Is It All in the Funk?

How "natural wines" can polarize wine drinkers
Mar 9, 2015

I love the idea of natural wines. I'm all in favor of encouraging biological diversity in soils and avoiding pesticides, something the best conventional winegrowers do, too. It's immensely appealing to think of wine fermented, aged and bottled without any intervention. Just let the grapes ferment and stopper up the result. I admire the sense of completeness and harmony that wines from these "natural" winemakers can achieve, when all goes well.

But I keep remembering the words of the late California winemaker André Tchelistcheff. Left to her own devices, Mother Nature is trying to make vinegar, he liked to say. A winemaker's job is to catch it when it's wine. If things don't go exactly right, more than the vinegary pungency of volatile acidity can affect a finished wine. Mother Nature can infuse it with the barnyard smells of brettanomyces, a yeast that can proliferate post-fermentation, or the fizzy texture and sauerkraut notes of a wayward malolactic fermentation.

It takes heroic efforts on the part of the winegrower to keep such things from happening without help from technology. The best natural winemakers do, but others? Well, let's just say the array of potential flavors is much broader than many of us want to drink. The striking thing, to me, is how those who champion natural wines are willing to accept this funkiness. Not only accept it, but consider part of what makes the wine attractive to them. Ordinary wine drinkers, who don't know that these characteristics are considered faults by the majority of winemakers around the world, often assume the funk is just part of the rhythm of the wine.

It's amazing how many people are essentially blind to brettanomyces, for example. I can't tell you how many times I've wanted to moo under my breath at the barnyard aromas wafting out of my glass while the pedigree of a famous label dazzles others around the table. Maybe I am sensitive to this characteristic because the wines I review from Oregon, Washington and Australia seldom have it. Those accustomed to drinking Bordeaux, Rhône or some highly acclaimed Tuscan wines, which often reflect relatively high levels of brett, may not notice.

Something similar happens in music, specifically in live performance vs. recordings. In opera, an area for which I have a special fondness, the immediacy of live performance often comes with the occasional missed note. Few want to hear a bobbled high C or a phrase that drifts sharp every time they play the recording.

When a computer application doesn't do exactly what's expected, software industry insiders deadpan, "It's not a glitch, it's a feature." I am hearing something similar from people in the natural wine movement, not as a joke but as a defense of flavors that many might define as faults.

Some fans disdain studio recordings, which can clean these bits up. They'll take the sour notes for that extra frisson you get from live performance, even if they have to put up with it every time they listen. Few, however, argue that the mistakes were a feature.

Natural Wine

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