Frank Cornelissen Munjebel Nerello Mascalese IGT Terre Siciliane 2013

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cornelissenIf you read many of my reviews you know I give points for character and originality. This wine surely qualifies.

First off, the grape variety Nerello Mascalese is one we see only occasionally in the U.S. Its home is Sicily especially in the foothills of Mt. Etna where it does well in the volcanic soil. Fruity and floral with a medium body but very strong tannins, they are rustic but  full of flavor. I’ve had only a few but I invariable enjoy them for their unusual structure.

But this is not a conventional wine. Frank Cornelissen is more or less the “godfather” of what has come to be known as “natural wins”. A Belgian by birth, he came to the Mt. Etna region in 2000  because he liked its potential and immediately began to break the rules of conventional winemaking.

No sprays, chemicals or treatments of any kind in the vineyard, no sulfites or other additives in the winery, native yeasts only, no oak aging. The refusal to use sulfites was revolutionary and risky. Sulfites protect the grapes from oxidation and bacteria growth, and in conventional winemaking it is applied to the grapes immediately after harvest with repeated doses. But most natural wines use minimal sulfites and some like the Munjebel use none at all (except for what occurs naturally in the vineyard).

Natural wines are controversial, in part because the word “natural” is subject to various interpretations and there are no standards for what belongs in this category. But they have been on the market for several years now and are attracting attention in part because customers like the ethos of low intervention winemaking but also because these wines can be interestingly different. They surely reflect the terroir of their region since little is being done to the wine to mask their natural expression. The problem is bottle variation. With nothing to protect the juice, variations in the handling of each bottle may cause it to evolve on its own trajectory meaning that each purchase is a bit of a gamble.

I’ve tasted many natural wines but I was looking forward to tasting this one because of its reputation as the quintessential expression.

The first whiff was pure nail polish remover—volatile acidity we call it—a serious flaw if it’s too prominent. Happily, a few minutes in the glass allowed the VA to dissipate sufficiently to reveal an interesting but “funky” wine. Black cherry supplemented with crushed rock aromas are pleasant as are the herbal and black olive notes that give it complexity. They are highlighted against a muted “sweaty”  background that develops into smoked meat aromas with more time in the glass. The mouth feel is buoyant and vivacious with a medium body and high acidity, but the tannins enter the picture early giving the wine an expansive quality with plenty of grit on the very long flavorful finish.

I tasted this wine over the course of two hours with plenty of time in the glass; it evolved and improved significantly with aeration.

If you’re adventurous I highly recommend this wine. It is an original although the cherry fruit and high acidity identify it as Italian—like a fresh Sangiovese but with more complexity and tougher tannins.

Score: 91

Price: $45

Alc: 14%

We need freaky folk music for this wine, Timber Timbre, Too Old to Die Young

Budget Wine: Frey Natural Red Organic Wine NV

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frey natural redThis wine checks all the sustainability boxes: made from organically grown grapes, bio-dynamic viticulture, and no genetically modified yeast. It also has no added sulfites and features low-intervention winemaking meaning they don’t employ additives to make the wine drinkable. All of this distinguishes it from most of the other wines on the supermarket shelf. The lack of added sulfites which are important preservative used to keep wine fresh is especially noteworthy.

Do these make a difference in how the wine tastes? It’s hard to say but this is a pleasant, drinkable wine, fresh and fruity and very gentle.

There is a trace of green vegetal aromas but the black pepper notes perched on top of blueberry and pomegranate, with a slight insinuation of funky earth in the background give the nose some interest. On the palate the wine feels light on its feet, soft and smooth with a bright midpalate but thankfully has no blatant sweetness and no obvious oak treatment. The finish is medium length and tangy with persistent tannins that appear soft at first but creep up on you. No doubt this is intended for the comfy, frictionless crowd for whom “goes down easy” is the highest praise. But it doesn’t cloy and it has more structure than you would expect.

I like this wine for a mid-week sipper. It’s freshness is compelling and when you’re in the mood for tranquility it will deliver. It has the acidity to pair with a variety of foods.

