Log In / Join Now

When Did Clean Become a Dirty Word?

A spin through the Wine Experience proves good wine doesn't need funk for character
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Oct 29, 2013 2:05pm ET

Am I the only person dismayed at how the discourse about wine seems to have devolved into posturing about whether this particular wine is "natural" enough, or that one has enough "authenticity"?

I thought about that this past weekend as about 1,000 of us at the New York Wine Experience tasted Numanthia-Termes' Termanthia in four different vintages. We tasted the 2009, 2007, 2006 and 2003 vintages of this extraordinary wine from Toro, a winegrowing region in the torrid central plains of Spain. The wines were mouthfilling, crunchy with tannins and bursting with dense, ripe flavors. Winemaker Manuel Louzada showed photographs of the vineyards, with gnarled old vines scraping by on barely 16 inches of rain per year in the sandy, rocky soils.

The 100-year-old head-pruned vines, on their own roots, are farmed organically. The wines are made by old, traditional methods, hand-picked, hand-destemmed, foot-treaded, and fermented in open vats and large barrels. With an intensity and presence I found captivating, these wines delivered a purity of fruit flavors (which the 2003 proved can develop into more nuanced notes, as it had expanded to include hints of spice and fresh-cut mushrooms). These are truly authentic, natural wines. But most of the folks I've met who champion what they like to call natural wines would turn their noses up at them. For one thing, there's the matter of 15 percent alcohol, high alcohol often being equated with cellar trickery in this crowd.

The kiss of death, however, for those suspicious of larger wineries and their higher-production practices, is that Numanthia-Termes is owned and operated by LVMH, the luxury-brand giant that merged Louis Vuitton and Moët-Hennessy. One thing about big wineries: They won't tolerate unclean wines. They know that wines with the aromas and flavors of spoilage organisms such as brettanomyces, or wines that lack fruit character, are hard to sell because most people don't like them.

So they make sure nothing funky or faulty intrudes on the flavor profile, which is what made me wonder what the natural wine crowd would think of them. I know, I know. Natural wines need not display dirty flavors. I like M. Lapierre's pristinely beautiful Beaujolais wines, which are also favorites of the same natural wine-promoting sommeliers who seem hell-bent to get me to drink wines reeking of brett. They like Lapierre wines because those wines follow the natural wine script of terroir worship, organic viticulture and minimal additives. I like them because their finesse and elegance comes with delicious flavors. I want a wine to please my taste buds before I want to drink it.

This is an exciting time to be interested in wine. Wines are popping up from unexpected places. In his always thought-provoking presentation at the Wine Experience, Matt Kramer focused on wines from Ribeira Sacra in Spain and the Douro Valley in Portugal. Dominio do Bibei Lalama 2009 and Guímaro Finca Meixemán 2010, from steeply terraced mountainous regions, brimmed with gorgeous wild fruit flavors and heady minerality. They felt light on the palate but delivered oodles of character. Álvaro Palacios, honored as one of our six Featured Winemakers, poured his Descendientes de J. Palacios Bierzo La Faraona 2011, almost wispy in its refinement but powerful in its juicy wild plum and sandy mineral flavors. The most arresting wine in Peter Michael's tasting was his Pinot Noir Fort Ross-Seaview Ma Danseuse 2011, vibrant and expressive with currant, plum and mineral character, taut, with all the attributes of its cool-climate source.

All clean wines with delicacy of structure, bursting with energy and flavor.

I have no quarrel with those who can tolerate high levels of brett in their wines. Drink and enjoy them. I don't care if anyone chooses a wine because of its perceived authenticity. I enjoy that too. If you prefer low-alcohol wines, drink them with my blessing. Heck, some of my best friends are Rieslings and Pinot Noirs at 12.5 percent alcohol. But I drink them because I like the way they taste, not because they contain only 12.5 percent alcohol.

What's happening now is that a determined band of sommeliers and wine writers have cordoned off whole swaths of the wine world that don't meet their definition of good wine. That has an impact on what we can actually drink. When we open a wine list and can't find a familiar name on it, or the ones we do recognize represent only a narrow slice of what's out there and those are funky, lean, tart bottlings, that's not good. Unfortunately, that practice is spreading, and it's spreading because of narrow-mindedness.

Clean is not a dirty word for wine.

James Laube
Napa —  October 29, 2013 4:06pm ET
The "funk" is "terroir" crowd lost believers when they learned that Brett was a spoilage yeast...and you're spot on, the big wine companies (among others) won't tolerate flawed wines.
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  October 30, 2013 12:51am ET
Has the wine world always been this political?
Adam Lee
Sonoma County, CA —  October 30, 2013 8:52am ET

Wonderful blog. I think that somehow "clean" has become synonymous with "inauthentic" and with "technologically manipulated." Currently, there is an entire group of wine lovers that prize authenticity over all else and so if a wine is clean or has seen some machine invented in the last 3 decades, the wine is viewed as inauthentic. The problem is that clean and authentic are not diametrically opposed, any more than dirty and authentic going hand-in-hand.

And, Don, to your question....yes it has always been this political. If you ever get a chance, read about Coan wine....a wine from the isle of Kos that was loved by the masses, but panned as an aberration by Pliny because salt water was added to the must.

