For the past few months I've been emailing Douglas Wregg in London. Doug is part of the infamous, pot-stirring team at the force to deal with, Les Caves de Pyrène, importers of mostly ASF Happy wines. They are also the folk who brought London the wine bar that changed the town's wine life forever, Terroirs. Brawn, their second venue, opened to bring hard core a new dimension.
In addition to bouncing ideas off of Doug, I've become addicited to his newsletters. His writing for the Cave is always an immediate mood adjuster. The missives are literary, passionate, fun. In fact funny. Oh, did I say thought provoking?
So a few weeks back, on the day I was going to La Paulée de New York, Doug, fearless man that he is, presented some natural wines to a group of establishment wine writers. He emailed me the lineup, which included a good assortment of hard core delicious and hard core specific, or as the French would say, "speciale.' Here is his line up as well as a snippet on what is natural wine and what are wine flaws and how they are perceived by establishment press.
2008 Chardonnay Chalasses Marnes Vieilles Vignes, Domaine J-F Ganevat
2009 Irouléguy Blanc Hegoxuri, Domaine Arretxea
2007 Fiano “Don Chisciotte” Il Tufiello
2008 Vin de Table « Gilbourg » Benoit Courault,
2008 Matassa Blanc, Cuvée Alexandria, VdP des Côtes Catalanes
2008 Sancerre Skeveldra, Sébastien Riffault
2009 Gamay d'Auvergne « Pierres Noires » Domaine Maupertuis
2008 Vin de Pays de la Côte Vermeille « La Luna », Bruno Duchene
2009 Brouilly Croix des Rameaux, Jean-Claude Lapalu
2009 Pinot Noir, Cuvée Julien Ganevat, Domaine Ganevat
2008 VigneVecchie, AA Panevino
2009 Vin de Table « Le Rouge et Mis », Thierry Puzelat
2008 Minervois La Nine, Jean-Baptiste Sénat
2009 Bourgogne Rouge Auguste, Clos des Vignes du Maynes
2009 St Joseph Rouge, Domaine Dard et Ribo
When I read this I thought, okay. Many on this list are flat out delicious, such as the Puzelat. And the Matassa wines are easy. But, I couldn't wait to hear what they think of the Riffault. Controversial, fascinating and mind-bending. A ballsy choice, Douglas!
The interesting twist on Riffault's wines is that as they age, a more distinct and recognizable sauvignoness comes through, but the terroir always seems to speak first. What is not recognized as a wine from Sancerre at the outset, comes at you full blast as it emerges from its adolescence.
Doug reported back hours after the fact. Check; some attendees were outraged. In fact, he has given me permission to record some of his favorite reactions. (MW, refers to someone who was a master of wine. Me, is Doug.)
On tasting the Sancerre Akmenine from Seb Riffault :
MW: This isn't Sancerre.
Me: Why not?
MW: Because it doesn't taste the way Sauvignon should.
Me: How should Sauvignon taste?
Later MW: Winemakers should make wine that is recognisable to the consumer.
Me (with asperity): With respect, that is one of the stupidest things I've ever heard!
MW: Wines like this are not fit for purpose.The consumer wouldn't understand them
Me: You may not understand or even like them. You can't speak for the everyman/woman consumer.
I wish I had been there. I realize when I get snippy on my site, it has a dramatic impact on the way the public views me. For example, the effects from the 'out of the game' post of last year continues to bite me in the ass. It is fabulous to see someone else, like minded, get down in the mud as well.
For a few more responses to the tasting check out..
and now....a little from Doug and the latest part of the March Newsletter (of which he also gives me a plug, which is lovely of him.)
(From the erudite Mr. Wregg)
Après the tasting masterclass, if not le deluge, certainly a reasonable trickle of feedback. I came to the discussion prepared to scotch certain myths , upset the occasional apple-cart and generally provoke people to question their assumptions. Agreeing on definitions, however, is tricky; any debate is riven with terminological inexactitudes and it is the parole of natural wine to be precisely vague. Though we seek a banner to rally to, natural wine means different things to different people – hence the diversity of the wines, but for every grower who is attracted to its feel-good warmth, another is resistant to any effort to codify his activities. So we never insist.
