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Wine: Naturally, I have second thoughts

Three natural wines recommended in this week's column. (Michael Temchine for The Washington Post)

I want to like “natural wines.” (I don't like the term itself, because it sounds polemical. But I can't think of a better one.) I applaud resistance to chemicals, fertilizers and other hocus pocus of industrial viticulture and winemaking. I love the concept.

I just wish I liked the wines more.

Some of them are quite good, but the category is uneven. Proponents of natural wine love that unevenness: They celebrate the cantankerous character of the wines, that excitement of not knowing exactly what to expect when pulling a cork. Not just a vineyard or vintage, but each bottle can have its own personality. It takes an adventurous, patient and affluent wine drinker to embrace this concept, and I wonder how big a niche that will be.

As I was writing my column for this week on natural wines, I had an interesting e-mail exchange with Jenny Lefcourt, the U.S. half of Jenny & François Selections, a New York-based import firm that specializes in natural wines. (Quite successfully, too; their portfolio is now distributed in 15 states and the District of Columbia.) I told her that I was ambivalent about natural wines, primarily because of their inconsistency, which I suggested is largely a result of the natural wine movement's rejection of sulfur at bottling as a preservative.

Natural wine is a relatively new term for an old concept. It is an extension of organic and biodynamic viticulture, but while natural wine endorses and incorporates environmentally friendly vineyard practices, it also focuses on what happens to the grapes after harvest, in the winery. Natural wine insists on fermentation by indigenous yeasts rather than yeasts cultivated in a laboratory, the idea being that “terroir,” that sense of place that lends a wine its character, comes from the vineyard rather than a petri dish. It also rejects the use of enzymes to aid fermentation and preaches against “manipulations” such as pumping or racking the wine, techniques used to soften a wine or disperse unwanted CO2.

The most controversial part of the natural wine movement concerns the use of sulfur dioxide as a preservative at bottling. This is the point naysayers focus on when they dismiss natural wine as the nectar of crackpots. Sulfur dioxide is a natural preservative considered essential for keeping a wine stable after bottling.

Or is it?

The extreme faction of the natural wine movement rejects sulfur altogether. During a recent visit to France, I visited Aux Crieurs de Vin, a wine bar in Troyes, in Champagne. The shop specialized in natural wines, several of which boasted on their labels that they were made with no added sulfur. The bottles my friends and I tried were … OK … but such can be said about wines in any category.

Natural wine's U.S. adherents are less dogmatic. Nicholas Mestre, of Charlottesville-based Williams Corner Wine, acknowledged in an interview with me that he had sampled cuvées from some of his natural wine producers that were bottled with and without sulfur dioxide, and he preferred the ones with SO2. Those cuvées also travel better, he said.

Lefcourt said she, too, is not adamant about sulfites at bottling. “I believe that each wine, each vintage of each wine has its own balance, and it is for the winemaker to decide how to react. I do know there are wines that are completely stable without sulfites added,” she said. “If the grapes are really well-balanced and the year is a good one, the winemaker probably won't need to use sulfites.”

She argued that while sulfur has been used for a very long time in winemaking, it was only about a century ago that vintners started adding it directly to the wine. And as chemical use in winemaking expanded through the 20th century, so did the use of sulfites. More recently, with concern over sulfite allergies and the prominent government warning on each wine bottle that it “contains sulfites,” vintners have tried to reduce the amount of sulfur added to the bare minimum. The natural wine movement pushes that level even lower.

The better natural wines have a definite quality to them that I can best describe as energy. (And I gave some of them very positive ratings in my column.) But too many have an unappealing spritziness to them that makes wines taste alike, no matter the grape or the region. (I have found this problem most commonly in red wines from France, and sometimes also in Spanish wines.) Some are also susceptible to volatile acidity, a flaw (according to modern winemaking) that makes a wine smell like nail polish.

Lefcourt attributed the spritz to residual CO2 (that avoidance of racking the wines, perhaps?) and recommended decanting the wine to let this dissipate. In my experience, the spritz rarely does dissipate, so perhaps we were talking about two different things.

“Wouldn't you rather decant a wine for a half hour and come out with a beautiful, terroir-driven interesting wine than drink 90% of the commercial, boring wines that show beautifully at opening but have nothing interesting to offer except a monolithic, one-dimensional taste made to please but that says nothing about place?” she asked.

Well, sure, and many wines that don't make special claims to be “natural” benefit from decanting. But if the winemaker can take a step in the winery that will make the wine more pleasant right out of the bottle, I'd rather he or she do it, even if it is “manipulating” the wine. I'm paying for a finished product, after all.

Lefcourt makes an eloquent argument against a universal, point-driven ideal of wine quality. Alice Feiring, author of “The Battle for Wine and Love, or How I Saved the World from Parkerization” and a champion of natural wines, writes in her blog, Veritas in Vino: “I'm trying to swell the ranks of those who love the differences in each vintage, who abhor homogenization, who want wines that make them smile, think, laugh, and feel sexy. … I want my wines to tell a good story. I want them natural and most of all, like my dear friends, I want them to speak the truth even if we argue.”

Are we ready to argue with our wines?

-- Dave McIntyre
(Follow me on Twitter.)

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By The Food Section  |  April 15, 2010; 10:00 AM ET
Categories:  Wine  | Tags: Dave McIntyre, Wine  
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It cracks me up when people talk about bad chemicals, natural, etc. Everything is made up of the same elements, regardless of whether it's manmade or naturally-occurring.

Posted by: mediajunky | April 16, 2010 8:20 AM | Report abuse

I suggest you take a look at the wines (and the vineyard paractices) of Mark Neal of Neal Family Wines. His cabernets are superb and all are organically farmed, use natural yeasts, and are as natural as you can get.

Posted by: | April 16, 2010 8:39 AM | Report abuse

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