I’ve been battling with sourdough for a bit now. There’s huge satisfaction to be had from using no commercial yeast, only my homemade starter made from rye flour and water and left to ferment, a bunch of flours from our lovely local mill, salt, water…and time, lots of time. The natural yeasts that live in my starter work at a snail’s pace and the outcome is at best uncertain. The soft dough is tricky to work with – it has a mind of its own and can’t be bossed about or kneaded to a state of sleek submission. Sometimes I get a dense, unpromising little pancake (like the one below – but it made great toast). Occasionally I get a terrific rise and there’s jubilation in the Style household. The fact is, I never really know how it’s going to perform and the results are sometimes inedible. (You can read more on my sourdough travails and failed attempts here.)
Talking with a self-proclaimed ‘natural winemaker’ recently, it dawned on me (eureka moment) that natural wines are a bit like my sourdough: a brave experiment whose outcome is uncertain. The results can be glorious – or they can also be completely undrinkable. But I get it. I get that sense of satisfaction (when it works), a feeling that I’ve beaten the odds, cocked a snook at the manufacturers of commercial yeast, reached back into some ancient past/lore/ritual and made my bread. Okay, the results are not always good, but I’m having fun. (I do, though, have to admit that it’s not always fun for those asked to eat it.)
And so, I reckon, it goes with the makers of natural wines. They too make a virtue of using indigenous yeasts , which occur, ahem, naturally – on the grapes, in the vineyard and in the cellar (laboratory yeasts made by people in white coats are for wimps). Natural wines are made with little or no intervention, meaning that the wine maker uses very few or no additives in the cellar. Their biggest no-no is sulphur, which acts as a preservative and a disinfectant in wine and stops it from oxidising (aka going off).
All too often, when I’ve tasted a natural wine in company with its maker, I’ve been told, with a shrug: “On aime, ou on n’aime pas”, which roughly translates as: “you either like it or you don’t”. Mostly I don’t. And I can’t see the point of spending money on wines that can, in the worst examples, taste like poorly made cider: sharp, slightly fizzy, sometimes cloudy and with floaters to boot.
At the end of the day I want my bread – and my wine – to be delicious, leaving me wanting more. I’m continuing with my sourdough attempts but I’ve pretty much given up on others’ natural wine experiments. And as per the title of the delightful book by Simon Hoggart, formerly wine writer for the Spectator: life’s too short to drink bad wine.
POSTSCRIPT ON NATURAL WINES
Lots has been written on natural wines – search the Web for thoughtful pieces by e.g. Jancis Robinson, Andrew Jefford et al. And for a hilarious and thoroughly irreverent view, see Ron Washam. (aka The Hosemaster) on Tim Atkin’s site: (http://www.timatkin.com/articles?1737)
Books on the subject are, inevitably, beginning to appear, starting with Naked Wine by natural wine guru Alice Feiring, and Natural Wine by Isabelle Legeron MW, another crusader who founded the now well-established RAW wine fair in London. Other books that deal with this type of wine in a wider context, with helpful notes on what it is, how it’s arrived at and how it tastes, include the excellent and unpreachy Biodynamic, Organic and Natural Winemaking by the Paris-based, Swedish wine-educator couple Britt and Per Karlsson. “Drinking wines with no sulphur (and with no other additives) is an interesting experience”, they write: “Sometimes they can also taste good, but the taste is sometimes an acquired one….Natural wine enthusiasts maintain that present-day wine consumers are too narrow-minded, that they all have a taste which is formed in the same mould and are therefore incapable of appreciating the finer points of natural wines.” And they let you make up your own mind on them.
Also good on the subject is Wink Lorch in her delightful, authoritative book Jura Wine, essential reading for anyone interested in this tiny, newly trendy wine region which boasts more than its fair share of natural winemakers. She addresses a number of good questions such as: “Do wines made in the natural way taste different?” (Yes) and “Are they faulty or off in some way?” (Most are not, but a big proportion are technically faulty). Her concluding question is: “Should you try these wines?” to which she offers a resounding Yes!!
Let me know your own experiences of natural wines, good and less good – I’d love to hear!