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Natural Wine: Weird or Wonderful?

Why would anyone want to drink wine made the way it was 200 years ago? Writer Jon Fine travels to an old, cold Loire castle to find out.
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Jean-Pierre Robinot, an intense, middle-aged Frenchman, is a natural winemaker in his country's Loire region. His hair is like Ben Franklin's. A touch of the frantic lurks behind his eyeglasses. And he is refreshingly unafraid of sounding a little mad when talking about the future of wine, even when speaking to strangers.

Actually, his spiel to me was less about the future than the past. Natural wine is, essentially, wine as it was made hundreds of years ago. Its proponents use organic, hand-harvested grapes; they reject industrially manufactured yeasts, additives and sulfur dioxide (a preservative). To truly understand natural wine, Robinot said, "You have to put all of your wine knowledge in a locker, close it and start from scratch. You have to come at it with a fresh mind." After a moment, he revised that last sentence to my pal Laurent Bonnois, a small-scale wine importer, who was patiently translating: "You have to go back to the beginning of mankind."

Lettie Teague on Natural Wines:

I nodded, quickly. Not necessarily in agreement, but because I was freezing. I was in a scrum of people surrounding Robinot at January's La Dive Bouteille, a festival that gathered more than 120 natural winemakers in an imposing medieval-era castle in the Loire valley village of Brézé. "Medieval-era," it turns out, is also a synonym for "unheated." The atmosphere was cheery—low lights glowing orange against imposing stone walls, winemakers dashing through the chatty crowd with overflowing spit buckets— but it didn't come close to dispelling the wintry chill.

I'd made the trek to Brézé because the Loire valley is a hotbed for natural wine—actually, France in general is something of a hotbed for natural wine—and, to be honest, because I have a weakness for big personalities. I was looking for the wild-eyed partisans of this world, those so hung up on the ideology of "natural" that they could not talk about conventional winemaking without gnawing a knuckle in agony. I sought dogmatists outraged that not everyone adored their proudly filthy-tasting natural wines. I was trying to find the guy who made wine so untamed that it still had seeds and skin floating in it. If natural wine could be extreme, I thought, well, let's bring on the extremists.

In his fervor and absolute-believer-ness, at least, Robinot fit the bill, though some of his high-strung vibe must've come from hours of serving his L'Ange Vin and L'opéra des Vins wines to an endless procession of wine geeks, while the castle mercilessly leached body heat from everyone. (But his wines were delicious—and eminently approachable—particularly the reds made from the fascinating Loire grape Pineau d'Aunis.)

It has taken a certain amount of fanaticism on the part of natural wine producers and fans to drive more of these wines into American shops and onto American wine lists. The downside to this is that natural wine is sort of like indie rock, in that the louder proponents of both get really holy about their aesthetic standards. For these zealots, natural wine is not just what you drink with dinner, it's a crusade—a crusade against "industrial wine," a reclamation of the honest and handmade. Some even claim that natural wine does not give you hangovers. Trust me on this: That one ain't true.

The upside, though, is what's in the bottles, which seems to be getting better every year. Sure, any longtime consumer of natural wine has had wines that are off, funky in a bad way or otherwise unpleasantly weird. (A risk that definitely still exists: My tasting notes for one less-than-successful wine I sampled at La Dive prominently included the words plastic and rubber.) Also, the absence of additives and added sulfur means that natural wines can vary noticeably from bottle to bottle.

But for all the occasional funky weirdness—both in natural wines and natural winemakers—what I mostly found at La Dive was a convivial gathering of understated vignerons, earnest about their work and respectful of the limitations that natural winemaking imposes. (I should have expected this: A natural winemaker I met last fall—Stefano Bellotti of Italy's Cascina Degli Ulivi—told me he doesn't "make" wine. Rather, he "accompanies" the grapes as they go through nature's processes.) I also found much more consistency of quality to this supposed fringe than I had expected.

