amarchinthevines

Learning about wine, vines and vignerons whilst living in the Languedoc


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To certify or not to certify

During the current lockdown I have bought a few cases of wine, including a fascinating dozen from Westwell Wines in Kent. However, a bottle from a different case brought to mind an issue which has been much discussed in the wine media recently (the current situation meaning that people have more time to discuss such issues).

The Niepoort Redoma Branco 2018 was very enjoyable with fresh, citric flavours from old vines in the Douro. The grapes were from typically unusual Portuguese grapes such as Rabigato and Codega and aged in barrel for a short time. The oak was subtle and added complexity. Overall, a good wine in my opinion, one I would be happy to purchase again.

The wine was described as natural by the merchant and the informative, detailed technical data from Niepoort allows me to examine that description. In doing so I see a total of 87mg of total SO2 which is very high for a ‘natural’ wine, for example the RAW charter allows up to 70mg. In addition though I have scoured the Niepoort website I can’t see any evidence that this was made with organically grown grapes, to be fair the bottle did not claim it to be and Niepport are gradually moving towards organics. For me those two things mean this cannot be described as natural. But there lies the problem. What is natural wine?

The natural wine movement began in the Beaujolais and Loire as a rebellion against the modernisation of winemaking with its techniques to filter, pasteurise and homogenise. Over the last 30 years the natural wine world has expanded exponentially with like minded producers across the world. And yet there is no agreed definition of what constitutes a natural wine. This frustrates many wine drinkers, I know some myself. They would like to know what is in the bottle, how it was produced.

Are the grapes organic for example? How do we know? Some producers say they are working organically but have no certification to prove it. Jeff Coutelou for example goes through rigorous testing every year by Ecocert to guarantee his organic methods, as I described here. Jeff goes much, much further in his vineyards as readers will know, working to ensure biodiversity and better soils without synthetic products, use of sulfur and copper (allowed under organic production) is way below the levels permitted and only in extremis. However, how do I know that a bottle without certification is produced organically? How do I know that a producer claiming to make natural wines does not add more SO2 than expected unless there is analysis?

Frustration with these blurred lines has persuaded some producers to attempt to draw up a certification for natural wine on a number of occasions. The breakthrough recently however is French government support for the work of the Syndicat de défense des Vins Nature’l. With names like producers Carroget, David and Binner and the wine writer Antonin Iommi-Amunategui the Syndicat has heft and credibility for its work. So what are their rules?

  • Grapes from certified organic vines (from 2nd year of conversion)
  • Hand harvesting
  • Natural, native yeasts only
  • No additives
  • No manipulation of the natural grapes
  • No techniques such as reverse osmosis, flash pasteurisation (described as brutal and traumatic in the charter)
  • No SO2 added before fermentation, though up to 30mg may be added before bottling
  • A separate logo for wines with no added SO2 is available
The logos for certified wines

One hundred natural producers have so far signed up to the Syndicat, ot will be fascinating to see how this develops. Many have welcomed the move, for example Simon J Woolf a writer whose opinions I greatly respect wrote an article in favour in his Morning Claret website. Others such as Jamie Goode, another writer I respect greatly, have generally argued against it. I shall set out these arguments and opinions in the next article.


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Natural news

As a result of my interest in wine, natural wine in particular, I read lots of articles, tweets and other media sources. Quite often these include attacks on the whole idea of natural wine, clichés about it being a fashion rather than serious wine and generalisations about faults. There are some writers and wine industry people who get very worked up about the idea of people enjoying wine and dismissing such people and their ability to appreciate good wine.

One issue which regularly upsets such critics is the very term ‘natural wine’. It involves human activity, vines don’t grow naturally in rows, fermenting in vats or barrels – all are not natural processes so the term is misleading they cry. Recently I read about one Chilean minimal intervention producer criticising the term because it diminishes the role of the winemaker.

It was interesting, therefore, to read a tweet from wine writer Simon J. Woolf about an Australian article on the term natural wine. In it writers Sue Dyson and Roger McShane outline their research which shows that the term ‘natural wine’ has been used for centuries. They found it used at the end of the 17thC by a Swiss writer who abhorred the ‘abuse’ of wine by adding things to it or ‘refinement’. In 1731 an English Dictionary defined “Natural wine is such that it comes from the grape without any mixture or sophistication”. By 1869 the article shows a French description, “Natural wine is the term applied to the product which contains no other matter than the grape when fermented produces“.

