There's a fundamentalist fervor these days about "natural" winemaking. This seems to me a disturbing trend, given the temperature of the rhetoric being tossed around on the wine chat boards.
For those who have missed the current tempest in a wine bottle, here are a number of the key elements of natural winemaking: No acid or sugar additions (or de-acidification). Exclusive use of native yeasts. No use of enzymes to extract or stabilize color and tannins. No sulfur additions. Minimal racking. No filtration. Little or no new oak.
Certainly any approach to grape-growing that puts the grower in closer touch with his or her vines is a good thing. A steadily growing number of talented winemakers worldwide are making outstanding, easy-on-the-body wines by practicing organic viticulture and using hands-off techniques. They understand how and why each of the above elements can help them make better wines. Of course, these winemakers would be the first to point out that natural winemaking can succeed only if you have healthy fruit to begin with and practice strict selection at harvest-time to eliminate underripe or rotten grapes.
Unfortunately there are also a lot of copycats out there looking to adopt a litany of techniques in the name of fashion rather than personal conviction. They see the marketing advantage of being able to preach the organic gospel. The problem is that they often practice lax vineyard work and begin with subpar raw material. In my hundreds of cellar visits each year, I run into dozens of winemakers who can't quite explain why they use a particular set of techniques in the cellar, but in the name of dogma they refuse to take alternative steps that might improve their wines.
The result is that too many so-called natural wines display offputting elements: dull appearance, excessive earthiness, brettanomyces, oxidative qualities, refermentation in the bottle, excessive sediment. And then proponents of natural wine, including some bloggers, retailers and young sommeliers looking for street cred, find themselves making excuses for obviously flawed wines or simply pretending the defects aren't there.
Be wary of natural wine cultists for whom "clean" wine has become a dirty word. A wine without obvious flaws is not necessarily a wine stripped of all character, as some wine extremists maintain. A lot of imperfections can be avoided, for example, by judicious use of sulfur, racking at the right moment, or even filtration. Natural winemaking is a work in progress, and its success depends to a great degree on the seriousness of the producer's skill in the vineyard and cellar. Even under the best of circumstances it can present a number of perils that require flexibility on the part of the winemaker.
The bottom line: Drink the wine, not the Kool-Aid. Taste with your five senses and leave dogma out of the equation. Wine is a beverage of pleasure, and pleasure can be diminished by too much preaching and too little swallowing.
This month's recommended bottles emphasize red wines that pair well with robust winter dishes.
(60% grenache and 20% each of mourvedre and syrah, from yields that
reportedly hover around 20 hectoliters per hectare, which would be low even for the far more expensive category of Chateauneuf du
Pape): Opaque ruby. Spice-accented dark berries, licorice and olive on
the nose, with a floral quality gaining strength with air. Fleshy
and seamless on the palate, offering sweet boysenberry and cherry
flavors and a touch of bitter chocolate. Shows very good intensity on
the finish, with the floral and spice notes echoing. (JR)
(100% pinot noir; Lot 11034): Light orange-pink. A complex bouquet evokes raspberry, blood orange and licorice, plus a touch of dried rose. In a dry, serious style, displaying very good intensity to its sappy red fruit flavors. Picks up a refreshingly bitter note of cherry pit on the finish, which clings with very good tenacity and focus. This very wine-like Cava should work well with richer foods. (JR)
Pale yellow. Sexy, slightly exotic aromas of wild herbs, flowers, licorice, mint and spices. Juicy, saline and dry, with a subtly tactile mouth feel to the flavors of lemon verbena, lavender and botanical herbs. There's an enticing dusty impression of soil here but plenty of sweet citrus fruits too. Savory and serious but there's nothing austere about it. An outstanding example of Argentina's distinctive torrontes, which makes a perfect aperitif. (ST)
(61% semillon, 21% sauvignon blanc and 18% muscadelle): Gold-tinged straw. Lemon drop, graphite, honey, flowers, anise and herbs on the nose, with complicating leesy nuances. At once plump and citrussy, with a leesy weight to its flavors of pineapple fruit salad and spring flowers. Good texture and depth here, as well as a lingering, fresh finish. This is a reasonable 13.8% alcohol, and delivers a low-pH mouth feel. (ST)
Youthful purple. Primary, pungent aromas of black and blue fruits,
vanilla, fresh flowers and licorice, with slow-mounting spiciness.
