Field Recordings Dry Hop Pet Nat

It is hard to to think of a better name for a natural winery than “Field Recordings” as it conjures images of both 20th century visionary avant-garde music making as wine making as an expression of terroir.

Natural wine making is often characterized as a style in which “nothing is added and nothing is taken away.” This definition might strike some as to restrictive as it would not permit a winemaker to implement even the most minimal modifications to a wine that prevents it from turning from an elegant expression of terroir into a one-dimensional brett bomb (not uncommon), or using subtle filtration to achieve a certain visual appearance of a wine. What such a strict definition would definitely would preclude is to add herbs to a wine to create an innovative product.

Adding hops to a wine, or more precise, dry-hopping a fermented wine, is the kind of wild card move that definitely constitutes “adding something” to a wine but also embodies the adventurous spirit of many (young) natural winemakers who have little reservations about straddling the boundaries between wine and beer culture.

Adding herbs, spices, or fruits to a (finished) wine is certainly not new but the practice is mostly associated with cocktail making or seasonal (mulled) wines. Blending wine into a (spontaneously fermented) beer, however, is now quite common and breweries like Cantillion have pioneered this practice in Belgium, followed by Wild Ale makers in the US such as Upright Brewing. Depending on the ratio between the two, and whether co-fermentation was pursued, the end results can be a beer that tastes like wine or a wine that tastes like beer.

The Field Recordings Dry Hop Pet Nat wine is definitely a wine that smells and tastes a little bit more like a beer due to the addition of hops. The choice to do this with a pétnat wine further elevates the beer connotation because of its funky and carbonated character. So how does it all come together?

The Dry Hop Pet Nat pours a hazy, light yellow. A tangy, yeasty, aroma with some fruit, sweetness, and mild wet hops note. Medium carbonation and medium mouthfeel. Taste is quite clean with orange and lime notes, with a lingering bitter, “hoppy” finish. Some sediment was left after completion of the bottle.

A hopped pétnat could be a good idea in theory but a disaster in practice, but the result here is actually quite likable and subtle. This opens the door to a plethora of experiments as there are many types of hops and dry hopping regimes. Cantillon has resoundingly demonstrated that spontaneously fermented beers and (dry) hopping can be a beautiful combination and there is a place for adding hops to (sparkling) wines as well.

I’d personally favor other herbs to be the dominant player in such efforts but this might be just a matter of time. This is a good wine, not a great wine, but I suspect that great wines can be achieved through the addition of herbs.

Savagnin Amphore

The first time I encountered the unique wines of the Jura region was when reading Jean-Xavier Guinard’s “Lambic” book for review on this website. Naturally, after reading about Vin Jaune I had to get my hands on a bottle, which was somewhat challenging because US regulations did not permit the sale of the classic 60 ml Vin Jaune “clavelin.” Fortunately, some courageous wine sellers just ignored these edicts and maintained a small collection of Vin Jaune in their store anyway. It is too long ago now to remember my first encounter with Vin Jaune (did I have it with Comte cheese and/or walnuts?) but what I do remember well is visiting the Jura region in 2010, staying in Château-Chalon, and visiting the Stéphane Tissot tasting room in Arbois.

Eglise Saint-Pierre de Chateau-Chalon

The wines of the Jura have held an enduring interest to me. I was pleasantly surprised to read about Cantillon’s Vin Jaune barrel aged beer experiments (after all, like lambic, Vin Jaune wines also generate a pellicle to protect the wine from the surrounding environment). I attended a Jura tasting with Jean-Francois Bourdy at E&R wines in 2017, which featured a 1976 Chateau Chalon and 1915 (!) Rouge (the oldest wine I have ever tasted), and introduced me to Bourdy’s Côtes du Jura Savagnin, my favorite, despite it being a Vin Jaune “reject.” I think it was at this tasting that I also procured a bottle of Benedicte & Stephane Tissot ‘s 2012 Savagnin Amphore, which I did not have an opportunity to taste until early 2020. I prepared myself for this tasting by reading Wink Lorch’s excellent book on Jura Wine.

