France, Languedoc

2011 – Natural Wine

I said fate plays a game without a score, and who needs fish if you’ve got caviar? …When I loved, I loved deeply.  It wasn’t oftenJosef Brodsky

Was 2011 a good year for wine? When I look through my red moleskine notebook, I would say overall, yes – and there were certain trends. Here are my reflections on wine in 2011 featuring key wines that sum the year up for me.

Natural Wine: 7 Rue de la Pompe, Mas Coutelou

When I hear the word “should” I calmly pick up my bag, grab my coat, take off my heels, find the nearest exit and run for my life. Even if a Natural Wine is the nicest wine in the world, nothing irritates me more than to be told what I should or should not think (or drink)

Despite being embraced by some parts of the industry, natural/organic/biodynamic wine still divides people. Natural wine is not a sommeliers friend (although it is loved by sommeliers) and it is here where you see ideology bang up against practicality.

The irony is I talked so much trying to convince people into certain Natural wines it gave me a headache. Customers even bought me glasses of 7 Rue de la Pompe – “try it, what is wrong with it?”

Well, technically there was nothing wrong with it – not all the time, anyway (try defending “natural wine smells” in front of a group of drunk guys sometime). I had the opportunity to taste at least 12 different bottles of 7, Rue de la Pompe and some bottles had the ‘fizz’ of natural wine, quite ‘metallic’ and/or had a ‘funky egg smell’ initially (although, it blows away, and I understand the reductive process of making wine, but again, I am talking more about customers perceptions).

Whereas some glasses had a refreshing, super-dryness with a depth of purple colour that would make Prince fall to his knees with happiness.

Let me quickly tell you about it. 7 Rue de la Pompe, Mas Coutelou comes in a handsome bottle with a red wax seal. It has very little information on it, not even a vintage (to my memory).

It is from the Languedoc and it is made with Syrah and completely without sulfites (incidentally, Rue de la Pompe is a fairly posh part of Paris). I have never tasted a Syrah this dry. But, overall?

7, Rue de la Pompe feels somewhat confused. Like a pinstripe powerpoint meeting in a Glastonbury teepee. It is hard to put your finger on it; although this intrigues rather than seriously bothers me.

People don’t like it, people like it. So what? Hardly news.

Well, here’s what. This wine is sold, and it has to be hand-sold, on the basis of it being a natural wine, more often than not, rather than what is in the glass (when it is good, it is very very good, when it is bad…). This is the nub of the issue.

This year I’ve spent some time in Burgundy. Here I saw a lot of “Natural wine” – but no one jumping up and down shouting “I am a natural winemaker!” In fact, winemakers were almost reluctant to answer my questions.

It could be the steady, quiet, Bentley purring way of Burgundy (who, let’s face it, are going to sell their wines no matter what – I don’t see the demand for Gevrey Chambertin drying up soon), but for me, what it came down to is this: observation.

Practicing organic or biodynamic is essentially about observing the vineyard. Is burnt orange grass around the roots of the vine a good thing? Are the vines needing some more attention? This was all told to me by Nicholas Rossignol-Trapet (more here “The Wine was Chambertin”) but also backed up by Alfred Tesseron from Pontet Canet (who told me he is inspired by vineyard practices in Burgundy and his own drive to better the Chateau “every day as I have a shave I think about some improvement”).

Last week I spent some time with Alfred Tesseron and there was an obvious shift in style at Pontet Canet over the past ten years. Tasting against 1995 and 1982, even more so. How much was the improvement in general and how much was it because of natural/biodynamic technique?

What I have noticed this year – and trying to judge each wine on its individual merits – is that red wines made naturally can have a dominance of fruit.

On the upside, the fruit is vivid, ultrabright and plush.

On the downside, it has a similar taste to pouring too much blackcurrant cordial (Ribena) in a glass and not adding enough water. Just too much fruit. It is not balanced and is just as bad as too much oak.

What do I like about Natural Wine? I am glad to see more people trust their senses enough to argue and engage in the process of how wine is made.

There are also a lot of wines that follow organic/biodynamic principles which don’t advertise it or are not certified. Some I enjoyed in 2011 (apart from Mas Coutelou, Domaine Rossignol-Trapet and Pontet-Canet) are:

  • Gravillas 2010, Sous les caillous des grillons, Languedoc
  • Domaine de la Chevalerie, Bourgueil ‘Cassiopee’, Loire (consistently brilliant and beautiful)
  • Thierry Germain, Domaine des Roches Neuves, Loire
  • 2004 Trinchero Barbera d’Asti, Piemonte
  • Cos Nero di Lupo, Sicily
  • Ciu Ciu Bacchus Rosso Piceno, Marche, Italy

My favourite blog on Natural wine: Not Drinking Poison in Paris

Next, Part 2: Bordeaux En Primeurs 2010