The other day I was asked to take part in a presentation on ‘Natural Wine’. It’s a term I don’t like and I’m not very clear what it is supposed to describe. It has become a badge for producers who shun the use of Sulphites in wine, which for many (but not all wines) is tantamount to guaranteeing their destruction.
But the discussion actually centred around some very interesting common ground and we focused the debate on the purpose of the winemaker. For some years I’ve been fascinated by a particular thought: if one is trying to make a wine that accurately expresses its place, then that prohibits the winemaker from trying to “improve” it. If the place has made a wine taste a particular way, and the winemaker doesn’t like that, then should they act? Obviously technical faults and problems are things that need addressing, but I’m not talking about that; rather this is about the nuance of personality that the wine expresses, a personality that comes from that site every year, regardless of vintage.
For example, our Block 3 Pinot Noir has a distinct herbal edge to it. Interestingly when people taste the wine knowing what it is, they rarely comment negatively on this, but in blind tastings, it is not infrequently the cause of marking down by some tasters. Now that herbal edge is a core part of ‘Block3ness’; it is a point of interest in a complex personality. In my experience, interesting personalities are usually liberally sprinkled with faults. I remember many years ago being approached by a ‘personal trainer’ sort of psychologist who offered to eliminate all my faults. “The problem is, I think my faults are some of my greatest strengths” I replied, which proved a very effective counter to the sales pitch.
Once the winemaker allows themselves the indulgence of tidying up those little faults, they may have a wine that could be perceived as better, but I bet it will be a whole pile less interesting.
Wines that are allowed to grow up ‘free range’, so to speak, and express all the sides to their personality that nature and the place has bestowed upon them, will rarely win trophies. In the few seconds that a judge has, while tasting and spitting through a huge crowd of contenders, it is simply impossible to appreciate the strengths that come from the longer conversation. But long after the braggart of the trophy wine has become a bore, the quieter, quirkier, slightly wrinkled character in the corner will find themselves the centre of attention of a group who are intrigued rather than impressed and keen to learn more about what such a unique individual has to say.
Wouldn’t it be nice if the term natural wine came to describe such examples?