Benedicte & Stephane Tissot are natural wine makers so it is not much of a surprise to see skin contact white wines, or experiments with amphorae fermentation, making an appearance. However, such methods were, to my knowledge, quite the departure from Jura traditions but were pioneered by the Tissots. Some of their reds are also available in amphore releases. My understanding is that this wine was macerated on the skins for 6 months in amphorae, used endogenous yeast, and was bottled without sulphur.

I cannot say that I am sufficiently familiar with the savignin grape to fully appreciate how it expresses itself through skin maceration, but I have tried a lot of other orange wines that I used as a benchmark when tasting this.

Visually, Savagnin Amphore pours like a cognac with a clear rusty amber. There is a slight sediment in the bottom of the glass. The aroma is somewhat closed initially but starts to give notes of malt, leather, (dried) lemon, pickled fruits and ripe apple as it warms and opens up. This is light-bodied and a very dry wine. Naturally, after such a prolonged period of skin contact tannins are noticeable. Another feature that stands out to me is how smooth it is. The finish is slightly bitter and short. Its profile also reminds me of a straight lambic, which bring this review full circle because it was Guinard’s book on lambic that drew my attention to the Jura wines in the first place. Clearly, this is not a traditional Jura wine but an ancient interpretation of a traditional Jura grape.

Going Gris and Rouge

As I have increasingly become a predominantly wine drinker, I find co-fermenting grapes with a beer, or even blending wine with a sour to be quite tempting.  Lambic brewery, Cantillon, has been adding grapes to two of its seasonal brews for years and one of them, Vigneronne, was a favorite of mine when their products were more readily available in Portland.

Sour beers and grapes can be joined to create a unique beer in a variety of ways, including co-fermenting the grapes with the beer, adding grape juice to the fermenting beer, or adding a portion of finished wine to  a completed brew.

My favorite Portland brewery, Upright, has been releasing a number of grape-incorporating bottles recently, and I purchased two of those to taste.

The 2017 Oregon Native uses estate pinot noir grapes from the Patton Valley Vineyards to co-ferment in Upright barrels. Intriguingly, the beer was fermented with yeast indigenous to the Patton Valley orchard, which introduces a natural wine touch to this creation. I poured the beer in a Cantillon glass and it boasted a translucent, Burgundy red color in the light. With a very pleasant aroma and what I would be inclined to call a classic Upright nose at this point, it had mild brettanomyces character and oak. My bottle was quite tart by Upright standards, with notes of lemon, cassis,  slight bitterness, and some residual sweetness accompanied by light tannins from the oak and grapes, consistent with the use of the leaner pinot noir.  It was a dry (but not bone-dry) beer with medium carbonation ditton on the mouthfeel.

Going Gris takes another step on the road of blending the philosophies of natural wine making and wild ales. This collaboration between Upright and natural wine experimenters Minimus Wines was made for the 10th anniversary of Bailey’s Taproom and features orchard yeast, a blend of beers (including one with rose petal), and the rare savagnin rose grape matured in an acacia wood cask. The beer looked extraordinarily clear and Pilsner-like, with a rapidly declining head. I observed spice and grain on the nose with a whiff of brett. It was tart, vinous, and herbal, with a pronounced bitter-lemon like note, and quite carbonated. The light mouthfeel gave this elegant and very drinkable beer a sophisticated and cerebral touch.

I had high hopes for these two beers and was not disappointed. Both brews were excellent but Going Gris was particularly fascinating. An obvious question is whether these grape / sour blends are more than the sum of their parts. I think it depends. I had another wine / sour blend by the glass at Upright which did taste more or less like beer blended with wine, mutually diluting each other’s likable characteristics. Other attempts, such as the Cantillon brews and the Upright bottles reviewed here do something more and open a world that cannot be fully captured with wine or beer alone.  As this beer style is a subset of an already smaller craft style it will probably still take a considerable amount of time to understand the behavior and outcomes of using different kinds of grapes, fermentation choices, and aging regimes to identify the most attractive combinations and styles. These experimental brews do indicate this will be a fruitful journey.

