Friday, 23 March 2012

A clarification

On the use and abuse of terminology.

There has been some very ill tempered commentating going on in the last week relating to the use of the term ‘natural’ to describe wines.

While I agree with those who feel that it unfairly stigmatized those wines deemed not ‘natural’ I feel that it’s almost certainly too late to do anything about it. Like it or not the horse has bolted, there’s no use shutting the stable door now.

However, I also feel that we’re doing the consumer a slight disservice and underestimating their ability to deal with things. Most general consumers are unlikely to come into contact with minimal intervention wines unless they happen to be in a wine bar or specialist shop that deals with them. The likelihood is that there will therefor be someone who can explain the distinctions to them.

Moreover, I think that people who attack the category miss the essential broadening of the category that has taken place. The natural church seems to me a very broad one. Where the essential feature is a belief in offering as honest a representation of the growers terroir as possible. It is in this sense that winemaking additions and manipulations are frowned upon as it is viewed as altering or touching up the picture.

I personally have no problem with wines that are made in this way, there is a goal to the winemaking process, and that is to produce a high quality product that will please consumers, it may be to make something that will age wonderfully, and it is here that I should mention that most of my stand out greatest wine drinking experiences have been from wines that were made from non organic vineyards, and probably quite heavily sulphured too. Age ameliorates many things.

So with this in mind what then is the importance of natural, why does it seem to have such a siren call to people? Why has it been so enthusiastically embraced in some of the less well-known corners of the wine world?

Personally I think it’s because it has come as an important corrective movement. For a grower faced with his plot of vines, none of which are proscribed noble varieties, he or she in maybe in a marginal climate and as such isn’t going to be able to make rich luscious, expensively oaked wines. What to do? Accept ones place in the lower order and carry on making unprofitable bulk wine for a dying domestic market? Or celebrate the intricacy of their particular patch of terroir? Homogeneity is never interesting, embracement of diversity only makes the world more interesting.

Yes there are extremists, yes there are wines that are cidery, cloudy, slightly faulty, but to me using these to tar everything under the natural umbrella is akin to knocking everything out of Bordeaux on the strength of a couple of 200% new oak St Emilion garagistes.

The pendulum of fashion is swinging, and the thing I find most exciting about the natural movement is how it will change the middle ground, as that is where most of us actually live and drink.


Wineday Uk said...

Excellent and balanced piece

awaldstein said...

Really well said.

Yes, the market is expanding. Maybe more to the high end than the middle but growing it is.

I'd like think that even myself, not a wine educator, in my little way through my blog and holding court at any one of the many 'artisanal' and 'natural' spots in NYC is making a difference.

I agree. We don't need extremist we need exposure to great quality wine of a different ilk and approach.

The bars and shops in my town are doing a great job of this. I would state though that it is much more prevalent than you think when bars like Terroir TriBeCa sell (approx) 4-600 glasses of wine a night.

Big changes are afoot.

Nice post.

Tai-Ran Niew said...

Wonderful post!! And I do like my Tom Shobbrook wines ...

But a few (probably pedantic!) thoughts

- "we’re doing the consumer a slight disservice and underestimating their ability to deal with things" I actually believe that although consumers are obviously capable of dealing with things, they, however, won't spend that much time on wine, which is fair enough, and quite rightly want and respond to simple filters. Otherwise 100pts would mean a lot less in the wine world, and cult Californian wines won't exist.

- If you go to Whole Foods Kensington (in London) you'll see little green labels with "Low SO2" on certain wines. An arbitrary line has been drawn. And the consumer do choose based on those labels. It is incredibly unfair to the wine sitting next to that bottle that is equally interesting, expressive, carefully made, and might just have used a little bit more sulphur ...

- If the pendulum of fashion is swinging. The commercial impact on the wine without the green label is HUGE.

- No matter how broad the church may be, any attempt at categorisation is by definition exclusive. And the basis of the marketing of the "Natural" category is not "try us, we are really tasty" (which a lot of the wines are), but "we exist because the others are nasty". And it is vague as to who precisely, by name, "the others" are - Jacobs Creek? Ch. Latour? Or the winemaker down the road that is not at the "fair". And is that which go against the idea of DIVERSITY.

- That's the point that Tom Wark is trying so hard to make, and getting so much flak for it!

- The organisers of fairs, the person responsible dishing out the green labels in WFM, are the new "gatekeepers" of this game. A game that is exclusive and not inclusive?

- There is another argument which is "we will never be that big, just let us play", which is fair enough, but only time can tell.

Cesar Valverde said...

Probably the best piece on this subject I have read, neither misrepresenting nor misunderstanding either 'side'.

Who invented the dichotomy anyway?