Against Wine Extremism

There's a fundamentalist fervor these days about "natural" winemaking.  This seems to me a disturbing trend, given the temperature of the rhetoric being tossed around on the wine chat boards.

For those who have missed the current tempest in a wine bottle, here are a number of the key elements of natural winemaking:  No acid or sugar additions (or de-acidification). Exclusive use of native yeasts. No use of enzymes to extract or stabilize color and tannins. No sulfur additions.  Minimal racking. No filtration. Little or no new oak.  

Certainly any approach to grape-growing that puts the grower in closer touch with his or her vines is a good thing. A steadily growing number of talented winemakers worldwide are making outstanding, easy-on-the-body wines by practicing organic viticulture and using hands-off techniques.  They understand how and why each of the above elements can help them make better wines.  Of course, these winemakers would be the first to point out that natural winemaking can succeed only if you have healthy fruit to begin with and practice strict selection at harvest-time to eliminate underripe or rotten grapes.  

Unfortunately there are also a lot of copycats out there looking to adopt a litany of techniques in the name of fashion rather than personal conviction.  They see the marketing advantage of being able to preach the organic gospel.  The problem is that they often practice lax vineyard work and begin with subpar raw material. In my hundreds of cellar visits each year, I run into dozens of winemakers who can't quite explain why they use a particular set of techniques in the cellar, but in the name of dogma they refuse to take alternative steps that might improve their wines.

The result is that too many so-called natural wines display offputting elements:  dull appearance, excessive earthiness, brettanomyces, oxidative qualities, refermentation in the bottle, excessive sediment.  And then proponents of natural wine, including some bloggers, retailers and young sommeliers looking for street cred, find themselves making excuses for obviously flawed wines or simply pretending the defects aren't there.

Be wary of natural wine cultists for whom "clean" wine has become a dirty word.  A wine without obvious flaws is not necessarily a wine stripped of all character, as some wine extremists maintain.  A lot of imperfections can be avoided, for example, by judicious use of sulfur, racking at the right moment, or even filtration.  Natural winemaking is a work in progress, and its success depends to a great degree on the seriousness of the producer's skill in the vineyard and cellar.  Even under the best of circumstances it can present a number of perils that require flexibility on the part of the winemaker.

The bottom line:  Drink the wine, not the Kool-Aid.  Taste with your five senses and leave dogma out of the equation.  Wine is a beverage of pleasure, and pleasure can be diminished by too much preaching and too little swallowing.

This month's recommended bottles emphasize red wines that pair well with robust winter dishes.