In defense of orange wine

The title of this post is somewhat tongue-in-cheek because if the growing interest of wine drinkers and restaurants in white skin-contact wines is any indication, “orange wines” do not need much of a defense. As it often goes, however, some observers and detractors of this phenomenon do not confine themselves to stating that it is just not their thing, but rather present a number arguments as to why they believe the rise of white skin-contact wines is just “a fad.” As a general rule, skeptics of orange wines are skeptics of natural wines in general. To them, the rise of natural wines and orange wines will always be a niche thing – confined to stubborn traditional winemakers and urban hipsters.

As someone who has written extensively on spontaneously fermented beers and “wild ales,” I have seen such denigrating statements before. It may be undeniable that many of the earlier adopters of spontaneously fermented beers, wild ciders, and natural wines are “hipsters,” but to characterize a return to local and ancient fermentation methods as “a fad” is odd, to say the least.

One typical argument is that many white skin-contact wines are flawed. The word “flawed” should be used with caution, and is only meaningful when one can establish what the “normal” wine characteristics for an orange wine should be.  It makes little sense to judge a skin contact wine by the standards of a “normal” white wine. Saying that an orange wine is too phenolic, bretty, or oxidized begs the question. If these characteristics are traditional for the style, and work well in a skin contact wine, than they are neither flaws nor faults. To use an analogy from the beer world again,  the presence of lacto bacteria and brettanomyces is a flaw in a lager, but a defining characteristic for a lambic beer.  A wine style has to fail on its own terms to be flawed. If a wine turns to vinegar, or the proliferation of wild yeast deprives the wine of all fruit and complexity, it is reasonable to conclude that it is a failure. But if you are really trying to break down some of the arguments against orange wines (and natural wines in general), a lot them can just be re-stated as not conforming to the criteria of a clean (white) wine.

The duration of skin contact also matters a great deal. A crisp orange wine that was on the skins for only 24 hours  is a completely different animal from an orange wine that was on the skins for 12 months and then buried in amphorae for fermentation and aging. This makes it challenging to even generate a set of standards or expectations for all orange wines.

Sampling a lot of different skin contact wines, and then revisiting the occasional modern white wine, has left me puzzled. Following wine writers such as Alice Feiring, it is not perplexing to me that we ferment white wines on the skin, but rather, that we stopped doing so. There is a time and place for clean, transparent, and sparkling whites but that such wines have almost become the norm needs explanation. I suspect that the explanation is the same as for other alcoholic beverages. We want a clean, consistent, fruit-forward product that has alcohol but does not feature the diverse and lively products of actual fermentation, and no signs of tartness, “wild” yeast, or oxidation, in particular. Our palates have increasingly been shaped by alcoholic beverages that were literally “killed” before bottling. When conventional winemakers talk of terroir they often confine themselves to the soil, not the microorganisms involved in fermentation. The yeast comes from a package.

Of course, the strongest argument in favor of a “new” (i.e. old) style is that it is good. The reason why I started writing about spontaneous fermentation is, once more, that I was simply blown away by the flavors, aromas, and visual appearance of some of the white skin-contact wines that I (serendipitously) tried. It was this “aha” moment that I also experienced when I drank my first lambic beer and became a strong public advocate for them.

In a world where natural wine bars and shops proliferate, “sour” beers and spontaneously fermented meads and ciders are on the rise, and kombucha starts replacing soda habits, I am not that concerned about the struggle of orange wine for recognition. But some historical / conceptual clarification is needed to counter some of the ignorant reception of these wines. There may be a day when spontaneously fermented skin-contact wines will be on the decline again, but don’t count on it any time soon.

Back to Orange

It all started with Radikon. That would be tempting to say. But truthfully, while it was quite likely that Radikon constituted my first experience with skin-contact wine (“orange wine”) it did not occur to me at the time that Radikon’s wines were part of a tradition of wine making that rather “predictably” produces the properties in a wine that I enjoy so much. I liked it a lot but did consider it an eccentric natural wine, not part of a “tradition.”

In fact, I had made an earlier attempt to characterize wines that should appeal to lambic drinkers (“funky”, “natural”, etc.) but my attempt seemed contrived and retrospectively I feel that only the oxidized, full, whites of the Jura region were a good, first approximation. I thoroughly enjoyed many natural wines but never experienced that transformative, life-changing experience with a particular style of wine making that initially drew me so strongly to lambics – despite finding myself increasingly drinking more wine.