These definitions could apply today and show, to my mind, that modern natural wines are simply a return to classic winemaking. The lack of definition of what constitutes a natural wine leaves them open to criticism and abuse. And, this point was further highlighted in a recent article by Alice Feiring entitled ‘Is Natural Wine Dead?’.

In this New Yorker article Feiring expresses regret that many have jumped on the natural wine bandwagon and how many of those are taking shortcuts to cash in. Bigger companies seeing marketing opportunities sell wines labelled natural since they contain no added sulphites though the base wine may be machine harvested, artificial yeasts added etc. Other winemakers are trying to make wine without experience and the results are often faulty which adds to the generalisations mentioned above.

I think Feiring has a point. I see wines on UK retail shelves promoted as natural which I would not consider to be so. I have tasted faulty wines at fairs events but then I have done at conventional wine fairs and far more dull, characterless wines. However, the lack of definition does facilitate this usurping of the natural wine label.

That said there are waves of new winemakers who are producing great wines. Just this week I had a terrific Cinsault from Alexandre Durand of Peira Levada in Faugeres, Dynamite. Fruity, enjoyable but with a lovely mineral streak of freshness and complexity. With this new wave in France and around the world those of us who enjoy natural wine are still in safe hands.


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The rise and fall of natural wines?

 

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I read an interesting article by Alice Feiring last week. Ms Feiring is perhaps the most high profile, long term advocate of natural wines but in this article she raised a number of issues which have also been troubling me in recent months.

There is little doubt that natural wines have become fashionable around the world. New producers, cavistes and bar / restaurants spring up weekly. Even the North East of England (my home region) now has a wine bar offering natural wines “for the adventurous”! So, a half hearted effort but a start.

During vendanges we had a number of visits from cavistes seeking wines from Jeff. Alas they would leave disappointed as there are few enough wines to meet the demand of existing customers after low yields in 2017. This year’s mildew attacks mean even more rationing next year. We have reached the stage where even supermarkets and major chains such as Majestic in the UK are wanting to stock natural wines. Supply, not just from Jeff, does not meet the demand.

As ever where there is demand we see some jumping in to meet it. Some so called natural wines are not organically produced for example, to me that means they are not natural wines. There are lots of younger, newer producers who want to make genuine wines but there are also some who are undoubtedly riding the bandwagon to make a profit.

Demand also means that some producers are taking shortcuts to get their wines to market quickly. Feiring refers to this and the ensuing faults which may arise, I have seen other references to mousiness being one flaw caused by premature bottling. Some wine drinkers are complicit in this by accepting flaws as part of the character and style of natural wines. This is a complex area, I am more tolerant of brett (farmyard, band aid aromas caused by harmful bacteria) than some but very intolerant of mousiness which 20% of people can’t detect at all!*

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However, I want to drink wines which taste of clean, healthy fruit not faults. I won’t buy from producers whose wines regularly exhibit such flaws, according to Feiring a lot of drinkers don’t see them as problems at all. To my mind there will be a reaction against natural wines, such is the nature of fashion. The wines which will still be in demand will be those of quality, made for easy drinking or for the long term.

 

Jeff Coutelou is certainly one producer of such wines. My advice is to drink Coutelou of course but also to seek out reliable, quality winemakers from around the world. Reliable merchants or cavistes will surely point you in the right direction much better than chains or supermarkets. For my part I shall also try to recommend wines and winemakers whom I trust. And, I hasten to point out, I have had more problem with conventional wines and faults than natural wines in the last year.

*Looking forward to reading the new book by Jamie Goode about wine flaws


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On higher ground

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En francais

The last article described the ongoing problems in the Languedoc with mildew spoiling vines and grapes. Last Saturday Jeff  invited me over to try and beat the blues a little. Steve from Besançon was staying with Jeff for a week to learn a bit more about being a vigneron. They had opened a bottle of La Vigne Haute 2013 on the previous evening and Jeff invited me over to try the last glass from the bottle.