"These kinds of wines get better every year," says my old friend Justin Chearno, a wine buyer at Brooklyn's UVA Wines and Spirits who accompanied Laurent and me to La Dive. "They're far better than when I first started drinking them."

Oh, dear. The punk rockers of the wine world are growing up.

That doesn't mean that the difference between a natural wine and a conventional one is blurring. Tasting natural wines does require a recalibration of one's palate and expectations. Last year, for instance, the natural winemaker Andrea Calek produced around 300 cases of a Chardonnay-Viognier blend called Blonde. (In true natural-wine fashion, its front label contains but three words: Blonde. Andrea Calek.) It was the most unusual wine I have ever had: a cross between hard cider, beer and sparkling wine, winningly sealed, like a lager, with a crown-top pop-off cap. It was the milkiest-looking wine I've ever drunk. As it settled in the glass, what I took to be yeast particles traced the equivalents of vapor trails through the liquid. You would not serve it to the uninitiated without ample warning. But it was delightful: Fizzy, full of tart apple and pear flavors, and I wish I had a glass of it in front of me right now.

"When you look at natural wines, it's quite different," says Calek. "It can shock somebody, that visual aspect. But for me, it's not so important." Says another natural winemaker, Olivier Cousin, "For people like my dad"—who grew up with conventional wine—"natural wine can be very hard to approach." He sighs. "The more you try to explain it, the more complicated it gets."

It doesn't have to be. It's true that a casual swing through natural-wine discussion boards can reveal an unsettling obsession with the minutiae of winemaking. Eric Texier, a natural winemaker from the Rhône, revealed on WineDisorder.com that he sometimes carries around a portable meter to measure sulfite levels. (I find this dedication awesome, though I concede it could be a drag at a dinner party.) But the winemakers I buttonholed at La Dive and afterward turned out to be downright reasonable in answering even my most annoying, leading questions.

Annoying leading question number one: Aren't natural wine flavors jarring to palates accustomed to conventional wines?

"People have to understand what wine really is. It's like a natural bread—some days it can be more dry, with fewer bubbles inside, because the yeasts are natural," Christian Binner wrote me in an e-mail; he makes precise and elegant wines in Alsace at Domaine Audrey et Christian Binner. "But it's always better than an industrial bread without taste."

Annoying leading question number two: Most of this stuff is too weird for the average wine drinker. Doesn't that tick you off?

"As with everything else, 'new' is going to taste 'weird,' " says Savio Soares, an importer specializing in natural wine. "We are sometimes shocked by something different because we are used to sameness." And, he adds, "These wines are different." A more mischievous answer came from Languedoc winemaker Axel Prüfer, who shrugged and replied, with a sly smile, "There's not enough wine. It's better like this." That is, he implied, if some people don't care for it, there's more left for those who love it.

I seem to be turning into one of those people. Most of what I tasted at La Dive and elsewhere was stunning—clean, fresh, bright with focused fruit flavors, refreshingly light. Very few of the wines turned out to have the generic funkiness I used to associate with natural wine. They were perfect bottles, in sum, for sipping in the summertime, slightly chilled; they're wines that will sing in harmony with food. They had much less alcohol than modern, conventional wines that are heavy with fruit.

Indeed, some of these natural wines have even less alcohol than conventional wines from 20 or 25 years ago. One excellent natural white that Justin and I drank in France—Domaine Catherine & Dominique Derain's "Allez Goûtons," an Aligoté labeled simply as Vin de Table Français—clocked in at a mere 10.7 percent alcohol, and its lemony zing proved a beautiful match for the briny oysters we slurped alongside it. At that moment, there was no rhetoric, no ideology, just wonderful wine with nervy acidity and food with the taste of the sea. And, best of all, we didn't have to go back to the beginning of mankind to understand it.

Jon Fine is a Brooklyn, New York–based writer. A former media columnist for BusinessWeek, he has also written for GQ, Spin and ESPN The Magazine.

Published June 2010
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