithal to last, having an in-built defence mechanism against oxidising.

One thinks of wines made by Giulio Armani, Dario Princic, Frank Cornelissen, Josko Gravner, Stanko Radikon and Emmanuel Houillon to name but a few.

As difficult and ornery as the wines may be when first poured, exposing them to air usually reanimates them. First impressions are not always reliable either. I can adduce numerous examples of wines that most experienced tasters would logically write off as undrinkable, which, after a day – or three days – or five –find their natural balance. The proof of this particular counter-intuitive pudding is in the tasting. These wines are living things that evolve in their own time. It is often said that what doesn’t kill them makes them stronger. In these cases, due to O2, they have constitutions as strong as an ox.

The most obvious examples are to be found in Jura where vignerons may either “top up” their wines or leave them to age under a veil of yeast. Because Jura is the spiritual home of the sous-voile style, and because these wines can age for decades, they are rightly cherished. Nevertheless, certain cognoscenti notwithstanding, they (the wines) are often seen as quaint ’n’ quirky period pieces.

What quirky wines! Cut yourself some nutty nutty slack and, if you’re suffering sotolon deficiency, pour yourself some liquid fenugreek…’ If you like your Savagnin or Chardonnay to have that sensation of “jaune” ne sais quoi, from a sojourn under a yeasty veil, you’ll love the uncompromising earthiness of these Jurassic wines. At just 50 hectares Château Chalon is home to the extraordinary Vin Jaune (“yellow wine”), made from the Savagnin varietal.

The grapes are harvested late and then aged in small oak barrels for a minimum of 6 years and 3 months (although some producers age their Vin Jaune for up to 10 years in barrel). The slightly porous oak barrels are, by design, not completely airtight, and a considerable portion – nearly 40% – of the wine therefore evaporates over the years (the so-called “angels’ share”).  No topping up is done. A thick layer of flor yeast, known as the voile or veil, looking like a white foam, develops on the surface of the wine and helps prevent excessive oxidation. This ageing method, similar to that used for fino sherry in Spain, but in France specific to the Jura (and Gaillac to a lesser extent), allows the wine to acquire its distinct flavours, characteristic of walnut, almond, spice and apple, before release. This remarkable dry wine, at its best immensely complex and very aromatic, is best appreciated after at least 10-15 years in bottle and has the ability, in good vintages, to age for a century or more.

How to describe a typical Château Chalon? Green walnut, caraway, fenugreek seed, pickled ginger jostle for attention with a hint of medlar segueing into peanut brittle and salted caramel. The finish is taut, verging on stony-metallic with gripping lemon-grazed acidity and an amazing nuttiness that reverberates around the palate for such a long time. If Chateau-Chalon were a book it would be A La Recherche du Temps Perdu.