The overall sentiment amongst those at the seminar alluded to by Tim was that though it may be all very well to run a vineyard in a hands-off manner, when it comes to winemaking there is no such thing as benign neglect, and the absence of intervention inevitably culminates in aromatic infelicities and downright chemical spoilage.
A specified fault is a specified fault is a specified fault – these are not the exclusive domaine of natural wines. Corked wine is faulty, vinegar is vinegar – these are absolute faults by any standards. I think, however, we will always disagree about the degree, nature and nuance of certain faults and flaws and whether they render the wine undrinkable or no.
For one man’s added sulphur is another’s hangover, or, conversely, one man’s VA is another vigneron’s winemaking tool. Is the additive that spoils the wine for one drinker any less of a flaw/fault than a naturally occurring by product of fermentation that another drinker might find rebarbative? The ascription of faults is too simplistic since it begins and ends with the presupposition that cleanliness is the ideal state for a wine - and that any other “alien” aromas are undesirable. Just because this is repeated as a mantra doesn’t make it any more true. I happen to believe that our flaws (for want of a better word) make us individual; if we didn’t have them we would be clones. If the winemaking process is not absolutely controlled, then, of course, there is the leeway for the unexpected to occur and for faults to inform the final product. But is this necessarily wrong or undesirable? The most thrilling rides in our lives can be when we have lost control, and by doing so, we learn more about ourselves and our abilities than ever we would if we were totally reined in.
The man who discovers a new scientific truth has previously had to smash to atomsalmost everything he had learnt, and arrives at the new truth with hands blood-stained from the slaughter of a thousand platitudes.
-Ortega y Gasset
The Revolt of the Masses
Up to a point, Lord Copper (Sulphate).
I’m aware I tend to use the expression “conventional wine” as a pejorative bash-all hammer. Conventional in this context means slavishly adhering to perceived traditions rather than reasoning the actual need to do something (to misquote Shakespeare). It is important to pose the question whether conventional methods in the vineyard or winery are always necessary or helpful.
To be fair winemaking doesn’t dovetail neatly into the two opposing categories of “natural” and “conventional”; it embraces the entire spectrum of interventions from virtually zero to countless (or anti-hero!). Blandly commercial wine which is less the sum total of its additives sits at one end of this scale next to spoofy wine, which can start with the best of intentions in the vineyard but often falls away in an explosion of pretentious and overbearing oenological tropes in the winery (200% new oak anyone?). Then are those winemakers who don’t fall into the natural category but certainly aim to express the terroir of their vineyards in their wines by restricting interventions and having a light touch in the winery. It is certainly a question of degree.
Interestingly, the majority of natural winemakers have been to winemaking colleges where they were inculcated to believe in the interventionist approach. They rejected many of the axioms of oenology because they want to be able to freely express themselves and their terroir through their wines. The courses evidently teach the line of least resistance; it is a bit like doing a literature degree and being told that there can only be one interpretation of a novel. Where oenology is all about stripping clean and processing wine for the end user it fails to respect the ingredients; where oenology allows the winemaker to understand the processes and adapt according to the vintage and be sensitive to the quality of the grapes then it can be a useful discipline.
Carbo-dehydrated – too much of a nice thing?
When does the method subsume the terroir? I enjoy drinking the classic cherry cola carbo reds for thirst, but after a while I feel a lack of something. Where’s da beef, the pith and skin, the grip and grain? As Victore Mature didn’t say: “I don’t want to be wine-gummed to death.” I want some backbone and underwiring in my wines, to roll the stones in the mouth and these little fruit bombs are detonating sweet juice and not much else.
Am I being entirely fair? There are plenty of very nice semi-carbo wines which resemble meat with a fruit-flavoured gravy and certain grapes on certain terroirs seem to be able to preserve their crunch. Old vines Gamay from the volcanic Auvergne or from the granitic vineyards of Beaujolais seems less affected by the vinification; Syrah, meanwhile, can retain its character. Carignan, however, can be over-tamed by carbonic maceration and cool ferments. I suppose what I am asking for is a bit variety because I need spice in my life.
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