There was the occasional skin-contact white experimental wine from Oregon but the first time it really hit me that orange wines were the kind of wines that I had been looking for was in 2016 at an organic restaurant in Berlin near Christiane F’s Bahnhof Zoo where the wine-by-the-glass list offered a skin-contact Pinot Gris (“Graupert”) by the Austrian winemaker Meinklang. I was so blown away by the wine that I returned to the restaurant a few days later to have it again. Here was everything I was looking for in a wine: tart, funky, complex, and so drinkable. I made a firm mental note about “orange wines”…

Meinklang Graupert in Berlin

In 2017 the Portland Fermentation Society attended a natural wine event at Liner and Elsen where my favorite wine turned out to be an orange wine named “La Petite Robe” by Jean-Yves Peron from France. I purchased a bottle. Things started to solidify. I started deliberately looking for orange wines on menus now (and tried to seek out the places that served them).

In June 2017, after an uninspiring day-trip to Florence (“the open air museum”) I returned to Bologna, collected my courage, and found myself a table at the local natural wine bar Olindo Faccioli, expecting a fair amount of language challenges. This did not happen and my inquiry about an orange wine by the glass was met with educated enthusiasm and  I was swiftly presented with one of my best wine experiences to date: Denavolo Dinavolino. There was more than a whiff of brettanomyces in this wine, yes, but it complemented its tart profile beautifully! I re-ordered this wine by the glass and at some point the server just handed me the remainder of the bottle….

I think this orange wine experience in Bologna, facing the gorgeous red and orange buildings, triggered the same kind of “eureka” moment that I had experienced in the past with the spontaneously fermented lambics. Which may not be too surprising because I do not think it is contrived to see the shared properties between lambics, the oxidized Jura wines, and the ancient skin-contact wines.

Denavolo Dinavolino in Bologna

Upon returning to the US I made sampling many more skin-contact whites an important priority (Coenobium Rusticum, Gravner, etc.). And after an almost five year hiatus, found my passion to write about spontaneous fermentation rejuvenated and have decided to make skin contact wines an important part of this blog. I realized there are so many stories to tell. So many subtle differences in aroma and taste to explore. What does skin contact mean for different white grapes? Flavor as a function of skin exposure time? Storage vessels such as amphorae and barrels. Understanding how the complex biochemistry of skin-contact fermentation in whites creates such beauty. And with the price of lambic (which remains another passion) reaching absurd, but understandable, levels in the United States, I am glad that this new fascination will not be a complete drain on my wallet.

Authentic wine

Jamie Goode and Sam Harrop’s Authentic Wine: Toward Natural and Sustainable Winemaking is the most extensive (technical) review of natural wine making to date. The authors prefer the term authentic wine to recognize the fact that wine is not a spontaneous product of nature but requires a competent winemaker. As the authors point out on many occasions, “natural” is a matter of degree. So why aim for non-interventionist wine making in the first place? The answer that appeals most to the authors is that it allows for the purest expression of terroir. A fair degree of non-interventionism is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for making good wine. As such, the authors do not reject, and in some chapters seem to strongly support, some manipulation of the wine to allow for the best expression of terroir, a perspective that no doubt is controversial with those who practice natural wine making because they value non-interventionism as such. One could argue that the writers are terroirists first, and non-interventionists second.

I think the rejoinder to such a “terroir through manipulation” perspective would be to argue that if non-interventionist wine making leads to a poor expression of terroir, then either the wine maker is not creating the proper conditions for the grapes and wine to develop, or one is trying to make wine in an area (i.e., soil, climate) that is simply not suitable for their choice of grape, style, or even wine making at all. The authors actually seem to be quite sympathetic to this outlook because the book is full of examples of how many wine “faults” can be avoided without manipulation of the end product. Ultimately, the implied verdict seems to be that natural wine making is an advanced form of wine making for a specific subset of consumers, and does not permit a lot of room for errors or ignorance. I think there is a strong parallel with spontaneous fermentation in beer making here. Despite the rhetoric about letting nature take its course, lambic brewers usually have a deep and thorough understanding of the conditions and variables that affect their beer, even if they do not always express this in the technical language of brewing science.  In today’s world, natural wine making and spontaneous fermentation of beer is a choice and one that is usually made by people who accept and embrace the challenge — hence the (mostly) superior results.

