The choice of my recent wine of the week, Olivier Leflaive’s Burgundy Oncle Vincent 2012, made me think about how wines change. When I used to regularly visit Leflaive and Burgundy in the 1990s the style of wine was very oak influenced, a response to the New World oaked wines and to the influence of Parker / Rolland in Bordeaux. The wines smelled of vanilla and tasted of wood. Subtlety was often lost, especially on the lower ranked wines. Happily those days are in the past (though I still come across some very heavily oaked wines even in the Languedoc) and this bottle was zesty and fresh with a little oak adding creaminess.
Similarly if I choose to drink a Riesling from Alsace I can find two wines from grapes grown side by side in the same vineyard which will taste very different. One producer might prefer a lean, dry style of wine whilst his/her neighbour makes wine in a rounder style with more residual sugar. The same can be said of wines from any region of course. So where does that leave the notion of terroir?
Terroir is that elusive term which describes soil, micro-climate, slope etc. Effectively it means the location, the ‘in situ’ of the wine. However, some will also add the influence of the local culture upon the winemaking in the concept of terroir, Alsace with its traditional residual sweetness for example. However, different winemakers choose different methods and styles according to not just local tradition but outside influences, wines tasted, travels etc.
Amongst those influences has been the growth of the natural wine movement. I have read and heard numerous accounts by natural winemakers of how they came to choose this philosophy for their métier. Most include their discovery of a natural wine which made them tear up the rulebook and decide that this was the style of wine which they wanted to make because of their freshness, drinkability and flavours. A typical account can be found here.
Yet those who still find fault with natural wines are wont to declare that natural wines mask the flavour of grape and place because they often taste of natural wine and nothing else. Take this remark by Rosemary George*, English wine journalist and Languedoc resident, “if there is one thing that I reproach natural wines, it is that they all, irrespective of provenance, have a tendency to a similarity of style. The best have that delicious mouth-watering freshness, but that somehow seems to mask their origins.”
You will not be surprised to read that I disagree. I do accept that some, less well made natural wines do have aromas and flavours which resemble each other regardless of origin. However, I think in the vast majority of cases that natural winemaking has progressed and reflect their terroir and grape(s) much better than most conventional wines. How can it be otherwise? If a winemaker adds enzymes, artificial yeasts and SO2 how can than not be adding an extraneous element to the flavour of the wine which is nothing to do with the place? If you add oak chips or staves does that make the wine more Burgundy, Bordeaux or Barossa? Or does it simple meet the established concept of what a wine from those areas ought to taste like?
Winemakers will often aim for a flavour, they want their wine to be the same year after year. That is how the big companies retail Yellow Tail, Blossom Hill etc, the customer expects a certain flavour if wine and that is what they will be given. Like Coca Cola. This does not reflect terroir or vintage at all and, to be fair, the big companies would not claim otherwise. However, I do get the impression that many smaller winemakers follow a similar recipe.
A recent visit to a wine fair in Vouvray was a very disheartening experience. I tasted wine after wine which lacked character but did taste very much like the next sec or demi-sec from the next producer. The conformity was alarming. There was a Vouvray style common to most producers but it was bland and dull. There were one or two exceptions where a winemaker had taken deliberate steps to change their winemaking and vineyards, D’Orfeuilles for example.
So give me a wine of character. Give me a wine with nothing added where the vineyards’ health is reflected in the grape juice which makes the wine. Give me that grape juice with nothing extraneous added, natural yeasts for example. Let that wine be carefully nurtured and not messed around with, no added flavourings. If it is aged in barrel then I would expect it to reflect that influence but not be dominated by it. I want to drink wines which reflect the vitality of healthy grapes in healthy vineyards. The wines will alter from year to year because nature alters from year to year. That is terroir and why natural wine reflects terroir in as pure a state as possible.
*(To be fair to Rosemary she does like some natural wines and it was her writing that first introduced me to Jeff Coutelou so I have much to thank her for.)