There is no mention of the blend. In poking about the Internets it appears to be Carignan, Zinfandel, and Syrah, which would be consistent with its flavor profile.

Lizz Wright’s version of Nature Boy will enhance this wine. And check out the cool percussion solo that introduces it.

Score: 87

Price: $9

Alc. 13.3%

Why Are We Still Having This Debate?

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natural wineThe debate about natural wine just doesn’t seem to go away. Here’s a recent tête-à-tête between Jamie Goode and Christy Canterbury on the  pros and cons of this controversial movement.

If you haven’t heard about natural wine, it is essentially the practice of using as little intervention and manipulation as possible in the winery in order to achieve the purest expression of the grapes and vineyard site. I know that doesn’t sound like the end of civilization but critics of this approach to winemaking are outraged. Unfortunately, they seem to have honed their rhetorical skills in law school or in a bad philosophy class. Here is Ms. Canterbury:

The Oxford English Dictionary defines natural as “existing in or caused by nature; not made or caused by humankind”. So natural wine is impossible because humans must intervene for its production. ‘Natural’ wine does not actually exist.

Ugh.  I have yet to talk to a “natural” winemaker who claims she isn’t making the wine or that the wine makes itself. We know that wine is a human product; no one denies it. Words get their meaning from context and a history of use. In the context of natural winemaking, “natural” does not mean “not caused by humankind”. Dictionaries are handy devices for introducing us to word meanings; they don’t settle conceptual debates.

Ms. Canterbury further laments:

I have a quibble with natural wine because the term is defined by whoever uses it. It has no official meaning. Hence, I reject blanket statements about natural wine’s superiority.

Right. “Natural wine” has no official meaning. Neither does the word “pen” or the word “knowledge” but we can usually figure out what they refer to. Thankfully for our ability to communicate, language is flexible and words mean different things in different contexts. We don’t need “officials” to police discourse, aside from the gentle suggestions found in the dictionary which follow usage rather than dictate it. When someone claims to make natural wine we have a pretty good idea about what their intention is—minimal or no sulfur dioxide, minimal oak, no fancy micro-ox or additives, etc. Within that general desire to minimize manipulation there is a wide range of possible techniques and countless decisions that must be made—different winemakers have different ideas about what makes good wine.  The fact that people who use the term mean something slightly different by it is a feature not a bug. Why would we want to regiment a practice that is inherently experimental and in some cases wildly creative?

As to natural wines’ “inherent superiority”—who makes this claim? Some natural wines are good; some of them not so good. They are not inherently anything.

Ms. Canterbury also seems to have a low tolerance for risk:

Perhaps the most divisive point is sulfur dioxide use. A winemaking by-product, sulfur dioxide protects wine from spoilage. Natural wines may or may not have it, but not protecting wine with reasonable sulfur dioxide levels is like refusing a vaccine. The faults that can ensue – oxidation, acetic acid, Brettanomyces infection – are often the nemesis of pleasurable flavors. Why subject a year’s work to possible ruin?

All of these “nemeses” in the right amounts can be a source of interesting flavors as well. Yes, winemakers who use no sulfur dioxide take a risk; so do people who plant grapes in cool, rainy climates. Winemaking is risky and it’s an individual decision whether the risk is worth the reward. As a consumer if you are unwilling to risk purchasing a bad bottle, don’t. But don’t condemn others who are willing to take the risk.

No doubt, winemakers have been making “natural wines” for centuries, long before there was such a term. The contemporary natural wine movement has arisen because those traditions are eroding as  the wine business is trending towards industrial winemaking, and many people feel a need to resist that trend. Is there anything wrong with industrial made wines using advanced technology? No. Not necessarily, although they tend to be standardized in style and one-dimensional.

But it would be a shame if the industrial approach to winemaking were to colonize the wine business with no resistance from people convinced there is a better way.

It seems every week an independent winery is swallowed by the big guys.This past week saw the announcement that Talbott Vineyards, producers of some of the best Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in the Santa Lucia Highlands, is being purchased by Gallo.

Thankfully, there are winemakers who want to go in a different direction. And we shouldn’t let this pedantic discussion about a word get in their way.