One of the most interesting chapters in the book is about ripeness and alcohol levels. The authors show how syrah performs in cool and warm climates, and how picking times influence terroir expression. Picking the grapes too early will result in low alcohol, unripe, and harshly tannic wines, and picking the grapes too late will produce high alcohol, low acid and uncharacteristic “soupy” wines.  Of course, personal preference matters and that is why the authors show an “optimum window for terroir expression” instead of one single time point. For example, I personally prefer wines that are very dry, lower in alcohol, with good acidity and tannins, with restrained green notes, which requires relatively early picking of the grapes. As a general rule, writers on natural wine agree that (excessive) new oak and high alcohol overwhelm the expression of terroir. The authors quote winemaker Scott Burr: “alcohol is a masking agent…so taking it away reveals what’s there.” I am inclined to think that this applies to many beer styles as well. For example, a high gravity beer with a lot of post-fermentation residual sugar is not ideal for showcasing the differences between different fresh hop varieties. It may not be a coincidence that most lambic producers, and Cantillon in particular, keep their alcohol percentages on the lower side of the spectrum and generally avoid new oak.

This book stands out for a relatively detailed discussion of yeast and fermentation in wine. In contrast to brewing, the use of the indigenous (“wild”) yeast on the grapes has never really gone out of style in wine making, despite the increasing popularity of inoculating wine with commercial yeast. I suspect that, aside from the more traditionalist culture associated with wine, a major reason is that the differences between the results of spontaneous fermentation in wine and the use of commercial yeast in wine are smaller than the outcomes for beer. As a general rule, spontaneous fermentation in beer leads to distinctively dry, tart and funky beers that do not appeal to the average beer drinker. In wine, spontaneous fermentation can produce funkier wines, but the degree of funk is not of the magnitude that we see in beer – although it strikes me that it should be possible to “direct” a natural wine towards a far more funkier expression, something I suspect some French natural wine makers deliberately aim for.

Brewing with brettanomyces, or even 100% brettanomyces, is now quite popular in craft beer brewing. In wine making, brettanomyces is considered a “fault,” even among many natural wine makers. The reasoning is that brettanomyces inhibits the expression of fruit and blurs the distinctions between grapes and terroir.  Having said this, some of the most prestigious red wines have a faint brett character that some feel adds complexity. Even the authors consider the possibility that the presence of brettanomyces might work in some specific wine styles. I have tasted a number of wines where the presence of brettanomyces was unmistakable — in some wines I agree that it impoverished the wine, in others I think it positively amplified the dark, brooding, and rustic character of the wine. As far as I am aware, unlike beer drinkers, wine drinkers never express an explicit liking for brettanomyces. Whether this psychological barrier reflects a fundamental, and correct, recognition that brett generally has no place in good wine, or a reluctance to embrace the unorthodox results of spontaneous fermentation, remains to be seen. What is clear, however, is that brewers of funky and sour beers have a (practical) knowledge about the complexities of brettanomyces fermentation and expression that is usually absent among wine writers.

Voodoo Vintners

There has been a recent spike in books about organic and real wine making. I was intrigued to read about Katherine Cole’s Voodoo Vintners: Oregon’s Astonishing Biodynamic Winegrowers because it does not just aim to provide the story of the peculiar world of (Oregon) biodynamic winemakers, but I also hoped it would enable me to get a better grip on who is doing natural wine making in Oregon.

Like the author, I have mixed feelings about the “black magic” that is biodynamics. To the degree that it refers to a form of mixed agriculture that emphasizes biodiversity, self-nourishment, interdependency of organisms, and health of the soil, I find little to object to. But when Rudolf Steiner informs us that “a cow has horns in order to send the formative astral-etheric forces back into its digestive system” it is hard to remain serious. What becomes quite evident in Katherine Cole’s book is that many biodynamic wine makers (which include some of the most prestigious wine makers in France) who practice biodynamics are simply common-sense business people who just get better and more sustainable results from this approach. Another factor is that some of its methods go back a long time in the history of human agriculture, which creates a sense of historical continuity, something that is important to many Old World wine makers, and those who are inspired by them.