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  October 30, 2013 1:46pm ET
Don, I'm sure there have been times in the past when those with clashing viewpoints about wine have formed cadres. There was a time, for instance, when liking New World wine was considered déclassé and it took something of a political movement to break through. In the end, reason (not to mention sheer quality) prevailed. I am hoping the same will happen with this.
David Crowther
Tuscaloosa, AL USA —  October 30, 2013 1:55pm ET
Harvey, you said what I have been feeling for a long long time. Thank you very much.
I dislike dirty wines and am disheartened by people who criticize French winemakers who modernize and produce clean wines as being "sell outs". A fruit forward clean Crozes Hermitage still tastes like where it's from not someplace else or generic.
Don't let me get started on corks !!
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  October 30, 2013 2:00pm ET
David, your point about terroir is spot on. I have a blog in mind exploring how the real effects of terroir have nothing to do with how much brett is generated but what the land dictates about structure and flavor profile from the grapes it grows.
Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA, US —  October 30, 2013 8:18pm ET
Nothing masks terroir more than Brett. Nothing.

And I still don't understand associating terroir with a specific flavor - e.g. dirt. You don't "taste the terroir"... like, "oh, there it is". It's not a flavor. Terroir is the combination of things that make the wine taste unique.
Vince Liotta
Elmhurst, Il —  October 30, 2013 9:49pm ET
Don Rauba, Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe your question was, in fact, a rhetorical one. Based on previous comments I have read of yours, I think you are well enough informed to understand that indeed politics have been around probably long before anyone was lucky enough to sip the first wine.

I too was struck by the atypically argumentative/political tone of Harvey's piece. As presented here, "natural" or "authentic" wines are unclean, full of brett and have no fruit.

I am not really sure what the natural wine people are promoting exactly, but I sure do enjoy a wine which does more than simply taste good.

Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  October 31, 2013 12:47pm ET
Over on twitter (@harveywine) a correspondent wrote, "Brett ain't a fault, since some (many!) people enjoy & seek out wines with a Brett influence," and "Defining Brett as a fault is just playing favourites with the microbes." I responded, "I do play favorites with microbes, as winemakers do with fungi. In Riesling, botrytis often good, brown rot never."

P.S., I actually know some people who LIKE to smell cork taint. (My late mother-in-law liked the smell of skunk, too.) That doesn't make it acceptable.
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  October 31, 2013 6:26pm ET
I'm loving the interesting responses to my question, thanks. I agree with Harvey's (and James Laube's) position, and am one who shakes my head in disbelief at "pro-Brett" statements. I try not to judge, but honestly, it still bugs me as a "clean wine" believer. Why? (For all the reasons given by Brian Loring, Harvey, & James, but also...) Because when I venture out shopping, I don't want any part of bretty bottles, and there's little (but experience or perhaps a very honestly written review) to stop me from buying one. So in that way, I'd rather they didn't exist at all, so I could buy (and even experiment) across the board with confidence.

Harvey, I've had people tell me "Oh, I really like it!" regarding TCA tainted bottles, too... (groan)

Vince, you're right, I've railed against politics (of sales tactics, corks/alternatives, low/high alcohol) in previous posts... but chiefly in the past few years. Lately I've become acutely aware, I suppose, of just how political the wine world is. But relatively speaking, I'm fairly a newcomer, so my question (perhaps best answered by Adam and Harvey) was really to ask: is it more political now than before? I guess it's some comfort to hear people say "no" in various ways. :-)
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  October 31, 2013 7:37pm ET
Vince, your characterization ("As presented here, 'natural' or 'authentic' wines are unclean, full of brett and have no fruit.") is almost right. Just insert an "often" in there somewhere. I did mention M. Lapierre as one "natural" producer making impeccable wines.
Vince Liotta
Elmhurst, Il —  November 1, 2013 10:13pm ET
Don, My apologies for mis-characterizing your question, but glad to have apparently provided you a bit of pleasure.

Harvey, Thanks for taking the time to respond. Based on consistent favorable response from readers and myself not having any particular stake in this, there probably is not much point in my spending much time/effort in suggesting an alternate point of view. But it seems to me the "natural" wine folks may have a valid, albeit extreme, point of view which could be better elaborated.

I have long been aware of LaPierre's wines and know them as bio-dynamic, not as "natural". Perhaps ironically, their wines are impeccably clean and certainly polished. Similarly, I have long known Kermit Lynch, who James L. features in his companion piece, as advocating a more natural approach, but did not realize, or did not feel a need to realize, that these wines fit the "natural wine" definition. Frankly, having a strict definition of "natural" is, well, unnatural! Many Kermit Lynch wines, DuPeuble Beaujolais and Joguet Chinon to name two producers, have vivid fruit character, albeit in a more restrained style than many warm climate New World wines. So, I guess I recall more fruit than brett in the "natural" wines, including at least one or two at trade events, that I have tasted.

Douglas Johnson
Appleton, WI —  November 2, 2013 8:22pm ET
Your comment - "I want a wine to please my taste buds before I want to drink it." - says it all, period.
Trevor Miller
Monterey, Ca —  November 6, 2013 1:42am ET
Its like the cool kids are making new trends to keep themselves in charge of whats in, and to heft their industry influence around.
John Portelli
Australia —  November 20, 2013 5:19am ET
Organics isn't natural

Would you like to comment? Want to join or start a discussion?

Become a WineSpectator.com member and you can!
To protect the quality of our conversations, only members may submit comments. Member benefits include access to more than 315,000 reviews in our Wine Ratings Search; a first look at ratings in our Insider, Advance and Tasting Highlights; Value Wines; the Personal Wine List/My Cellar tool, hundreds of wine-friendly recipes and more.
Most Recent Posts
Mar 21, 2018
The Music of Wine
Dec 19, 2017
Wine Kludges

WineRatings+ app: Download now for 340,000+ ratings.