There will be no dogma or sanctimony in this week’s column.
I feel it necessary to make this declaration because I can’t think of a more polarizing subject in the wine world today than natural wine.
First off, there isn’t even an official definition of what natural wine is, but a general consensus is that it’s wine made with minimal intervention. This means organic (and sometimes biodynamic) farming (without the use of pesticides and such), naturally occurring ferments with wild yeasts in the cellar, and winemaking without fining, filtration, or manipulation, save for a minimal amount of sulphites added at bottling to ensure the wine is stable and won’t begin to referment or spoil with the minor fluctuation of external temperatures.
So why is it so controversial? Well, the lack of a clear definition is a start. There are many who would poke holes in my take on it, insisting sulphur should never be added, filtration should be allowed, and so on. While these practices sound quite honest and noble on the whole (and this is why many have a dogmatic approach to them), there are plenty out there who think these wines are highly prone to, or expressive of, flaws that could be resolved through conventional winemaking. They’ll point to wines that are a little too showy with brettanomyces, an often-impromptu genus of yeast giving wines a barnyard note, or wines that show oxidation due to lack of stabilizing sulphur.
But really, it’s not so black-and-white. Are there natural wines that exhibit these and other less desirable traits? Yeah, there are. Are there natural wines that are well crafted, sound in the bottle, and a deliciously authentic expression of terroir? Yeah, there are.
I’m not here to draw a line in the sand, generalizing natural wine as one thing or another. I’m here to share wines that are simply delightful and food-friendly, and—yes—also happen to be referred to as natural in many circles.
All of this week’s wines are imported to B.C. by Racine Wine Imports and due to their small-batch, artisanal nature aren’t widely available. The best way to discover them, and others like them, is by visiting restaurants that have natural-wine programs such as Farmer’s Apprentice (1535 West 6th Avenue), Burdock & Co. (2702 Main Street), and Upstairs at Campagnolo (1020 Main Street). Kitsilano Wine Cellar (2239 West 4th Avenue) and Marquis Wine Cellars (1034 Davie Street) also have good selections, but it’s best to contact Racine for availability of specific bottles. The prices I list below are estimated retail costs.
Catherine and Pierre Breton (Loire Valley, France) have been farming biodynamically since 1999, hand-harvesting their vineyards and using a combination of stainless steel, neutral oak, and clay vessels in their winery. Their Vouvray La Dilettante Méthode Traditionelle Brut NV ($35 to $38) is a rich sparkler made from Chenin Blanc, effervescent with Honeycrisp apple, Bartlett pear, nougat, and nutmeg, at a price worth popping the cork for any day of the week. Avis de Vin Fort 2013 ($28 to $32) is a Cabernet Franc from 40- to 50-year-old vines growing in gravel, clay, and limestone soils. During fermentation, the juice only has one week of skin contact, resulting in a light and quaffable wine, lively with Concord grapes, violets, and mint.
From time to time, winemaker Thierry Puzelat likes to play around with lesser-known local varieties at Clos du Tue-Boeuf (Loire Valley, France). At his family-estate winery, he vinifies each small vineyard plot separately using oak barrels, concrete tanks, and other vessels based on the characteristics each lends to the fruit, rather than using one all-encompassing method for each variety. Cheverny Blanc Frileuse 2011 ($30 to $34)—a blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Fié Gris (an eclectic, lusher cousin of Sauvignon Blanc)—is head-turning in its uniqueness, with roasted hazelnuts, salty cashews, Granny Smith apple, and then a grip of red-apple skin on the lengthy finish. Over on the red side, Cheverny La Gravotte 2011 ($36 to $40) might just be the most bizarre Pinot Noir you’ll ever try, with fresh and distinct aromatics of horseradish and peppercress, then earthy mushrooms and red plums.
Finally, I always think of the wines of Christophe Pacalet (Beaujolais, France) as the gateway to natural wine, with a style that’s more accessible to the masses. This is most likely why his Beaujolais Villages 2011 ($20.89) can be found a little more widely via B.C. Liquor Stores, where picking up a bottle will soon have you swooning over ripe cherries, raspberries, and blackberries along with a good, gravelly backbone. Enjoy!