The chapter ‘Science..or Sci-Fi’ has some amusing observations about the attempts of some biodynamic practitioners to square their approach with quantum mechanics. As the author correctly observes, quantum mechanisms has become the ‘go-to’ branch of physics to explain mysterious things and grandiose ideas (other examples are the fields of consciousness research and religion). But this produces an odd situation for biodynamics. Writes Cole, “They tell us that modern science can’t calibrate their style of farming. At the same time, they draw from one of the most youthful and arcane branches of science, quantum mechanics, to claim that praying for their plants is a valid way to go about running a farm.”

Of most interest to me was the chapter ‘The Neo-Nateralists,’ where she draws some useful distinctions between organic wine making, biodynamic wine making, and natural wine making. Both biodynamic and natural wine making go “beyond organic” but biodynamics does not necessarily exclude irrigation or manipulation of the end product (acid adjustment, micro-oxygenation, etc.) provided that the label simply confines itself to saying that the wine is “made with biodynamic grapes” instead of using the stronger certification “biodynamic wine” (which still permits irrigation). It strikes me that most, if not all, that is good in biodynamic wine making is also practiced in natural wine making and to the extent that the two approaches differ, natural wine making is more explicitly aimed at capturing the expression of terroir.

Quite characteristically, organic wine making is so common in Oregon that it is often not even mentioned on the bottle. Similarly, there are a non-trivial number of biodynamic wine makers in the state, some who have chosen not to be certified by Demeter, the official biodynamics certification organization. And there is the Deep Roots Coalition, an advocacy group for the production of wine sourced exclusively from non-irrigated vineyards.

Organic wine making in Oregon is more prevalent than organic beer making, which seems quite typical for the rest of the world. Aside from demographics, wine makers are directly exposed to the effects of their farming methods whereas beer making has mostly disappeared as a farm-associated source of income, even among lambic brewers.

Voodoo Vinters is a witty little book about Oregon’s burgeoning biodynamic and natural wine movement. I personally would have preferred more emphasis on “plain” natural wine making but it would have been only half the fun without the hilarious, but not disrespectful, treatment of the mysterious biodynamic “preparations” and the role of the moon. It is not a guide to Oregon wines, but following the leads in the book will allow the reader to identify some great local wines. And — big plus (!) — when the writer ventures beyond the topic of wine, she is quite modest and level-headed, too.

Cantillon meets natural wine

Cantillon officialy announced their annual experimental Zwanze beer and a change in their distribution of this beer. Zwanze 2011 will no longer be released in bottles (except for tasting at the brewery) but will be made available on draft to selected pubs around the world on Saturday, 17 September, 2011. The reason for this decision is Cantillon’s desire to maintain reasonable prices and prevent speculation:

Because of my dedication to my work as a brewer and out of respect for the product itself, it is very important to me for prices to stay reasonable. Unfortunately, there are those out there who couldn’t care less about spontaneous fermentation beer but who do care a lot about making easy money. For this reason, it has been decided that not a single bottle of Zwanze 2011 will be sold by Cantillon Brewery.

Zwanze 2008 was a rhubarb lambic. Zwanze 2009 was an elderflower lambic (now occasionally available under the name Mamouche) and 2010 was a mixed fermentation wheat beer. The 2011 Zwanze beer is a collaboration with Loire winemaker Olivier Lemasson and reflects Cantillon’s longstanding interest and support for natural wine.

Like some other Loire natural winemakers, Olivier Lemasson has taken an interest in forgotten ancient grapes such as the Grolleau grape. The Pineau d’Aunis grape that is used for the Cantillon beer is another example of such an obscure (disappearing) local grape. Despite the “Pineau” in the name, this grape is not part of the pinot family (Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris) and also goes under the name Chenin Noir. Pineau d’Aunis is one of the oldest grapes grown in the central Loire and produces a light and pale wine with earthy, herbal and distinctly spicy notes (some characterize its smell and taste as a mix of Pinot Noir and Syrah).

