Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Naturally Faulted

It’s not often we find “natural” wines here in monopoly-land but on Saturday we got our chance to taste a self-described natural wine. So, what are natural wines? There don’t seem to be any verifiable standards, but descriptions include:
  • Handpicked, organically or biodynamically grown grapes
  • Low-yielding vineyards
  • No added sugars, no artificial yeasts
  • No fining or filtration
  • No adjustments for acidity
  • No other additives to adjust mouth-feel, colour, etc
  • No micro-oxygenation or reverse osmosis
  • Little or no added sulphites
The attraction of natural wines? For their proponents, these wines are wine as it was meant to be, and should be. Reflective of terror...High quality...Not homogenized...Little manipulation in the cellar to cover up poor quality, so winemakers must take care that growing methods produce high-quality grapes...Not always perfect but never boring.

Now, the big knock against natural wines is that they can be inconsistent…that not every grower starts off with high-quality grapes…that the winemaker makes mistakes, and doesn’t correct them. The biggest criticism of natural wines is the avoidance of using sulphites as a preservative, with these wines too frequently going “off”, especially when travelling great distances.

We found our natural wine on the wine list of the Restaurant Kitchen Galerie in Montreal: Les Raisins de la Colère 2007, AOC Faugères (Languedoc, France) from Domaine de la Tour Penedesses. A blend of Syrah (70%) and Mourvèdre (30%). A great vintage from a favourite region, we anticipated a fantastic wine.

Our introduction to natural wine was an unhappy one. The front palate was somewhat enjoyable, although the aromas and flavours were muted. Not unpleasant (yet), just subdued. But in the aftertaste, the tannins were so high (green, rough, grippy...imagine talcum powder in your mouth) that it killed the length completely. Not sure, maybe seeds and stems were mixed in with the juice of the handpicked grapes? As well, the wine had an unpleaantly hot, almost burning sensation along the sides of the tongue (the alcohol was only 13.5%). Could this be volatile acidity? I didn’t pick-up the telltale aroma of nail polish for volatile acidity. Just as identifying aromas and flavours in wine takes practice, so does identifying faults. I just haven’t had enough practice in picking out the characteristics of different faults, not that I’m complaining about not getting enough crappy wine.

[UPDATE, May 14:  I contacted the instructor of my Vinification course, Aaron Shaw, to ask him what he thought.  Based solely on my description, without tasting the wine, Aaron posits that "It definitely seems like there was a lack of destemming of the grapes which can result in rough, green tannins. As for the burning sensation, it could be VA, or it could be that the wine was over chaptalised. Even though they should be able to ripen grapes sufficiently in Faugeres, they might have had yields that were too high and then needed to add some sugar pre-ferment to boost alcohol of the final wine. Often with chaptalised wines, they can give a burning sensation as the elevated alcohol levels do not match the fruit levels which would have been lower...keep in mind that it is an assumption based upon my tasting experience of other wines where I have had a similar burning effect from over-chaptalisation."  Thanks for the instructive comment, Aaron!]

As for natural wines, I’ll be happy to try more in the hope of a better outcome. My glass is still half-full.

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