The wine list at Fulgurances is filled with natural wines, which I often find a little too cider-y for my taste. But the Le Bégou I had from Maxime Magnon, that the friendly waiter suggested, was a great choice with lunch to go with all the dynamic flavors in the food.
My heart rose at the Magnon. It sank at the cider.
David Lebovitz, the sublime food writer wrote that Fulgrances review. I love David. He is smart. Funny. Wry. Talented. His recipes always work. All good shit. But it slayed me that-- probably for good reason-- he associated natural wine with cider. He is certainly not alone in believing that all natural wines are cidery, brown, mousey, fizzy and vinegary and stinky.
But they really are not. Something must be done to correct this assumption. Help.
The truth isn't the cider resemblance, which can be lovely, but that there are too many boring, sloppy natural wines being poured. Just because a wine is natural does not mean that it is worthy.
Here's the issue more clearly. Many wines are rushed into bottle way too soon. As a result, what we're seeing is a whole lot of unfinished and unformed wines on the market. I fear David has been victim to the enthusiastic sommelier/wine director pushing them as the new elixirs. Compounding the fresh frenzy for the new natural wines is the drinker refugee happily responding to aromas and flavors so refreshingly different from the commercial and often dead wines on the shelves. It's natural? Then excellent! C'est bio? C'est bon! That sort of thing.
What about that mouse?
That's the retronasal smell that tastes like crud to me, but others recognize it as fun and natural.
Hell with mouse, dragon breath is on the rampage. Fantastic.
Cider to the point of vinegar? Bring it on. Perfect fruit juice? What's not to like?
Charmed by recognizability, these folk want to like the new cool of natural. I suspect some genuinely cozy to the various questionable tastes (taste is subjective after all). They enjoy the rawness. But, quite a few of the enthusiasts are drinking for the same reason people used to drink oaky, jammy bombs of the past-- and hated them. They were told they were supposed to like them. No one wants to look foolish.
Lest you think I am a lone voice shouting into the storm, in recent times I've co-miserated with Madame Lepeltier. I’ve complained with José Pastor. I’ve bitched and moaned with Ms. RawWine herself, Isabelle Légeron, who bemoaned many of the samples that get submitted for consideration (and rejected) for the RAW fair.
Remember the old saw of two winters in the cellar or at least bottling right before the harvest? Well, how passé has that become? Very. Now vintages are being released (all: sparkling, red, rosé and white) five to six months after fermentation started. So many wines served are primary, like a soft-boiled egg that has not set. Flavors still tasting of fermentation, often with some residual or unresolved malo giving a kind of popcorn taste. The reason? Winemakers get quick cash, and besides, this doesn't seem to be a problem in the market.
Another aspect compounding this problem is the growing reliance on a simple form of carbonic maceration. This enables fruity, juicy flavors and a touch of cinnamon. It's a wonderful method for putting out wines early...though not always successful. It can be done right of course, like from Pierre Overnoy (Emmanuel Houillon). But have you seen an Overnoy released after five months? Ha. Never say never, but..never.
Some wine fairs that should know better (not all are vetted on a wine's credit but on the domaine philosophy) are very spotty. Some that are well curated? La Dive, Real Wine, Raw, ViVit, ViniVeri, Karakterre and Les Vins Libre.
I fret along the way that the tasting public, and even some winemakers, are losing the ideal and the knowledge of what is meant by a well-made and stable wine. I want to see a revival of releasing wine when it is ready.
So the problem isn't only with an upcoming drinking generation unable to taste some of the world's greats---the best of the historic Burgundies, the old-school Bordeaux, the glorious N. Rhônes, real Barolo. The responsibility rests with winemakers who have fallen into a trend. They should know better. As a result, a new drinker might actually be losing touch with what a stable and complete wine looks and tastes like.
All of this is giving fuel to the fire of critics, like M. Michel Bettane, that natural wines are for immediate consumption. That natural wine is no more than vin de soif. Which, frankly is ludicrous. Ever had any old Musar? Had any Corbineau? Had any C & P Breton? Puzelat? Chassorney? Priueré Roch? Trinchero? Pepe? To say natural wine doesn't age is completely ignorant. Mais, le monde du vin naturel? Nous avons une problèm. We do.