Blending a traditional lambic with a natural wine made from an obscure local grape is exactly the kind of thing that makes Cantillon stand out from all the other lambic and wild ale producers. Ironically, their identification with the natural wine movement may result in increased attention for their beers from those quarters and even produce a greater challenge for Cantillon to keep up with demand.

For young people, it is now hard to imagine that 25 years ago traditional lambic itself was at the risk of extinction. One exciting consequence of this renewed interest in traditional beers is the rise of a new generation of sour beer brewers and blenders in Belgium and the rest of the world.

Cantillon Zwanze 2011 will be available on tap in a number of pubs in the United States but not in Oregon (or the Pacific Northwest in general), which, despite its annual Puckerfest and producers like Upright and Cascade, is more oriented towards strongly hopped ales.

The battle for natural wine

A number of factors led me to read Alice Fiering’s The Battle for Wine and Love: or How I Saved the World from Parkerization, a passionate book about the decline of authentic wine and the rise of global manipulated wine. The most influential reason was a recent trip to Paris and I assumed (correctly) that reading the book would enable me to make better choices in purchasing (natural) wine. Secondly, many of the wines that I like are organic or natural wines, but I had never really read about the topic in much detail. And last, but not least, although I rank traditional lambics among the best drinks in the world, I often prefer wine over beer, which is not that uncommon among lambic enthusiasts. As a matter of fact, I was quite pleased when I learned about Cantillon’s recent natural wine tasting event.

I learned about Alice Fiering when I was searching for the most recent vintage of Clos Roche Blance Touraine, a wine that first challenged me, then intrigued me, and then started a passion for Cabernet Franc from the Loire region in France. As it turned out, Alice Fiering did not only seem to share this preference, but also others such as the traditional Rioja’s of Lopez de Heredia with their distinct oxidized and nutty flavor, and the traditional Nebbiolo wines from Italy.

Her first book is a sustained, but often witty and funny, rant against the phenomenon of Parkerization, named after the American wine writer Robert Parker. Alice suspects that Parker has a palate of clay and holds him greatly responsible for the tendency of wine makers to produce Parker-friendly wines; big, fruit forward wines with a lot of new oak, which are usually produced through a fair amount of manipulation. It is not always clear whether Alice is against manipulation of wines as such (irrigation, whopping amounts of new oak, coloring, reverse osmosis, etc.) or whether she rejects these technologies because they are generally used to make these horrid sorts of wine. But since she rejects the idea of wine as just a drink without terroir and culture (picture Robert Parker tasting 100+ wines in a hotel room), it is more likely that she values traditional methods for their own sake, too.

Alice is an advocate of natural wines or, as she calls it, “authentic wines.” Natural wines are more than organic. The “natural” in natural wine extends to the winemaking itself. In particular, fermentation with indigous yeast from the grapes and the use of low or no sulphur. In her book she gives a more extensive list of criteria to distinguish authentic wines from manipulated wines:

Healthy farming practices
Hand Picking
No extended cold maceration
No added yeasts or bacteria
No added enzymes
No flavors from oak or toast
No additives that shape flavor or texture
No processes that use machines to alter alchohol levels, flavor, or texture or that promote premature aging

The Battle for Wine and Love is sometimes characterized as a one-sided, angry book but I found myself mostly nodding in agreement. I think some of the anger is triggered by the fear of losing a certain tradition of winemaking altogether – just like traditional lambic beers were close to disappearing in the early 1990s. In such a world, it is not a lack of tolerance that gives rise to a combatant mindset but a feeling of alienation and the desire to persevere.

Perhaps the most disturbing chapter in the book is her visit to the big Champagne maker Moët & Chandon, with its pesticide-drenched “cadaver grey” vineyards and excessive emphasis on reproducibility and the image of the product. Strangely enough, I found myself thinking that all the dollars that bid up such champagnes to astronomical prices are not available to drive up the prices of good wines. Alice also managed to visit traditional champagne makers, a field that I had never even considered.

The book starts with an introduction of her youth as a supertaster and her growing love of wine – which eventually brought her all around the world as a wine writer. The individual chapters focus on various regions in France, Spain, and Italy where she meets traditional and not so traditional winemakers (or worse). The book ends with a chapter on the Loire in France, an area with a lively community of natural winemakers. Woven throughout the book are reflections on her love life, which, depending on your outlook, are an unnecessary distraction or reflect the broader theme of passion.