A Natural Debate over Natural Wines

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I guess it must be that time of the year again. Every six months or so, it seems, the wine blogosphere erupts in a cascade of screed, accusation, and innuendo about so called “natural wines”.  This latest go-round was initiated by an intemperate article in Newsweek entitled “Why ‘Natural’ Wine Tastes Worse Than Putrid Cider”. As you might imagine, that provoked some wine writers to come to the defense of natural wines and others to offer somewhat more restrained denounciations.

If you are one of the billions of people on this planet who avoid the wine press and wine blogs you might never have heard of “natural wines”. Essentially these are wines made without cultured yeast, mininimal (or no) use of the preservative sulfur dioxide, no modern winemaking technology such as reverse osmosis or micro-oxygenation, no additives such as mega purple or additional acid, no filtration, and using only grapes grown organically and/or sustainably–the way wine was made 100 years ago.

So what is wrong with modern winemaking technology? Well, environmental issues such as soil depletion and potentially harmful chemicals to start with, but natural wine enthusiasts also claim modern industrial winemaking destroys flavor, creating generic wines that lack freshness, complexity, and that no longer reflect the unique characteristics of the grapes’ origins.

This is controversial because modern winemaking technology is, in part, designed to eliminate flaws, bad bottles, and to preserve the wine for shipping and storage. So making (and purchasing) wine without that technology is inherently risky. It is, however, not quite true that natural winemakers eschew modern technology. The natural winemakers I know obsessively test their wines in the lab, use the latest in storage technology, and are scrupulous about cleanliness in the winery using the best equipment they can find to make sure their facilities, storage containers and equipment are free of bacteria. The idea that they are luddites is absurd.

So what does this controversy come down to? On one side, the traditionalists claim that natural wine enthusiasts are ignoring flavor in favor of a dogmatic ideology, deceived by the romantic lure of the idea of “authenticity” into making inferior wine. On the other side are the enthusiasts who claim that the wine revolution is upon us if only the close-minded and hidebound apologists for big business would get out of the way.

In the middle are the vast number of artisanal wine producers who use technology when necessary but only as a last resort, who believe vineyard expression is what matters most but that some intervention sometimes is necessary to produce the best wine they can.

Part of the controversy arises because the word “natural” is ill-defined and there are no standards for what counts as natural wine and often no way of knowing whether a wine is natural or not. There is a simple solution to this–require ingredients to be listed on the bottle so consumers can make their own decisions about what they prefer and are less dependent on the marketing of the word “natural”.

But another main source of confusion is the idea that we can somehow distinguish flavor from the idea of what we’re drinking. Flavor is an idea influenced by our past, our environment, and most importantly our thoughts about what we’re tasting. Natural wine enthusiasts are not ignoring flavor in favor of dogma. They define flavor differently because they have a different idea of what flavor should be. The traditionalist notion that great wine must be made from very ripe grapes, filtered, and heavily oaked is itself a kind of dogma. There is no neutral ground called “flavor” that defines what flavor is and our various ideologies inevitably influence our judgments.

The attitude I find most disturbing is one expressed by Matt Kramer whose writing I usually admire. He writes

For those of us on the sidelines, watching the crusaders on both sides saddle up for yet another joust leaves a bad aftertaste. And that is surely not what fine wine is supposed to be about.

The idea that we shouldn’t disagree about these things takes wine out of the realm of the aesthetic. As Kant insisted, the idea of beauty (as opposed to mere subjective preference) produces judgements that aspire to be universal. The fact that the taste of wine matters enough to argue about and take sides with the aim of convincing others means that wine is not just a preference but an attempt to experience something of genuine value and import. If it were like a preference for Orange Maid or Sunkist then arguments would appear to be beside the point. Everyone in the wine world should welcome this controversy because it is a sign that wine is not merely a commodity like orange juice but a work of art worthy of our commitment.

In closing let me weigh in on the controversy. Some natural wines are better than others. Some are flawed or just ordinary. But I’ve had natural wines that are extraordinary. Someone who claims that they all taste like “putrid cider” is just ignorant. The trick is to know the producer so you can return a bad bottle, buy local, and drink young to avoid the need to store them.