Thursday, January 12, 2012

Why I like Natural Wine

(The beauty of nature)

Today’s wine appreciation relies on processing data, building consensus, fragmenting and subdivisions around wine. Wine is within the “system” (which I will come back to) a technical idea. The philosophic thoughts and reflections around wine has for a long time been under attack from an overpowering pragmatic concept of wine. The romantic wine drinkers are slowly being silenced – yet small blips of biting back, continues to emerge.

So does Mother Nature and the buzzes of natural wines are getting more and more attention. So is the debate. However the debate seem to be more about ideology and those not in favour being driven nuts by the term ”Natural”, as it presents a meaningless battlefield of those who drink natural and those who apparently have realized they are drinking UN-natural wine. The definition of natural wine is in addition weak – and in a environment formed of constant fact and evidence seeking, it’s driving the debate even further off the cliff.

(Mads Rudolf)

In fact I'm opposed to the idea of constructing a definition of natural wine. I believe that 'natural wine' is not in any way a conceptual idea with clear boundaries and definitions that include or exclude specific wines. Natural wine is not a concept really; it's just wine that is not manipulated too much. It's somewhat against the spirit of natural wines to propose a definition. (Mads Rudolf; from “Natural wines – outlines of a definition”).

Those who drink Natural wines are being called in fashion, religious, praising wisdom to the non-believers and the whole movement are being addressed as The Emperors new clothes. Yet there is not any marketing or addressing what’s inside the bottles and in fact the winemakers are trying to go back to the old way of making wines before the use of modern techniques an obscure use of treatments/chemicals in wine became popular. Many natural winemakers will say they are just trying to keep the diverse uniqueness in wine and create an alternative framework.

So where is the focus coming from? Is it because the journalists now have something new to write about? Maybe - but the biggest contributors to the buzzes of Natural wine are emerging from the people who actual drink them in big quantities and have something to say about them. Interesting enough – many of those in favour aren’t newcomers to wine. So how come we aren’t curious to find out why? Are we too proud on our ideology belief or is it because these natural wine believers just aren’t too impressed with those who have REALLY SERIOUS WINE CELLARS? Why on earth do they want to spend time and money drinking something, which is not even, rated (if so – pretty low), oxidized, weird, blurred and so far from what the “system” defines as good wine?

One thing is certain - it’s not accepted to change taste in wine – even if the natural wine drinkers can explain why they are shifting taste.

Let’s take a closer look at the system.

The System

My theory is not aimed nor addressing specific persons, despite some of these persons are the leading architects behind the system. I have no opinion about these persons. When I think of it – these persons stick to their game plan and always has. It’s a voice – leading to some, useless for others and probably somewhere in-between for the rest. However it’s the rules, subdivision and the interpretation of the frames, which creates dilemmas, for what I have chosen to call the system and I can’t describe my appreciation for natural wines, without having touched upon this first.

The system is in our fast moving information society a logical and to some degree an innocent outcome. The system is based on processing information and removing areas of uncertainty in wine. It’s also designed to build up averages, consensus and it’s easy to detect whenever someone is far from the median. When it happens we often raise the question on possible off bottles or motives from the taster to understand why he or she is so wrong – not “us”.

The system has also created a financial district, with ratings moving the market, underlining how wines are becoming a commodity and movement towards more data and less emotional aspects in wine. The ratings prove to be a strong mechanism, giving sudden transparency and wine is no longer just fermented grape juice, but an object for investment when the ratings are favourable. Wine becomes attractive, not only for the investors, but also for the wine lover because the ratings acts as an acknowledgement factor of what trophies you might have in you cellar and the market value they posses. It ties market mechanism to wine and we are exposed to; greed, flock mentality, panic, desperation and lust. In such an environment – for those who want to address softer and philosophical aspects in wine are instantly being attacked of wanting to have an overly emotional discussion about wine. We want data – we trust data within the system.