The chapter I liked the least is where she relays a phone conversation she had with Robert Parker himself. In this chapter it becomes quite clear that she sees the changing of taste in the wine world as top-down development instead of the reflection of a population of wine drinkers who actually prefer the sweet and oaky stuff (think of the development of lambic as a useful comparison). It’s not so much that in the days of old people were true wine connoisseurs but simply that there was no other choice than to drink wines that were made in the traditional way. Manipulation brings down cost and not all (occasional) wine drinkers want to pay more for authentic wines. Interestingly enough, in the beer world it is exactly the use of modern techniques (the use of commercial yeast, malt extract, glass carboys etc.) that allowed the homebrewer to develop alternatives to the big brewers.

In various parts in the book she appears to link a preference for authentic wines to left- leaning politics – which, in my view, is the fastest way to prevent natural winemaking from reaching a larger audience. It is also highly arbitrary. One could just as well reason that traditional winemaking should give rise to a traditionalist outlook on culture, too. Or one could argue that non-interventionist wine making is most compatible with non-interventionist views on society. In my opinion, it is best to remain as inclusive as possible when advocating a certain kind of winemaking.

One thing that intrigued me were the multiple references to perfume in the book. On the one hand she mentions that perfumes (or any dominant fragrances in the home) can interfere with the life of a professional wine taster. On the other hand, she also refers to perfume in a more positive context, at least on one occasion using the aroma of a perfume as a descriptor of a wine.

Aside from some minor quibbles, I can fully endorse this book. Obviously, I am quite biased because she seems to like the same wines as I do. But I do think she is on to something disturbing: the fragility of traditional wines. I am holding out for the ability of modern techniques to give rise to similar sensory profiles of those wines, but at this stage the traditional methods produce the best and most intriguing wines. In some cases, the link may be indirect (as with organic food) because wine makers who employ traditional techniques prefer more interesting aromas and flavors.

Natural winemaking also introduces an element of unpredictability that, within reason, further adds to the enjoyment of these wines. In that sense, natural winemaking is quite similar to spontaneous fermentation in beer making as well.

Radikon Oslavje 2002

It is hard to overlook the distinctive black bottles of Radikon on the shelves. But for someone used to craft beer prices, spending more than $30 for a 500 ml(!) bottle of wine is not routine. When walking around with the bottle in the store one of the employees observed me and initiated a conservation about the unique style of Radikon — how his whites are more like reds and if I would let her know what I thought about the wine next time I visit the store.

Stanko Radikon is one of the maverick naturalist wine makers from the Friuli region in Italy, close to neighboring Slovenia. His organic “Slovenian” wines are naturally fermented in large old barrels without temperature control. The grapes are harvested by hand, undergo long skin maceration and no artificial added yeasts or enzymes are used. Sulfites have been completely eliminated since 2002. The wines are not filtered.

The 2002 Oslavje is made from 40% Chardonnay, 30% Pinot Grigio and 30% Sauvignon Blanc. Although the wine is classified as a “white,” the color in the glass is an opaque dark golden yellow. In the neck of the bottle we observed an uncommon residue (yeast?).

One of the most remarkable experiences of drinking this wine is the sheer difficulty of describing it. No matter how long we swirled, smelled and tasted the wine, it refused to be domesticated. This is not necessarily a fault and we attributed it to our limited experience in describing wines of this nature. But later we discovered that even experienced wine writers like New York Times’ Eric Asimov had exactly the same experience!

This should not be interpreted as Radikon making indistinct wines. To the contrary; the wines are mysterious and very enjoyable.  Some notes were made to serve as a reminder and an attempt at characterization. It indeed smelled more like a red than a white —  horsey, peaches, and Margarita (!). The taste was “crazy,” “indescribable,” but I also noted lemon and grapefruit with mild tannins and a nutty finish.  The wine was medium bodied and a medium to long finish.

Having little experience with natural wine makers I do not know whether my experience is representative for the style or reflects the magic of Radikon. But it was one of the most unique and exceptional wines I have tasted to date. To be continued when our budget allows.