March 27, 2013

Appel on Wine: Far from tasting the same, natural wines refuse to conform

By JOE APPEL

Last week's column on natural wines focused on aspects of this category that function outside the tastes of the wines themselves: Definitions, introductions, issues. Now I'd like to bring more attention to what these wines are actually like in the glass.

To even frame the conversation that way engages a point of view, because one of the knocks against wines made from organically grown grapes that ferment exclusively with their own yeasts and contain no additives, with little or no sulfur used, is that they all taste the same.

To naysayers, natural wine is dirty, skunky, cloudy and sour. To anyone who actually drinks them with a modicum of attention, this is a ridiculous simplification. I recently tasted Sancerres from Sebastien Riffault, as just one example, whose wines are not yet available in Maine but will be soon.

Two of the wines were identical in all markers (grape, vine age, harvesting and vinification processes) except one: Terroir. The Auksinis is from a primarily limestone vineyard; the Skeveldra wine is from an adjoining plot that is instead based on silex.

They are as different from each other (and, as a side note, from any other Sancerre you've had) as a sausage and a chop from the same pig. One wine is knotty and fibrous, firm, plantlike and almost medicinal; the other is more supple, praline, honeyed and floral. Both are delicious. Both defy classification.

This category-busting nature of hands-off wines means their flavors are far less predictable than most of conventionally made wines. Methinks this is what the critics are protesting too much: Not "sameness" but rather a refusal to conform. (Think of your parents complaining that all the music you loved "sounds the same.")

"For me personally," the natural-wine importer Zev Rovine told me, "a wine doesn't actually taste like 'red currant' or something. It should taste like the grapes that it comes from, affected by the place. It should taste like Carignan, or Grenache."

(By the way, if you thought you knew what Sauvignon Blanc tastes like -- and I did -- just wait until you try these Riffaults.)

What we take to be direct experience is usually experience filtered through our minds regulating sensual transactions. And most conventionally made wines are also conventionally conceived: Habits, short-lived "traditions," and a desire to placate a hypothetical "marketplace" help determine the character of the finished wine.

Minimalist winemaking employs a different algorithm based on a leap of faith. The endeavor is to control not flavor but process, trusting that the qualities of a wine made with minimal intervention will turn out true and therefore beautiful.

And often, the most avid truth-seekers are the ones less versed in wine.

"The less people know about wine," Rovine said, "the better tasters they are. They're better at answering, 'Does this taste good or not?' And the most important thing for me is that the wines I represent are delicious.

"Some wine enthusiasts are ready to redefine what they think wine is ... but if you taste a Robinot sparkling wine with people who don't know what sparkling wine tastes like, it's better. Whereas most wine people will think of Robinot as a lesser version of Champagne because 'that's what all (other) sparkling wine is!' "

Ah, Jean Pierre Robinot. I may devote a future column (or year) to examining this natural-wine wizard, from Jasnieres in France's Loire Valley. For now, read about him at wineterroirs.com, and seek out his L'Ange Vin Fetembulles ($25, Devenish), a shockingly dry, driving sparkling Chenin Blanc.

Chenin Blanc is becoming for me the most mysterious and enticing of grapes. Robinot's Chenins (he makes a bogglingly diverse series, both still and sparkling) are nothing like the Chenins I've loved from Swartland, South Africa, nor from Robinot's neighboring Vouvray.

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