In the system it’s very easy to live. It doesn’t take you long to decode and adapt to what DNA is required for a wine to score high. Quickly you will go from wine-zombie to pretty good, when you realize, that you can actually hit the same scores as the professionals. Who doesn’t want to be good at something? In practice, this means tasters will become more and more objective in their evaluation, because they obey a concept of testing wine and not drinking wine. How many high scoring wines do you actually see today, which praises a wines drinking pleasure? Almost none – because drinking pleasure is secondary, so is the wines ability to pair with food. The system works within a frame of the world Championships in blind tasting and it defines a simple angle of winners and losers.

If a taster knows how the system works and how to achieve acknowledgment within this framework – you can rest assure that some producers will be tempted to obey the voice of the market. Result = more wines looking alike.

The system has little care in terroir. Wrong I hear them say – just look at how much Robert Parker has praised and fostered the concept of single vineyards. Well maybe, but always from a pulse of flavour with more and more power. How often is the single vineyard a less concentrated wine than the standard cuvée? The system tributes the duel – designed to emphasize a battlefield in blind tastings. The declared winner, will always be based on the their vital laws on hedonism. A super Tuscan made by Michel Rolland can be applaud in the system and a declared winner, even if some taster praised it to be a great reflection of a left bank Bordeaux and didn’t find anything Italian about it. What are the purposes of making an Italian wine, which doesn't taste Italian?

Wine is not a duty – it’s a journey of fascination. Our hunts for uniqueness are being driven from our senses and not from a set of pre-selected tools. I often feel today’s wine evaluation has no room for reflection. Reflection takes time and is being overtaken by fast consumer guides. However reflection introduces a vital shortcoming, which is: doubt. Doubt is not welcome in the system, because it’s the opposite of facts and the system relies on presenting flawless results – otherwise it would collapse. Yet, reflecting upon a living breed, like wine, we must find ourselves in doubt otherwise we are exaggerating our abilities.

(Anselme Selosse)

“What you see here has no importance – all the matters are my vines” (Anselme Selosse – standing in this beautiful barrel room in Avize, when I visited him in 2009)

Where does the obsession of having control over wine come from? Putting everything in boxes by fragmenting wine. Don’t we wish more of wine? Why don’t we talk about the how man and nature is closely tied together and how important the nature elements are to the expression of wine? Why can’t I say – this wine is more real than this one, because it expressed more soil, more pure fruit and less winemaking and manipulation of the raw material? We are obsessed with our comfort zone, but people don’t evolve in their comfort zone – neither do they do it in their anxiety zone. The optimal zone of evolvement lies by pushing the comfort zone just to the point of the anxiety zone. Here we are in full alert – because we have something to lose. Why don’t we challenge ourselves more when it comes to wine?

In my humble opinion there is nothing you MUST do in order to understand the essence of wine. Instead – you should ask yourself what do you WANT from wine?

When that happens, you will be free to form your own opinion and you will relate to wine, which is free. You will begin to ask the vital question on how we initially came from an emotional impulse >>> to a point where we obey a system and chose to uniform that emotional experience.

(Alexandre Jouveaux - natural wine with attitude)

Transformation – being outside the system.

“I hate good taste. It's the worst thing that can happen to a creative person.” (Helmut Newton, photographer)

Imagine your are in a room with people fairly unexposed to wine, but in general people who like a glass of good wine. You are now given the task of trying to infect these people with your passion in wine. You have 10 minutes to do it. What will you tell them?

Will you tell them how fantastic diverse wine is – how nature’s footprint of microclimate conditions and soil components play a vital role in a wines taste and soul? How wine is also about culture and regional traditions. How many grapes, wine regions, philosophies, producers there are and how the journey in wine will never come to an end? Will you tell them, that to you wine is a living organism and explain them why you feel like this?

How wine is also about people – from seeing and understanding a producers passion and philosophy? How wine is a social tool – were we are all equal in the centre of wine? How we quickly connect and make new friendships bases solely on a glass of good wine? How wines can tribute to food and how fascinating a spectrum of flavours, acidity and structural profiles can create a perfect match??? Or will you tell them, that basically all you need to do is to sit in front of your computer and subscribe to a ratings, database and gather your needed information’s on wine forums?