When I arrived on the Saturday morning Jeff was spraying the Flower Power vineyard, Font D’Oulette. When he had finished we returned to his house and I had the remaining 2013, delicious it was too, still youthful but starting to add tertiary notes to the fruit. Jeff decided to open the 2010 to show how age helps La Vigne Haute to reveal its quality and depth; fruit, spice and leathery complexity. A bottle demonstrating perfectly why La Vigne Haute is my favourite wine of all. However, that was not the end. From his personal cellar emerged a 2001 LVH with no label. Still vibrant with fruit singing and yet more complexity of spice, classic black pepper notes. Simply excellent.

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So, was that the end? Not at all.  More Syrah from older vintages, 1998, 1997 and 1993. Each was still alive with black fruit and those spicy notes. The 91 was Jeff’s first solo bottling, a real privilege to taste it. He had added, all those years ago, a total of 5mg of SO2, pretty much absorbed now, and would certainly qualify as natural wine from a time when it was virtually unknown. A treasure trove of history as well as further proof of how well these wines do mature, there were no off notes at all.  Indeed, they were delicious.

A 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon showed the quality of that grape from the region and how well it aged. There were still currant flavours, violets and more spice. A fresh acidity cleansed the palate. I hadn’t known what to expect, I was bowled over.

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Legendary Roberta

And to finish the 5 hour lunch a bottle of Roberta, the 2003 white wine made from all three Grenache grapes, one of Jeff’s first no added sulphite wines, aged in a special barrel which gives the wine its name. It is a treat I have tasted on a handful of special occasions, its nutty, round fruit was a perfect ending to a special day. Whatever 2018 brings this was a reminder of the special Coutelou wines.

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Why wines appeal, or how Jeff Coutelou has changed my taste!

 

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Pinot Noir in Nelson

 

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Reflecting still on my trip down under, my thoughts turned to the question of taste. It is personal of course, a wine which appeals to me may not be to your palate and vice versa. I was delighted to receive an email from Peter Gorley about his recent trip to New Zealand and specifically his tastings of Pinot Noir. Peter is someone whose wine knowledge and appreciation I have great respect for and trust in. His book on the Languedoc is a must buy based on his experience of living there for many years.

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It was clear that Peter was much more enthusiastic about the Pinots he tasted than I was. There were a few we tasted in common though Peter’s tastings were far more extensive especially in the North Island and Marlborough. I honestly trust Peter’s judgements, so why was I less convinced?

 

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The Surveyor Thomson was one we  both tasted

 

I think it is fair to say that Jeff Coutelou has changed my taste in wine. And I am very happy that he has done so  before anyone thinks that sounds like a complaint. Before I really got to know Jeff 10 years ago my taste in wine was very conventional and I rated most highly the wines which garnered praise and were ‘typical’ of their type, variety and place. After sharing so much with Jeff, his own fabulous wines and wines from many other natural producers, I know that my taste has altered.

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I rate enjoyment and excitement much more highly than other factors these days. Does the wine taste good? Is it fruity, clean? Does it make me want to try another glass? Is there a vibrancy about the wine?

I taste wines, both natural and conventional, that can give me positive answers to those questions and much more besides. I taste wines, both natural and conventional, which unfortunately do not. These days it is natural wines which form the majority of wines which fall into the first category. In New Zealand I found too many Pinot wines trying to be aged Burgundy rather than a genuine expression of their place. There is a convention of how good wine tastes and many producers, not just Kiwis, seem to want to be included in that convention. I get more excitement from those who let the grapes speak and produce wine where they are not manipulated to meet a convention.

 

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Kindeli, one of the NZ producers I enjoyed most. I have bought some since returning to the UK

 

That is not to criticise Peter in any way. He included Jeff in his book, has an open mind about wine and I share many of his favourites. We are different. I have spent so much time with Jeff that my palate is inevitably the one which has changed to prefer the natural style. That doesn’t make me right or wrong. We are different, taste is different. Chacun à son gout.

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An excellent article to read from The Guardian


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Reading

Version francaise

I may be away from the action of the Coutelou vineyards but my fascination with wine, and particularly natural wine, continues to grow. I have recently read two things which I thought were worth sharing on here.

