Around 10 years ago, I sat for a five session course on wine tasting. The sommelier who was organising the wine course presented us with a range of natural wines, a few excellent, most foul. The scope was not to convince us about the merits or not of natural wine but rather to allow us to spot the defects in a wine whether it was natural or not.
Move 10 years and in 2018, most restaurants and wine bars worth their salt are offering many natural wines and biodynamic wines on their wine lists. But have we reached peak natural wine? What’s the difference when it comes to taste with biodynamic wines? Can they be both? And has there been improvement in natural wines.
These were the questions we tried to explore at a wine tasting club I am a member of. Together with a friend, we selected 10 wines from philosophical European winemakers who in one way or another have a vision and who translate their vision into their wines.
This was an atypical wine tasting moving where we compared wine makers and styles in pairs either on the basis of the winemakers philosophy or on the grapes.
We’ve all had bad experiences with natural wines. That sensation where you put your nose in the wine glass and get a whiff of farm smells that don’t seem pleasant at all. We’ve all come across unstable wines that seem oxidised because there is no added sulphur to stabilise the wines.
If the wine world of the 1990s and 2000s was shaped by what was called Parkerisation (after Robert Parker, the most influential wine critic ever) with the success of hyper extracted wines and huge oak flavours, there has been a clear trend in recent years in favour of wines that are lighter and that are capable of expressing different qualities. In this regard, the increased preference for wines that are more ‘natural’ has helped to counter what we once called the Parker influence.
Wineries also are moving towards organic and biodynamic agriculture. Biodynamics is a whole philosophy of agriculture that was developed by scientist Rudolf Steiner in the beginning of the 20th century. It treats soil fertility, plant growth, livestock care as ecologically interrelated tasks emphasising spiritual and mystical perspectives emphasising the uses of manure and composts and excludes the use of artificial chemicals on soil and plants. Some methods use an astrological sowing and planting calendar.
The common denominator we used for selecting the wines (though not exclusively) were the following:
- Wines that have been linked in many occasions with the rediscovery or rebirth of certain appellations that were forgotten or neglected.
- The rediscovery of certain grapes, particularly autochthonous grapes that had been forgotten or even lost use for a number of reasons.
- The way the wine makers work the land and the soil compared to ‘industrial’ wine makers which is the essence of natural and biodynamic wines
- The recovery of old methods of wine making in the cellar for example the use of ceramic, cement or other types of wooden barrels to ferment or age the wines and more generally the rejection of the trend of over-naked wines by minimising the impact of oak through the use of barrels previously used.
All the winemakers we selected for the tasting were ones with a story, bold winemakers who have in many instances gone against the grain to produce the wine that reflects their personalities. Among them, Emidio Pepe from Abruzzo, who could be considered the father of biodynamic and natural wines in Italy and Nicolas Joly considered to be one of the pioneers in France. Then there was Frank Conelissen, a Belgian winemaker who makes bold and 100 per cent natural wines on Mount Etna, one of the emerging wine regions of the world.
The wines for the tasting were the following
- Nicolas Joly: Clos de la Bergerie 2009 (Loire, Chenin Blanc)
- Andre Ostertag: Fronholz Pinot Gris 2011 (Alsace)
- Milan Nestarec: What the Flor (Czech Republic, Gruner Veltliner)
- Frank Cornelissen: Munjebel Classico 2014 (Grecanico Dorato and Carricante, Sicily, Italy)
- Marcel Lapierre: Morgon 2016 (Gamay, Beaujolais, France)
- Emidio Pepe Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2011 (Abruzzo, Italy)
- Abel Mendoza: Guardavinas (Tempranillo, Rioja, Spain)
- Azienda Agricola Querciabella: Chianti Classico 2014 (Sangiovese, Italy)
- Carril del Rey: Bernabeleva 2016 (Garnache)
- Dettori: Tuderi 2014 (Cannonou, Sardegna)
- So what was the outcome of the tasting?
Among the participants there was a clear preference for biodynamic wines which were much more ‘conventional’ than the natural wines.
The natural white wines were criticised not necessarily for their quality but because they did not reflect the terroir. A Czech and a Sicilian white wine were considered too similar and hence did not indicate any sense of place.
The star of the show for the white wine was clearly Nicolas Joly’s Clos de la Bergerie, a splendid wine with depth and which could still be considered young despite being a 2009.
For the reds opinions varied. The Azienda Agricola Querciabella Chianti Classico, a biodynamic wine was the star of the evening. It was considered to be a great wine, perfectly balanced.
The Morgon by Marcel Lapierre was great but it was paired with the Emidio Pepe Montepulciano d’Abruzzo which overpowered its counterpart.
Nothing was more distinct that the difference between two Grenache grape wines, the Carril del Ray from Spain (Garnacha) and the Dettori Tuderi (Cannonau). The first was easy drinking, light while the second was a bomb, high in alcohol and also in intensity.