As I see it, when we search for the really important things in wine it has nothing to do with rules, numbers, subdivisions and hierarchies. So why not forget about it and step outside in the fresh air?

Here on the other side there are no rules. Nothing is right or wrong in wine. Perfection is not a desired goal nor is a specific taste and no one has a monopoly in trying to tell you what good taste is.

Natural wine

Nature is orderly without being perfect, as we have seen again and again. Nature's most useful patterns are never outdated but are kept for endless re-use, and the overall scheme of evolution is very stable and resilient. But mechanical perfection would be death to nature as it would be to us as part of nature. Nature is a live, self-creating process forever making order from chaos, forever free to do something new -- to reorganize itself when necessary, even if only to stay the same; to create new forms when old ones no longer work. Perfection would be the end of evolution, the end of freedom, the end of creativity. We have learned that nature is far less than perfect for a very good reason -- for the same reason that nature is far more than mechanism (Elisabet Sahtouris, Greek-American evolutionary biologist)

Natural wine is an alternative. Yet - natural wine is not an exclusive island of only fantastic and good wines. There is good and bad, just like conventional wines. Neither has natural wine monopoly of being nirvana of wines, which reflects nature, and the awareness of its terroir. But I like, that the starting point and template are about preserving the energy, which lies in nature’s imperfect raw material. Why even bother to care and form your opinion if the starting point is a product that doesn’t live?

Natural wines are the complete opposite of the system. It’s based on a definition, which doesn’t really exist. There are neither facts nor evidence on natural wines – it’s The Emperor's New Clothes if you compare it to the system, which is based on “the truth” and perfection, if you ask it’s inhabitants.

“Natural wine is only successful if isn't forced in a specific direction” (Mads Rudolf; from “Natural wines – outlines of a definition”).

I am imperfect – and it’s far more interesting than being perfect, once you learn to accept it. However for a long time I believed wine to be a hole in time - reflecting a perfectionist world. Putting wines on a perfectionist pedestal is forgetting that life IS imperfect and seeing it this way has made me have a far more balanced presence with wine. Letting go - have fun, listen to music, go crazy, introduce unpretentious - because that’s how the wines are.

“It may sound a little far fetched, but you see I am very committed in recording the errors in my work - not deleting them, not making it better, not adjusting it to forgetfulness, but to preserve it for the energy that lies in the substance...” (Danish poet and filmmaker, Jørgen Leth).

I like wines with messy hair – wines that might stick out, unfriendly at first, even particular – but filled with character. It’s no different with the relationship betweens us - humans. We all have different personalities – that’s what makes us interesting and why we care to get to know each other. Contact between humans doesn’t represent a guaranteed success of future friendship. The importance of this exercise is merely to demonstrate how we activate our full holistic judgement and how we cared to do so. If wine becomes a uniform liquid, we will halt to seek deep contemplation, present care and our judgments will be replace by pre-designed templates. Our opinions will be objective and not subjective

(Sune Rosforth - Denmark's most handsome wine importer)

What can natural wines offer?

Low sulphur, drinking pleasure and humbleness.

I think the debate about sulphur is being driven in the wrong direction. It’s a discussion circulating around zero sulphur and how that equals unstable wines. Maybe we should take a closer look, how exaggerated use of sulphur might be a bad habit and how some winemakers can actually succeed with lower or no sulphur. The benefit from creating focus around low dosed sulphur wines will be knowledge of what sulphur does to wine?

“How should people know they are getting cheated of buying the best strawberry varieties, if they have never tasted them?” (Claus Meyer – Founder of Restaurant Noma)

We will also begin to understand and accept, why it’s so logic that drinkers of low sulphur wines have a far lower threshold against sulphur heavy wines and why there is very little alignment in the debate.

