Wednesday, January 25, 2012

On "Natural" Wine

In my attempt to not become the "Bill Simmons of Wine", I thought I'd actually talk about wine today.

I had planned to write a post today on "Natural" wines and the processes or lack of processes that make them "natural."  Then Eric Asimov went and stole my thunder.  No matter, Eric is a writer I have a ton of respect for (honestly, NYT wine critic and nephew of esteemed author Isaac Asimov?) and I often agree with his viewpoints.  It just so happens that we've been in sync the last two weeks (first Canary Islands, now natural wine). 

Natural wine has been one of the big buzzwords or trends in the wine-geek community for the last few years, and nearly everyone has an opinion of some sort, whether actively positive, actively negative, or actively neutral.  In order to not conceal my biases, I'll just get my opinion out in the open.  I think that people should make wine however the fuck they want to, and that if people like said wine, they should drink it.  As I've said before, wine is too often mythologized into some sort of elite, ephemeral luxury good that should only be enjoyed on special occasions, when in fact it's just a food.  There, I said it.  There's nothing special about wine other than the fact that it tastes really good.  If my opinion on natural wine doesn't make sense to you yet (it shouldn't because I gave my opinion before I explained what natural wine is) then keep reading and it'll become illuminated (not in the way that a manuscript is illuminated though, unless you're reading this while tripping on acid, in which case, go be outside and enjoy yourself).

Natural wine is problematic mostly because it doesn't have an official set of regulations or even a distinct theme other than the desire to make wine with as little intervention as possible.  For some natural winemakers, this means using biodynamic practices (a load of hogwash IMHO) or organic practices in their winegrowing, then adhering to more traditional winemaking practices.  For others this means using fertilizers and pesticides in their vineyards, but then only using native yeasts (yeasts already found on the grapes) for fermentation.  For others, this means using as little sulfur dioxide in the winemaking process as possible (or in some cases, no sulfur at all).  So, when referring to a natural wine, it's clear that the customer is not exactly sure what made the wine "natural" in the first place.

Natural wine has also come under fire from those who do not adhere to any of the principles of the movement.  They assert that when these winemakers refer to their wines as "natural" they are, by implication, referring to all other wines as "unnatural."  To that I say grow up and stop whining.  If a winemaker makes good wine, people will drink it, it's as simple as that.

So, why did I choose today to talk about natural wine?  Because I enjoyed a fantastic bottle of an extremely "natural" wine over the last two nights.  The wine in question was a 2003 Cousin-Leduc Anjou pur Breton.  This wine is 100% Cabernet Franc from the Anjou AOC.  I scored this bottle on deep discount, something like $5 marked down from $25, because it is on the older side for a wine like this.  Most natural wines, and especially those that have extremely limited sulfur dioxide, are meant for immediate consumption.  The reason being that the sulfur dioxide acts as an antibiotic agent, preventing bacterial spoilage.  Regardless, I took the plunge, and I am so glad that I did.

Upon opening the nose showed a lot of, well, funk.  There was pure cherry fruit and some balsamic notes, but there was also a lot of barnyard and leather aromas.  These might daunt many drinkers, but they usually aren't something to be afraid of.  I poured a little bit into my biggest glass, and swirled it aggressively.  The funk subsided a bit and the wine started showing more earthy, herbal (rosemary, lavender) characteristics.  The palate was full of sweet cranberry and cherry fruit with some of the same herbal notes I found on the palate.  Was it the most profound wine I have ever had?  No.  But it carried an unmistakable sense of the place it was grown, and of the person who made it--which brings me to my next talking point.

This wine was made by Olivier Cousin, a man who exemplifies the natural wine movement.  He still plows his vineyards with horses and his vineyards are certified biodynamic.  He uses only native yeasts, and does not use sulfur at all.  His wines, therefore, are incredibly unique from vintage to vintage.  He has run into a bit of trouble recently because a few years ago he withdrew from the AOC system in France.  He found the rules imposed too restrictive, and was annoyed by some of the inherent hypocrisies of the system.  The board that controls all wines from the Loire has recently imposed huge fines on him for some of his creative labeling, which you can read about in the link above (also, sign the petition).  The wine I sampled was made when he was still working within the system, so it still bears the "Appelation Anjou Controlee" designation on the label.  After leaving the system, he kept the name of this wine the same, but removed the AOC designation on the bottom of the label.  This did not sit well with the authorities though because in the name of the wine, "Anjou Pur Breton" there are two additional problems.  Anjou is the name of an AOC, and Breton is the local name for the Cabernet Franc grape.  Wines, like Cousin's, that are labeled as "Vin de Table" (the lowest level of the pyramid) are not allowed to specify place name or grape varieties used in the production. While France currently has no sense of humor about this, winemakers have a long history of spurning governmental regulations in the quest to make better wine (see Toscana IGT in Italy).  For me, and this goes back to my original opinion about natural wine, I don't care what the label says as long as the wine inside is delicious and speaks of its place.  Hell, I'll usually even settle for just delicious.

So, what's the moral of this story?  Go forth and try a couple natural wines.  Unless you have a high tolerance for weirdness, I'd save Cousin's wines for a subsequent trial, but I can highly recommend the wines of Arianna Occhipinti from Sicily (she does dirty, dirty things with Frappato and Nero d'Avola).

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