I consulted with the wise Mr. William Fitch ,who presides over the snappy wine list of Vinegar Hill House. He delivered to me a rant of eloquence.
"Even the natural wine world isn't immune to "treacherous" attempts to fill the maw of the world's aspirational commodity fetishism," he said. And as dew-dappled new drinkers emerge every nanosecond mistaking their own recognition for actual enjoyment, familiarity for them being a surrogate for the quality ascribed to the wine, there is always a demand for carbo pop.”
Carbo has become the poster child for modern natural winemaking. So much so that people taste it and register; natural. When they have a beautifully structured wine, even if it's no sulfur, no additives from organic viti? They think, not.
Case in point, at times Eric Texier uses no SO2. At other times he uses minimal amounts. No dogma. He mostly works with traditional alcoholic fermentation. In the past he felt ostracized by the natural community as if the hipster wine drinkers and sommelier's couldn't comprehend that a natural wine could have structure and not only be sucked down for its glouglou effect.
Without a doubt, a lighthearted vin de soif can be so delightful..(vin de soif doesn't mean that it's not finished by the way) but can never reach the heights of exemplary wines of let's say, Radikon? Or Pepe? Or Gonon? Or Texier? Man, do I ever miss Clos Roche Blanche. They're not supposed to. Their supposed to be fun, picnic, when too much attention isn't being spent on the glass, just clink clinking with friends. But those little unfinished soifs with their cute, eye-catching labels? I'm seeing them along the lines of Kawaii cuteness genre of Japan.
You know, the little girl, lunchbox, petticoat, anklet and Mary Jane? The guys who walk around looking as if the stepped out of Pokeman?
In the hands of Murakami, brilliant. On the street? Perhaps not so much.
How does that translate into wine terms?
A heluva lot of cider, volatilty, unfermented sugars, sometimes out of place fizziness and the worst of worst, not just mouse breath--dragon. Now I have nothing against a wine with cider overtones. Take a recent wine from Milan Nestarec, all brown and all wonderful! The wine must be judged on its effect individually. It needs to be taken in context. But still.
Oh, there's a place for a lovely easy wine, often. I stock plenty in my humble cellar. Even some carbo wines manage to become elegant swans, the aforementioned Overnoy, Joubert and so many others from the Beaujolais, Thierry Puzelat..the list goes on forever. More often I'm seeking out the well made naturals or natural enough traditional with structure, backbone and nerve. ( My purpose is to find them. Yes, that was just a shameful promotion. But I think I deserve one.)
Fitch evoked auteur, Jonathan Nossiter (Mondovino, Natural Resistance). Nossiter admits to having arrived late to natural wine but has made up for it in fierce advocacy. "He thinks natural wine is the last hope for real culture of any kind, but so was jazz, punk, New Wave cinema, etc. Look," Fitch said, "Beautiful weeds sprout in the garden and are instantly transferred to the hothouse and mass produced as symbols of authenticity, long extinct in the wild, barely surviving in the zoos."
Anything that becomes popular is doomed to be shipped off for China knock-offs. Nothing is sacred.
"Don't get me started," Fitch continued after I got him rolling," Even natural wine "folk" need to make a buck. If I could sell my remaining hairs at 100 bucks each I fucking would. Ergo we are all doomed. Oswald Spengler said that optimism is cowardice. I am almost there.”
Almost there, to. Almost.
But we know that we both taste enough through the years to pluck out the wines that rise above the fake and the Kawaii. We know how to find them. Drink them. Pour them. But is the next step one I have resisted, education? I suppose I have clung to the counterculture attitude, the free and emotional response to the category but, well, recently I presented The Truth of Natural Wines for the Wine Scholar Guild. Was really interesting, actually. I never thought I'd ever see a future in wine education for natural. But maybe it has to happen.
So I want to assure David and the others who share similar experiences, that there are so many more wines like Maxime's. The syllogism doesn't hold that X is a natural wine. X is cidery. That means that all natural wines are cidery (and fill in the blank.) It is not long before we just talk of what is great wine by a different standard. Great wines made with no additives, no chemical farming. Just great wine. That's the future.
No wine released before it's time: Christian Tschida (from the August Feiring Line)