“Try tasting a lot of natural wines and then go back to a wines, which is dosed with too much sulphur. You will realize how difficult it is to drink them. Your body absorbs natural wine in a whole different way. Studies have shown, that in some conventional wines there are up to 500 times of the permitted amount of pesticide residues in comparison what’s permitted in drinking water. It’s clear your liver has to work hard to clean poison and sulphur, instead of processing just the alcohol, which it does when you are drinking natural wine. ” (Sune Rosforth / Rosforth & Rosforth – one of the first importers on natural wine here in Denmark) Quote is from an interview in Berlingske))

(The lacquer neck on low sulphur wines)

Personally, some 3 years ago I never had problem with sulphur – I simply never reacted negative towards it. But since I have been exposed to these natural wines - I have become extremely allergic.

To me sulphur heavy wines smells awful, but they also change the structure and energy in wine. The structure becomes almost slippery – meaning the raw material can no longer manage to cling on to the structure. The negative side effect of this outcome is loss of nerve and energy – and wines with such profiles are dead wines to me.

Low sulphur wines drinks so damn good. They are purer, friskier and have more life, which all ads up to drinking pleasure.

Drinking pleasure has to be the most logical thing in wine – even for those who have no clue about wine. Try telling a person, who has no care in wine, that some wines are just so big and concentrated that you in fact can’t drink them – but still they are considered to be the greatest wines in the world. It’s a sick story and the game of testing wine has gone too far.

I like wine is also about a humble approach. A grower doing his/hers best to express the land they have at their disposal. Not correcting, but just emphasizing what is already there. A place of origin - a work of creativity and authenticity. Not made to blend in, corrected to win a popularity contest or follow a box office script.

With creativity – like art – there are always elevated risk of someone getting provoked. This I like and especially if you tune into natural wine as an alternative and nothing else.

So to wrap up this long mumbling post…and thank you for reading this far…I like natural for many reasons as you can see and because it keeps me alert, curious and emphasize my greed for authenticity.

All the best


Nanna Wang Carlsen said...

Dear Thomas,
I always find it so interesting to read about your approach to wine. No doubt that you and I have different tastes and also different approaches to the philosophy of wine. But we definitely share the passion.

To me, the important thing is to stay open minded so that you don't seclude yourself from new and eyeopening experiences - no matter whether your comfort zone is with natural wine or with big bold Parker-favorites.

In that spirit I plan to visit one of your 'wine pushers', the Rudolfs from Skål, for a tasting when I'm back in Denmark. Maybe I'll see you there :)

Take care,

Piu Rosso said...

Hej Thomas
Beautiful post! Thank you.
VH Niels / Più Rosso

Anonymous said...

Fantastic post Thomas!


Thomas said...

@ Nanna – I thank you very much. Let me know when you are back – could be fun to meet and share some wines. I have a good friend, who is insane about US wines and we both know Rasmus – so many good opportunity too meet up. Problem is always about finding the time in a busy work/family calendar for me.

I think I am always open-minded and curious, yet there is a fine balance in also being critical.

@ Niels and Thijs – thank you both so much, means a lot to me.

Best from,

Seth M. Long said...


Very detailed and thought-provoking...It seems you nail it at the end: all this 'natural' wine production/marketing/blogging is simply about achieving higher level of authenticity: to place, to the dynamics of people farming and creating wine, of the vintage. I appreciate how you challenge the assertion that natural wines are "better". There are MANY wines that are beautiful UTTERLY authentic because of the character and historical context that shapes production yet they cannot begin to be called "natural". Are these to be dismissed because of use of sulphur or the use of pad filters? I think not.

And then, there are the NATURAL wines which are FLAWED beyond all belief. I cannot abide by flaws because it is 'natural', can you?

I have asserted that "It is through attention to site identity and clear expression of site character that REAL “soulfulness” in wine is crafted..." Do you agree?

I strive to drink wines that are produced in a manner that is site-expressive and place-driven, because I feel like it informs my understanding of place. Authenticity and transparency are relative to, dynamic and symptomatic of the philosophy the shapes action.

Is Natural Wine too divisive? Too abstract an idea?

I think so.

I think we should be talking about REAL wine. I thank you for your insights and energy, keep it up!


Thomas said...

Thank you Seth, for contributing to this post – great detail and insight in you reply.