Firstly from Bibendum came this piece of information about the UK.

bibendum report

This growth of interest in natural wines is, of course, very pleasing to me, a long time advocate of the style. Not all these wines are natural but the interest in this sector shows a shift in demand and, also, realisation from merchants that the demand is there.

Caveat emptor! Not all wines labelled as ‘natural’ are that, a consequence of the lack of regulation. In particular beware high street retailers with wines from big companies. Artisans who practice natural methods in the vineyard and cellar are what matter to me. To identify such producers you could do worse than look at the website ‘vinsnaturels’ which is in French and English. The app Raisin is another useful way to locate producers and retailers.

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The most interesting article I have read though was from The Wine Enthusiast, written by Anne Krebiehl MW. In it she describes what we are learning about soils and the life which is in there. The rhizosphere is the soil immediately surrounding the vine roots and research is revealing the microbial and fungal life in there. This is something which Jeff has described to me over the years and it is fascinating to look at soils with small white fungal fibres which form a network around the vines, supporting them with nutrition and chemicals whilst benefiting themselves from the vines in a symbiotic relationship. Encouraging life in the soils is, therefore, hugely important; reducing their compaction from tractors etc as much as possible, composting them, avoiding chemicals where possible.

Mycorrhizae in Rome vineyard

There is much research still to be done and we are in the early days of understanding how the soils influence the vine and, consequently, the wine. However, early research supports the careful management of soils and vines by vignerons such as Jeff Coutelou. Respect the environment, encourage life. As he said after the recent damage done to his vineyards the best response is to plant. Trees, bushes, flowers, any plants. Encourage ecosystems and they will repay our guardianship.


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Decanter’s first natural wine tasting

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A sign of acceptance in the mainstream wine world? Decanter magazine held its first tasting of natural wines recently. Simon Woolf, Andrew Jefford and Sarah Jane Evans were charged with the tasting and I think that is a very fair minded trio of experienced tasters.

The first issue they faced was how to classify a selection of natural wines and Simon explained on his very good blog themorningclaret.com how they adopted the rules of RAW, the natural wine fairs organised by Isabelle Legeron. That means organic/biodynamic production (preferably certified), hand harvesting, no modern techniques such as reverse osmosis, no fining or filtration and no cultured yeasts. Of course the issue of sulphites was central to discussion, as it so often is, and RAW’s rules allow up to 70mg/l so this tasting allowed the same. When I attended and reported on RAW this spring I made it clear that I view this as too high but that was the rule laid down here.

Decanter tasting

122 wines were tasted mainly based on bottles provided by UK retailers. Interestingly, and inevitably, the three tasters produced very different results. Being a Decanter tasting they were required to give marks (which I increasingly dislike) but the comments and selections are well worth reading. The results and top ten wines for each of the tasters is available on Simon’s blog here along with a link for a pdf of the Decanter article. The full list of wines tasted is here.

I have obviously been drinking too much wine as I know the vast majority of these 122 bottles. Their top wine turned out to be La Stoppa’s Ageno 2011 and I have praised this domaine before as well as that wine, so no argument from me. My own views would differ from all three but that is the nature of tasting (and why marks make little sense to me). Kreydenweiss, COS, Occhipinti, Haywire, Meinklang, Muster, Sainte-Croix and Testalonga are all firm favourites of mine so, in fact, I would agree with many of the selections.

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I highlight this event because I think it is a landmark in that a very conservative magazine (I didn’t renew my subscription many years ago because of its very traditional bias) has brought natural wine on board. I believe natural wine should be willing to accept constructive criticism from such fair minded critics and so this is an important step in the right direction.

Also worth noting is the sheer spread of producers from all corners of the globe, natural wine is not going away it is growing in popularity with consumers and producers. Note too that some big producers are making  versions of natural wine, a trend mentioned on these pages before. Whilst I personally may not regard them too sympathetically at least it is a sign that the philosophy behind natural wine is winning support.

So, well done Decanter, and Simon Woolf in particular, for promoting this tasting.

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Wonderful wines which definitely pass muster with me