Broad, palate-coating cassis and boysenberry flavors are nicely framed and
lifted by tangy acidity. Showing very well right now but has the depth
to age. (JR)
Deep ruby with a bright rim. High-pitched aromas of red- and
blackcurrant complicated by a spicy quality. Juicy and precise, with
strong energy to its tangy currant and bitter cherry flavors. Finishes
clean and mouthwatering, with very good thrust and bite. This is the
sort of Beaujolais I could drink all day long. (JR)
(70% grenache and 30% syrah): Glass-staining ruby. Blackberry, cherry
compote and licorice on the powerfully scented nose. Ripe and fleshy in the mouth,
offering dense dark fruit flavors complicated by notes of candied lavender and
cracked pepper. Shows very good clarity and energy on the impressively persistent finish. (JR)
Vivid ruby-red. Fresh, floral aromas of red berry preserves
and anise, with a spicy quality gaining strength as the wine opens in the glass. Juicy,
sharply focused raspberry and bitter cherry flavors pick up an herbal nuance on the back half. Closes bright
and sappy, with resonating spice and floral qualities. Offers a lovely blend of richness and vivacity. (JR)
(70% tempranillo and 20% garnacha, with mazuelo and graciano): Deep
ruby. Powerful cherry and blackberry on the nose, with alluring smoked
meat and licorice notes and a suggestion of candied rose. Full, fleshy
dark berry and bitter cherry flavors are lifted by a gentle mineral note
and nicely supported by silky tannins. Gains sweetness on the persistent
finish, which features an
exotic note of resiny, cured tobacco. This is the only wine that Muga
commercialized from the 2007 vintage. (JR)
Saturated ruby-red. Musky aromas of crushed blackberry and licorice. Deep and enticingly sweet, with outstanding depth for the price range. The dark berry and spice flavors perfectly support the wine's ripe, building tannins, with a peppery nuance providing verve. This bottling has been consistently excellent in recent years. (ST)
(grenache with carignan and syrah; the name of the wine is more or less a palindrome): Bright dark red. Captivating candied lift to the aromas of blackberry, violet, crushed stone and cardamom. Broad but weightless on the palate, with enticing floral high notes to its dark raspberry, plum, black tea and mineral flavors. Bright acidity and a fine dusting of tannins shape and extend the tactile, dusty finish. Exceptionally perfumed for its appellation. (ST)
(15.1% alcohol): Bright red-ruby. Sweet, inviting aromas of black raspberry, mocha, minerals, tobacco and mint complemented by ripe soil tones. Silky on entry, then sexy and seamless in the middle, with concentrated flavors of cassis, black plum and dark chocolate. At once plush and shapely, with ripe acidity giving the wine an impression of refinement. The ripe tannins reach the front teeth on the long finish, with violet and menthol elements providing lift. A lovely classy cabernet. (ST)
(5.5% alcohol): Bright, pale lemon-yellow. Pure, perfumed aromas and flavors of peach, fresh apricot, mint and flowers. Sweet, rich and tactile, with complex fruit, floral and honey flavors energized by citrus zest acidity. It's hard to scrape this unflagging wine off the palate, not that you'd want to. The best examples of northwest Italy's frothy, sweet, low-alcohol sparkling wine can be habit-forming: I dare you to stop with just one glass. (ST)
Since 1985, Stephen Tanzer and his team of renowned, widely published regional experts have spent months of every year on the wine trails of the world, having their passports punched and tasting tens of thousands of wines annually, the best of which are reviewed in the independent, critically acclaimed, bimonthly International Wine Cellar (IWC).
Many wines featured in Second Tuesday will be selected from past, current and upcoming issues of the IWC. But Stephen and associate editor Josh Raynolds will also include superb recent discoveries that would otherwise slip between the cracks of IWC coverage.
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