When Did Clean Become a Dirty Word?

A spin through the Wine Experience proves good wine doesn't need funk for character
Oct 29, 2013

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.

Environment Vineyard Management Organic WS Events Wine Experience Wine Flaws Brettanomyces Red Wines Spain Pinot Noir Tempranillo

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