What Goes Around Comes Around

One of the most significant trends in the winescape over the past few years has been the movement to “natural” wines.  Since two interesting books on the subject have published within the past year or so, I thought it was worth taking a closer look at the phenomenon and even attempting to understand what it’s all about.  The two books, by the way, are “Naked Wine” by Alice Feiring, and “Authentic Wine”, by Jamie Goode and Sam HarropRight away you can see one of the problems – nobody agrees on a common name for the style, partly because no one seems to be able to come up with a universally accepted definition.  It’s one of those wine terms like “terroir” that everyone understands but no one can clearly define.  But what the hell – here goes…

It’s easier to say what natural wine is not than what it is.  In general, human input is limited to the minimum necessary to obtain the desired fermented grape juice.  It is not over-ripened, over-extracted, or over-manipulated.  None of the 60+ additives permitted (e.g. in the U.S.) is used except for some sulphur, but even that is controversial – more on that subject later.  These precepts apply both in the vineyard and in the winery, so natural wine is not equivalent to organic wine, although organic or biodynamic principles are generally applied.  Naturally occurring yeasts create the alcohol.  In a nutshell the modus operandi is “nothing added, nothing taken away.”  Now, of course, some input from the winemaker is required because if you simply leave a bucket of grapes out in the barn, you will eventually end up with very expensive vinegar.  There is crushing, possibly destemming, pressing, selection of fermentation tank, temperature control, pigeage or batonnage or not (usually not), allowance or suppression of malolactic fermentation, barrel aging, filtering (usually avoided), fining, and use of sulphur.  Now you see the problem with the term “natural” and why the search is on for a better handle.  In a way, this movement returns to the more traditional practices of the past (hence my title for this post) but employs ultra clean techniques (not always so traditional!)

There is a lot of upside to natural wines.  Because manipulation is minimized, they tend to reflect the terroir much more accurately than “modern” wine making.  Over-ripeness, over-extraction, overuse of new oak, and a lot of other “overs” are avoided so that these wines are typically more food friendly.  The avoidance of pesticides, other vineyard treatments, and additives in the winery is appealing to adherents of the local/organic/slow food movements.  On the other hand, casual wine drinkers are often put off by the idiosyncratic, even “funky” flavours that can develop.  Most of all, the wines tend to be fragile, not handling temperature variation or travel well.  This characteristic arises from the minimalist use of sulphur.

Hard core natural wine producers use no sulphur at all, while others add a little at bottling to make the wine more robust for travel and storage.  As a reality check, it should be noted that the Demeter organization (the most recognized authority for biodynamic practices) permits up to 110 ppm for red wines and 140 for white wines, not a lot below the EU standards of 160 and 210 respectively.  Now the majority of natural wine producers are small scale farmers whose product does not travel far from its place of origin.  Thus there is far less stress placed on a somewhat unstable chemical soup.  Therein lies the main reason why so many wine lovers rhapsodize about the authentic terror-driven wine they tasted with the winemaker on site, while critics further afield are often much less enthusiastic as they focus on the major faults that they find.  In fact, Robert Parker famously called natural wine “one of the major scams being foisted on wine consumers.”  (Note that no one provides a reference for that quote – I haven’t been able to turn it up with a quick scan through my back issues of the Wine Advocate.  Does anyone out there know?)  On the other hand, one of Parker’s contributing critics, Neal Martin, states that he has “adored, indeed occasionally worshipped the wine of López de Heredia”, one of the most famous traditional, and in fact natural, wine producers in the world.  And so the controversy continues – for a fairly recent take on the issue, have a look at Eric Asimov’s January 2012 article in his New York Times column “The Pour”.

So how do we get a chance to try natural wines and form our own opinion without needing to travel to the source every time?  Well, it’s not easy in Ontario where the LCBO emphasizes big fruit-driven, often highly-manipulated wines.  To provide some contrast, a couple of months ago I researched through books, magazines, and websites and made a long list of some 1667 wines from 361 natural wine producers worldwide, with the majority being from France.  I then looked through the on-line listings for both the LCBO (Ontario) and the SAQ (Quebec).  There were 117 of the wines available in the SAQ, and just 46 in the LCBO (shame!)  However, at least there are some possibilities.  Therefore I recently gathered with some friends to taste a few of them and the results gave me reason to be optimistic.

Some of the earliest natural wine producers came out of Beaujolais, so that’s where we started.  From time to time the LCBO carries wines from Terres Dorrées, one of the most respected producers in Beaujolais.  We had a 2010 Morgon and compared it with another 2010 Morgon from Jean-Ernest Descombes, who operates under the Duboeuf umbrella and therefore employs a more modern style.  The tasters were divided as some preferred the spicy fruit-forward nature of the Descombes, while the majority voted for the Terres Dorrées, which was more complex, slightly earthy, and exhibited better balance.  Everyone agreed that it was the better bet as a food wine.

