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Jefford on Monday: Out on the wire

Calumny? Or was it apostasy? What I wrote about natural wines in August's edition of Decanter magazine harvested more personal communications to me that any other I have written.

The Natural Wine Fair in London in May

In particular, the idea that naturalness in wine and ‘natural wine’ might not be synonymous seemed illogical to many, so let me try to make the argument a little more limpid here.

As anyone who has followed my magazine columns since 1998 will know, I believe that naturalness matters. A lot. For two reasons.

The first is that if you want to make terroir wine (not the only sort of wine, but certainly my favourite sort), naturalness must be a primary ideal, and perhaps the principal ideal. By ‘naturalness’, I mean respecting the raw materials as sacrosanct throughout the wine-making process. It is via those raw materials that the place and the season reaches you. If you change their constitution, you erase the place and efface the season. You start to wave goodbye to terroir.

Secondly, I believe that drinkability is one the most precious (yet least discussed) of wine qualities. Years of tasting suggest to me that drinkability is intimately related to natural articulation in wine (and has very little to do with alcohol or acidity levels per se). I do not understand why this is so, by the way -- but the fact is that if you add a lot of acidity to ‘balance’ a high alcohol, low-acid wine (to take just one example), you in fact render it unbalanced and hard to drink, since that acidity is an alien presence in the wine which never seems to integrate.

The same thing would be true if you over-chaptalise a wine of modest constitution. Drinkability is also the reason why fine judgement regarding extraction may be the greatest of all skills required by those vinifying red wines.

If ‘natural wine’ means the rational pursuit of naturalness in wine, then I am all for it. The terroir-soaked wines made by Ron Laughton of Jasper Hill in Australia’s Heathcote, for example, or Tom Shobbrook’s immensely valuable Barossa wines are both exemplary; indeed this pursuit in the hands of Olivier Humbrecht MW in Alsace has given me a number of the greatest wine-tasting experiences I have ever had.

Less assured natural winemakers, though, walk away from winemaking literacy in order to pursue a chimerical ideal of absolute purity. The results are frankly horrible: wines lacking (paradoxically) all purity and precision of fruit, laden with a fuzz of deviant aromas and flavours which not only efface terroir and varietal character but sometimes even scrub out the most generalised regionality. They are a fundamentalist perversion of the ideals of naturalness. Fundamentalism, in my book, is not only idiotic but morally reprehensible: it means abandoning the questioning intelligence which underlies all progress.

To respect the raw materials is to allow their intrinsic beauty to emerge with maximum force in the finished wine. This is an immensely difficult matter, always requiring gentle physical intervention and almost always, too, requiring some chemical intervention, notably the use of sulphur. (Wine, remember, is not ‘natural’; only vinegar is. Wine is a natural process interrupted and prematurely terminated.) Naturalness in fine winemaking, thus, is a kind of wire walking. It’s easier to use a plank of interventions and ‘ameliorations’. The wire, should you chose it, is the minimum in terms of intervention and adjustment required to get you to the other side. When well-done, the performance is unforgettable and compelling as well as highly skilful. If badly done, by contrast … you just want to look the other way.

Before too long, I would guess, there will be scission in the natural wine world. In other words, competing definitions of exactly what ‘natural wine’ might be will emerge, since the masters of this art will not want to have their work and their reputations endlessly tarnished by doctrinaire bunglers. Their magnificent if challenging wines will come to influence and change the wine world more generally, and greatly for the better.

Those who have hung up their palates to chase an ideal through the jungle, by contrast, will wake up one day to find that they have left all their drinkers behind them.

Jefford on Monday

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Award-winning writer Andrew Jefford's Monday column on Decanter.com

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