Pet-Nat or musing on Natural Wine

In my introductory article for this blog, I let the cat out of the bag by stating my preference for natural wine. I believe I’ve even pledged allegiance, though neither binding nor blind, to the natural wine movement. It would be in keeping with my farm-to-table beliefs, so at least I’m consistant.

Just because I’m a registered natural wine afficionado guy doesn’t mean I’m dogmatic or close-minded. I think the best way to understand why we hold to certain beliefs is to leave them open to investigation. To answer the why natural wine question is to contextualise it. One way of doing this would be to explain the pleasures of a natural effervescent wine. Here we go.

Why natural?

With wine what matters most is the end result : is the wine drinkable? Regardless of mantra or philosophy, this is what it comes down to for the consummer. Wine is not good because it is natural, as my good friend Steve Beauséjour would say. There exists a good deal of winemakers who believe that no intervention whatsoever is the best way to reveal the intricate beauty of their terroir. Jean Pierre Frick calls these winemakers « ‘Till-the-enders », basially winemakers who bring the grapes from the vineyard to the chai and that’s that. A good amount of natural wine making leaves the door open for potential faults or defects in the wine, such as volatile acidity (vinegar-like), reduction on the nose (farm or manure-type smells), brett (yeasty nose or peanut finish). We will deal with this « funkiness » shortly.

Also, let us clear up any folklore associated with this type of winemaking. We are in no way drinking wines in the vein that the Romans or Greeks of Antiquity did. Natural wine is made possible by advances in technology and a certain grasp of chemisty. These wines, made from fermented grape juice and perhaps a touch of SO2, required constant monitoring by the winemaker.

So why be obstinate and swear only by these wines? Ah, but for the element of surprise for the unwarned drinker. Is that not enough in itself? After having drunk a few bottles, we grasp what the aromas of Cabernet Sauvignon are and how to recognize it.

Natural wines turn our sens of knowledge upside down, admittedly this can be unsettling.

Let’s start by the color : far from being clear, these wines are often unfltered and murky. Is this a defect in quality? No, just the will of the winemaker to retain textures and flavors that would otherwise be lost during the filtration process. The aromas of these wines can also be off-putting. Our olfacive memory is strongly associative. For a certain wine, a certain grape and a certain place.

Natural wines break this mold, forcing us into unchartered waters. It forces a re-thinking of our knowledge of wine.

A few times I have served such wines to clients at the restaurant only to watch the befuddled reactions follow suit! They all seem to express a sense of bewilderment : how can this be? As if, either such wines were not possible, could not possibly be made this way intentionnaly or is this really wine?

Natural Contextualized

Nothing occurs in a void and there are strong ties between wine and social conventions. In a society, the individuals that are pushing barriers and forcing us to reexamine our social mores are artists. Artists operate in the realm of culture, it’s their canvass. For culture to thrive it needs freedom in which do its thang.

Without artistic freedom, creative potential is stiffled. A state should not dictate the constraints in which the arts can flourish.

Lets juxtapose the very same logic to wine making. In a given village, there is a quality-control body that tastes and grades the wines produced according to accepted standards. These standards dictate the style of a particular region, they also ensure uniformity. How many of these natural wine makers have had their wines declassified to table wine status because they deviated from the norm? It’s the constant tension between security and normality on one hand and the singular and creative on the other. But who says that a mandated « style » is the way wine should be made in a given place, espcially given the fact that so many outside substances go into these wines in order to stabilize them?

We are talking about enzymes, acids, sugars and yeasts, that rob the end result of any connection to the land and the particular vintage in which the grapes were grown. This has become the accepted way of wine making. Natural wine is also a reaction against such practices and we haven’t even concerned ourselves with the more systemic view these artisans have for the fauna and flora where they ply their trade. There’s ethics involved here people.

A Case for Pet-Nat

Pet-Nat illustrates the afore-mentionned polarization in the wine world. A natural bubbly wine is made from the pressed juice of grapes that have begun the fermentation process either in steel cuves or barrels. With the coming winter, temperatures drop and fermentation stops. The wine, with its residual sugar, is then bottled and when temperatures heat up again in spring, fermentation begins anew. The bottled wine thus has a natural carbonic gas, loaded with freshness, hints of acidity and wonderful aromas of yellow plums, zest, cooked apples and with an alcohol level hoovering around 12 degrees.

We should not be over-analyzing these wines, which speak to our emotions rather than our intellect. As Alice Feiring said: we should taste with our hearts rather than with our minds.

The wine of the week is from the Burgenland in Austria, by winemaker Alexander Koppitsch. It’s Blaufrankisch from his Pretty Nats series, which cries out : SUMMER! ENERGY! RADIANCE! JOY OF LIFE!

This wine is available from Ward&Associés