A much more dramatic contrast was provided by a pair of 2005 Riojas.  One was the Viña Cubillo from the aforementioned R. Lopez de Heredia while the other was a Maetierra Dominum Quatro Pagos.  Maetierra Dominum is an ultra-modern organic winery that employs Michel Rolland as a consultant, so it was expected to provide a nice contrast to the ultra-traditional Lopez de Heredia.  In fact, the contrast was striking, right from the colour.  The Maetierra was black, while the Heredia was a translucent garnet.  There was lots of oak, vanilla, and fruit in the Maetierra while the Heredia was complex, slightly oxidized, medium bodied, and dense with interest, not pigments.  Tasters were split on which they liked best, but again the votes went to the Heredia when potential food pairing was the main criterion.  The overall impression was that the Maetierra could have come from anywhere, while the Heredia could only have come from Rioja.

I should also recommend another good natural wine that the LCBO has stocked in the past – Montirius Le Clos Vacqueras.  There was still some available as of the date of this post, so pick up a bottle and compare with one of the more conventionally produced Vacqueyras.  The bottom line is:  if you want to learn about natural/authentic/traditional/naked wine, the best way is the usual way – try them and make up your own mind.

Good Old Wine

There’s too much in my cellar.   I’m finding, like many a cellar owner before me, that some of my cherished wines are over the hill.  I keep making a resolution to drink up all suspect bottles a.s.a.p., but then the next LCBO release comes out and there are six or eight that I would like to try.  And because my favourites never seem to last very long on the shelves, I need to pop those corks fairly expeditiously – if there is something that I just have to have for my cellar, I must get back to the store while there is still a supply remaining.  Now you begin to see the problem.  Since this process repeats itself every two weeks, there isn’t much time to drink the old stuff, and of course I may even exacerbate the problem by grabbing a half dozen Barolo that I loved out of the last release, thereby restocking the cellar.

Bottles aging in the cellar but begging to be enjoyed

Anyway, that’s all prologue to my main topic.  As I sniff and swirl wines that I laid down a decade or so previously, I find some gems and some dross, but the results don’t seem to correlate particularly well with expectations for aging potential.  So what’s going on?

It would be easy to blame my cellar, since it is not a $50,000 climate controlled work of art.  It’s just a small room in the corner of my basement with passive climate control; i.e. the ceiling, interior walls, and upper exterior walls are insulated, but the floor and lower exterior walls are not.  The result is a gentle and steady transition from 19-20°C in midsummer to 13-14°C in midwinter.  The average, then is 16-17°C, not ideal, but not bad.  I would expect slightly faster aging than in a cellar constantly at 13°C, but that’s about all.  Of course it’s dark and there isn’t much vibration – our house sits on bedrock.  In any case, I regularly uncork beautifully aged examples – if the storage conditions were very bad then I would expect most of them to be over the hill early.  So what gives?

One possibility is that some wines are not meant for long aging in spite of traditionally falling into such a category.  Even classified Bordeaux can lull you into a false sense of security.  Here vintage is all important.  I recently opened a 1995 Ch. Calon-Ségur that was fully mature and drinking beautifully – 1995 was a good year for aging.  On the other hand, my 1994 Ch. Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande has never really come into its own.  The wine was as well reviewed as the Calon-Ségur at the time of release, and Pichon-Lalande did a great job in 1994, but that was not a great year.  In the long run, no amount of good work in the cellar and the vineyard can make up for that initial handicap.

Terroir makes a big difference as well.  Burgundy, both red and white, is well regarded for its longevity, but when you take Chardonnay or Pinot Noir away from home, they don’t last as long.  Even good Chardonnay from California tends to fade fairly quickly, while pricey Ontario Pinot Noir is losing it after three or four years.  In both these cases, however, there are signs of improvement.  In particular in Ontario vines are getting older and local techniques are adapting to local conditions.  You still have to keep a close eye on Pinot from the newer Prince Edward County DVA as a lot of it isn’t really cellar-worthy yet (although I keep trying!)  On the other hand, examples from Niagara’s Le Clos Jordanne seem to be just coming into their own after several years in the cellar.  Even with the poster child for lengthy aging, Cabernet Sauvignon, terroir makes a difference, but in a more subtle way.  There is no longer much doubt, for example, that Napa Valley Cab can age as long as a good Médoc, but in a rather different way.  While Bordeaux evolves in bottle into something that (we hope) is completely different from and transcends the young wine, the Napa stuff can maintain its fruity elegance for decades, but always resembles its younger self.  Even a ham-fisted amateur winemaker like me can make age-worthy wine with good Napa starting material.  A recent bottle of my 1996 was fresh and fruity – maybe I should not have stopped making the stuff…

A number of factors affect aging of wine (for more information, look here):  the grape variety, the terroir (here I include local viticultural and winemaking practices), the vintage, and the cellar conditions.  Each has an influence on the wine’s chemical constituents, which is what really counts in the end.  Higher concentrations of acids, sugars, and phenols (including tannins) all increase longevity.  The hundreds of chemical compounds in wine, especially the aromatics (mostly esters, terpenes, and mercaptans) as well as phenols, affect flavour evolution as their concentrations increase or decrease with time.  The bottle stopper also affects the aging process, but I’m not uncorking that can of worms today – you can read more about the latest on the relationship between closures and “reduction” here.

