Natural wine – my experience with it here in Barcelona

There is a very hot portion of the wine scene here in Barcelona (and Spain, and even the EU in general) that is focused on “natural” wines.  When we decided to move here, I committed to keeping an open mind about these wines. My experience with minimal SO2, and even minimal intervention wines in the US, by US producers, has not been pleasant. Wines with excessive faults, mainly brett, but also turbid wines, and wines that are horrendously out of balance, usually with too high acid from the grapes being picked phenolically unripe.

The problem with the (lack of) definition

There’s no consensus on what exactly makes a wine “natural”. It’s a loosely held believe that wine should be made with limited intervention, especially limited or even zero SO2. By intervention, this definitely means no inoculation with yeast (although recent research is showing that so called wild yeasts are very limited – most wineries have their own set colonies of yeasts sitting in the walls – you got what you got!), no nutrients (hello stuck fermentations!), and no chaptalization (goodbye most of Burgundy) or acid additions. Some even feel minimal intervention means limited racking, which is why I’ve seen so many turbid wines or wines with yeast floating in them. Unfortunately, many natural wine producers, particularly in the US, feel that natural means you should pick it way early so that ripeness does not mask any terroir. This, IMO, frequently results in acrid hard angular non-delicious wine.

But the real problem I have is the restriction on SO2. This is the most basic blind action possible. No SO2 and you run the high risk of contamination of your wine with brett being the main result. Why do this? In your effort to “not mask the wines aromas, tastes and character with SO2” you’ve ended up obliterating the wine with brett.

Brett is not terroir!

Wine should be delicious

Our entry point into the assessment of a wine should not be whether the wine is clean or not. You should be able to go straight to an assessment of quality.

Advocates scream that natural wine is “alive” and “vibrant”. I agree, way down inside the wines I’ve tried there’s been a vibrancy, but unfortunately it’s really hard to detect that vibrancy because of all the flaws and faults that dominate the wine. And I’m an expert taster – it’s really hard to detect that vibrancy.

My Bar Brutal story

Bar Brutal is *the* spot in Barcelona for natural wine. Deep inside the Born, this super hipster spot is packed full of people have a *great* time. They’ve got a vibe in there that is unbelievable. I was thinking that it would be a spot where my friend Richard Betts would electrify. The energy is *great*. Truly I loved it, and even with my crappy wine experience, I’m sure I’ll be going back.

It’s all natural wine on the list and I was keen to taste through a few there. We ordered a couple of whites, of which one had way too much Brett in it. A little Brett in a *red* wine I can handle and even enjoy, but in white? No. Wrongo Dongo. But whatever, lets try some reds. She brings some wines from crazy regions made from crazy grapes. All good so far – I’m keen on anything. One wine is too heavy on the brett, and the other is somewhat muted. Ho hum. It was only after a couple sips of the muted one that I realized it was corked. Very slightly but that was the reason for the muted aromas. I had the good (good?) fortune to take part in a seminar put on by the AWRI where they tasted us on 5 wines, titrated to 1 nanogram/litre through 5 nanograms/litre of TCA. I found out that I’m pretty sensitive to TCA – down to about 2-3 nanograms/litre. Well, that’s where this wine was, and why it took a bit of time to realize it was corked. Here’s the conversation.

Me: I’m so sorry, I couldn’t tell before, but this wine is ever so slightly corked.

Her: No it’s not corked. Four of us taste each wine before it’s served. And we’re all sommeliers!

Me, biting my tongue, trying not to scream, but I couldn’t stop myself: “Well, I’m a Master of Wine.”

Her: [No response, walks away.]

(I suspect the pushback on my accusation of TCA in the wine was caused by so many of the  wines at Bar Brutal are sent back by the customer. They’re probably dealing with a high number of sent back wines every night. Consumers not used to the “nuance” of “aromas” of natural wines probably complain about what they’re poured – and they should!)

My take on this all

So what’s my stance on natural wine? Well, I have a few opinions:

I agree with those (mainly natural wine people) who say that wine should have improved labelling. Tell me exactly what nutrients, sugar, acid, oak, clarifying agents, oak (adjuncts?) you’ve put in your wine. Tell me the *exact* alcohol, not just the legally allowed waffle-y number. Tell me the TA, and the RS. Put this on the label, not just some brutal tasting note of how it tastes like cherries and would go well with fish or grilled meats or cheese. Real information, please.
The first step in assessment of quality should not be whether it’s flawed or not. We’ve come a long way in technology. Unflawed, clean wine should be the bare minimum for any wine sold in the marketplace.
My bottom line is that when you taste a wine it should be *delicious*! Delicious, full stop. Even if it is a more cerebral, a more “difficult” wine, like one, for example, from Burgundy or Piedmont, it should be *delicious*. Why drink something that’s not?! Most “natural” wines do not come close to being delicious. Sorry, Charlie.
I think that Natural wine advocates have created a new “Emperors new clothes”. The average wine consumer is going to start associating the stench of contamination with quality. It’s easy to small brett and stink. The consumer is going to link that stink with the lifestyle and hipness that you’re peddling. How sustainable is that, my friend?!

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