Some say that to break the rules, one must first know the rules; that to produce great art, no matter how abstract, one must first master the fundamentals.
One of the things I love most about natural wines is their intrinsically unpredictable nature. Winemakers, no matter how talented, take known risks when they choose to ferment using only natural yeasts, to minimize or even abolish the use of sulfur in the vineyards and in the cellar, to work in a relatively noninterventionist manner.
Cour-Cheverny "Les Sables," Domaine Philippe Tessier 2005
$19. 14.5% alcohol. Cork. Potomac Selections, Landover, MD.
In spite of its slight haziness, the strongest first impression made by Tessier’s “Les Sables” was not visual but rather aromatic, one of those scents that you know without a doubt, even if you can’t immediately pin it down. In this case it was butter cream… butter cream icing to be exact. The wine was confounding in other ways as well: drinking like a cross between mead, Chenin and Ribolla; definitely sporting a few grams of residual sugar although feeling completely dry; there was even raspiness in its texture, lending the wine an assertive, intensely textured mouthfeel. The aromas and flavors: just as unusual…. Along with that butter cream icing there were primary notes of melon, honey and orange oil; at one moment, there was a suggestion of slight oxidation, maybe even flor; at the next, the wine smelled intensely autolytic, almost like a richly yeasty style of Champagne; and finally, on day two, it was gin that I smelled, right down to the juniper berries and pine.
There were definite signs – from general cloudiness, to the occasional stranded solid to a distinctly petillant prickle – that this went through at least partial malolactic fermentation in bottle. Does that make it a flawed wine?
If you compare my notes with those of The Uncorker, there’s little question that we tasted two very different examples of the same wine. So, there’s bottle variation in the mix as well. Another fault?
That all depends, I suppose, on how you look at things. If wine is indeed a living thing, there’s no reason why there shouldn’t be differences, whether subtle or extreme, from bottle to bottle. Of course, the more extreme, the more difficult it becomes for the market to bear the wine.
The occasional wacky bottle of natural wine would most likely be taken in stride, even embraced, at wine bars like Terroir in San Francisco or Ten Bells in New York, where the staff and clientele alike seem ready and waiting for such possibilities. On a wine list at a suburban restaurant, on the other hand, things might get dicey.
To quote from the literature on malolactic fermentation used at the University of California at Davis:
“Malolactic Fermentation in Bottle: increases turbidity due to cell growth; produces noticeable gas as CO2; may produce polysaccharides material ( haze and/or ropiness); may raise pH allowing growth of spoilage organisms; and does not allow for control of flavor/aroma profile of wine. Cloudiness or turbidity is objectionable in wine. Many consumers do not understand the source of the cloudiness so equate it with spoilage. The decarboxylation of malate yields carbon dioxide, which will produce noticeable bubbles in the wine. This is again undesired because many consumers do not understand the source of the CO2, so equate it with an inferior or spoiled product. The bacteria may produce other unwanted products that are noticeable in the bottle.… Also if the reaction occurs in the bottle, the winemaker has no control over the process.”
While I expect Philippe Tessier (and other natural winemakers like him) understand and can apply the clinically correct approach taught at UC Davis, he chooses to do things differently, knowingly taking on risks in the process. Tessier farms organically. He vinifies his wines on their ambient yeasts and uses only a soupcon of sulfur at bottling time. He does these things not to make his wines easier to sell or easier for the average consumer to take in stride; he does them because he believes it makes his wines better – truer expressions of both his land and spirit. Whether or not Monsieur Tessier intended for his Cour-Cheverny to go through malo in bottle, and I expect he did not, the wine was still delicious. And I respect the risks he takes, even if it means an occasionally wacky bottle, unpredictable result or negative reaction.