So how does this all relate to my cellar experiences?  I think there are at least two lessons to be learned.  The first is to check on your keepers fairly often and then drink them as soon as they seem ready.  The second lesson is to drink sooner rather than later.  Wines are generally more enjoyable when they are a couple of years young rather than a couple of years too old.  If you want to keep a bottle or two out of a case for posterity or to see how a particular wine fades into old age, fine, but if, like me, you love about wine because you love how it enhances life, then drink it, don’t collect it.

The Best of Prince Edward County

Vineyard at Long Dog Winery

Prince Edward County (known by locals as “the County”) may be Ontario’s newest wine region, but its wines have grown up a lot since the first all-grape winery (Waupoos Estates) opened its doors eleven years ago.  Viticulture was further kick-started by the tireless efforts of Geoff Heinricks to promote the County as a cool climate region and to educate prospective grape growers about the terroir.  Then the Prince Edward County Winegrowers Association was formed and they were off and planting.  The region has now established itself as a distinct Ontario DVA, boasting over 30 wineries and nearly 300ha of vines.

The land itself can be described as a giant slab of fractured limestone with a dusting of one sort of overburden or another.  When you enhance that terroir with a cool climate growing season (similar number of degree days to Burgundy), you can understand the excitement, especially for northern grapes like Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Melon de Bourgogne, Riesling, and Cabernet Franc.

Winery at the Grange of Prince Edwqrd

Winery at the Grange of Prince Edward

This excitement has manifested itself in lots of press coverage.  Reviews continue to appear with regularity and by all reports the wines are improving, even if they are a bit overpriced, by and large.  However, very few writers have come up with a ranking of overall winery quality, although Bill Zacharkiw has taken a small stab at it.  So I thought I would take the plunge and present my personal view on the best of The County.  My criteria are:  (1) they have been releasing wine long enough to have a reasonable track record; (2) the wines are good across the board with no stinkers; and (3) their portfolio should include one or more of the best individual wines of The County.  In no particular order, my County “Grands Crus” are:

  • Rosehall Run (winemaker Dan Sullivan), particularly good for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir;
  • Norman Hardie (winemaker Norman Hardie), best for Pinot Noir;
  • Closson Chase (winemaker Deborah Paskus), best for big-ass Chardonnay;
  • Long Dog (winemaker James Lahti), good for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay*.

*Provisional, pending more data on how well Long Dog wines last.  Most PEC
wines do not yet age particularly well, but Long Dog is more problematic because
of their use of plastic corks.  I tried a 5 year old (2007) Top Dog Pinot Noir recently
and it was not as good as I had expected.  However, I am not removing Long Dog
from the list yet because they are so good when young.
I just wish they would switch to cork or screwcap.

You may have observed the dominance of Pinot and Chardonnay from the best producers in The County.  That trend confirms the Burgundian nature of the terroir with limestone soil and a cool climate.  Now, there are also wineries that are producing good stuff, but don’t have a long track record.  The “Ones to Watch” are:

  • Stanners (winemaker Colin Stanners), best for classic Pinot Noir as well as Pinot Gris;
  • The Old Third (winemaker Bruno François), only makes Pinot Noir;
  • Keint-he (winemaker Geoff Heinricks), best for Pinot Noir;
  • Hinterland (winemaker Jonas Newman), all sparkling, best for Les Etoiles and Rosé;
  • Lighthall (winemaker Glenn Symons), best for Chardonnay;
  • Exultet Estates (winemaker Gerry Spinosa), best for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Then there are the following wineries producing generally Good Quality Wine that on occasion can excel:

Finally, where are the Good Value Wines?  Well, wine growing in the County is intrinsically difficult, low yield, and expensive, so don’t expect a lot of bargains.  However, there are a few wine growers that produce decent quality at reasonable price.  The most noteworthy are Rosehall Run, Huff Estates, By Chadsey’s Cairns, The Grange, and Sandbanks Estate Winery (winemaker Catherine Langlois).

Wine and accessories shop at Huff Estates Winery

Of course, many of the wines from these producers are unavailable at the LCBO, since they don’t produce enough quantity for the whole province (at this point we all wistfully wish for some private niche retailers and then we wake up to reality).  Wineries with a presence at the local monopoly (at least some of the time) include Rosehall Run, Norman Hardie, Closson Chase, Huff Estates, The Grange, and Sandbanks.  Otherwise, you can try them at the winery, at some restaurants, and by ordering from the winery websites.

For a complete list of County wineries, take a look at one of these sites:
Wikipedia article on PEC wines
County wines official website
Wines of Canada (PEC page).