We are generally very much in line about how to obtain real soulfulness. For me it always fits with wines, which are crafted mostly in the vineyard and not in the cellar. Having said that – I can be thrilled with wines, which are also about winemaking…such like the Krug Vintage. But the real sense-mowers are 9/10 times always a strong soil infected wine.

The post-production has to be about enhancing – not altering or fussing too much around with the raw material. I think Natural wines have that goal – yet they do not always succeed. But I praise the framework and it’s humble idea.

I actually had thought of calling it “REAL” wine, as the term really make sense to me – in fact better at times. The reason why I didn’t was for two reasons. First – it was a term used a lot by the late Joe Dressner and I didn’t want to sort of feed of the same “term-success” due to simple respect. Secondly the term Natural wine is what has driven the domestic debate at my local latitude and I still have a big share of Danish readers.

There are for sure natural wines, which are flawed beyond belief. But seriously I haven’t had that many recently. It was more in the past – things like “Magma” from Frank Cornelissen and some seriously weird ones from Marc Angeli. There are also conventional wines manipulated beyond belief - which might not frighten you to dead, but will be as boring as watching paint dry.

I agree very much with you that there are MANY wines, which doesn’t fit the glove of the “Natural” term, which is utterly sensational and represent all the things we share about real wines.
The key word here is “Alternative”. Natural wine is an alternative build on a framework, which I for many reasons…as you can see. The result is to be judged like any other wine – it’s not a bulletproof success. I like the imperfect approach – not that we should seek flaws just for the fun of it – but because there is (sometimes) energy and creativity to found there.

The whole definition about natural wine might be too abstract….it’s for sure very hard to say, who is in or out. Sadly we always find something we can measure, which just happens to be sulphur. This is in no way optimal – both for the debate and the focus on Natural wines. I would actually like for the debate to swing in another direction.

Best from,

Fabio (Vinos Ambiz) said...

Thanks for that excellent thought-provoking post. You've touched on aspects that I never even thought about before!

lessrof said...

Interesting post. You made me broaden my mind!

Nanna Wang Carlsen said...

Sounds good, Thomas. Will get in touch once we are settled in Denmark again :)

Tai-Ran Niew said...

This is a wonderful post!

But I suspect the real problem lies with the marketing and advocacy of Natural Wines rather than the wines themselves.

For it implies that winemaking exists on 2 separate paths, built on 2 distinctly separate philosophy (e.g. the use of the word "alternative"), when in reality wine making exists on a continuous spectrum of intervention. For example, zero added sulphur is a distinct concept, but there are no boundaries once some undefined amount of sulphur is accepted.

"Minimal Intervention" (which is a much more accurate descriptor) is an absolutely wonderful aim, and if you visit enough wineries, you'll find that it is the underlying philosophy of countless winemakers, they intervene for the simple reason they are worried their wines will turn to vinegar! Or that "faults" that develop will actually obscure the subtleness derived from the terroir.

Most of the advocates of Natural Wine points to the extreme end of this spectrum, of heavily manipulated wines, to prove a point. It is a cynical and flawed argument, and does not address the spectrum.

Perhaps we will be better serve to just focus on what is in the glass, not on the labels and marketing material. And just let the wine do the talking?

Thomas said...

@ Tai-Ran Niew

Thank you very much.

I like your thoughts very much. I am much more concerned with drinking the wines rather than to talk about definitions or ideology.

I don’t know if Natural wine makers point to the extreme of manipulated wines. I have rarely seen that argument. If so – it works both ways. The critiques of Natural wines always point at wines, which have been oxidized or can’t age. I don’t think they have tasted wines like those from Alexandre Jouveraux, which can be open for a week without any problems.

For me the most important thing is diversity. Natural wine makers create a different framework – an alternative, as I also mention in the post. I also like there is a risk element involved in that process and many of these producers are willing to take that risk whatever the cost, because their passion lies in preserving not controlling.

Best from,

Tue said...

Hi Thomas

This should be obligatory reading for everyone who is just a little into wine. Great, great post. And so well written.


Tue // Vinsvin + Bizon Vin

Thomas said...

Thank you so much, Tue - much appreciated.

Best from,