The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

Natural Times for Natural Wines–and Natural Times for Their Opposites

Posted on | March 11, 2015 | Written by Emery Long | No Comments

Dusk at Cupano, a certified organic estate

Dusk at Cupano, a certified organic estate

Looked at broadly, the wine and spirit industry is a careful balance of the artisanal and the industrial practices, a blending of technology and tradition. A wine’s flavor can be determined by a number of factors, and throughout the winemaking process there is a huge opportunity for variation or, as I like to call it, personality. “Natural,” “organic,” “biodynamic,” “non-interventionalist,” and “heirloom” are all words used to describe ways that winemakers make wine made without chemical intervention and wine that conveys a raw and original flavor.

These protocols and this wine, while laudable, may not suit everyone’s tastes. The Wine Spectator’s Harvey Steinman raises this question in his piece called “Is It All in the Funk?” Steinman delves into the polarizing effect of natural wine on enthusiasts. Steinman and I both agree that “the array of potential flavors is much broader than many of us want to drink. The striking thing…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.”

When it comes to the different styles and flavors of wine the possibilities are endless. These spectrums of flavor are infinite when you factor in that wine “matures” and hones its flavor over time. I always trying to stick my nose in whatever glass I can get my hands on. I believe that drinking wine is an experience, and like any other experience, no two are ever the same. There’s no doubt that technology—specifically adding chemical flavors, synthetic yeasts and other controls to wine—can flatten vintage variation, making it somewhat obsolete if not seriously stifled. But I find myself drawn to asking whether a naturally occurring variation in a non-interventionalist wine is more desirable than a modern wine that has been manipulated to produce a sleek and elegant flavor? Certainly, natural wines offer more leeway for interpretation and their greatness lies in little variation from bottle to bottle. Modern wines, on the other hand, require a precise measure of flavor to match the styles of the portfolio and vintage variation. In a sense natural wine is an adventure and modern wine is more of a planned journey.

The palate is like a muscle that grows; it can be trained to comprehend flavors, just as a bicep can be trained to become stronger. Often I find that adverse reactions to certain flavors or textures come from untrained palates that lack context for the flavor experience—and other times, I find the opposite where ignorance is bliss. For example, a flawed or imperfect wine can be enjoyed depending on the palate, or even the situation. For my father’s birthday we enjoyed a wine that was, sadly, an immature Aglianico, drinking it with a lamb shank ragu over papardelle with fresh pecorino Romano. My family raved about the depth of flavor and style of the wine and how it blended with the food; it’s a memory that will be retold for the rest of my life. But I knew the wine wasn’t ready to drink, and the beauty lies in the experience rather than the flavor.

Steinman says, “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.” I like the idea that wine has a rhythm to it. What I disagree with is that funkiness is bad or that only ordinary pedestrian wine drinkers will appreciate it. It’s all about reading your palate and tailoring a shared flavor experience to your palate and those of your companions.

Wine can be the glue that cements a dining experience and can just as quickly make it fall apart. I suggest that when you are enjoying a unique wine, you think about why you are drinking it, and you ask whether the wine’s flavor is right for the job—maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t. Knowing whether you’re seeking a laser-precise, sleek wine that delivers hallmark flavors every time or whether you want to enjoy the funky flavors that reflect a specific vintage can help narrow down your choices. I like to say, “Every food is somebody’s favorite food, no matter what.” I think that the same goes for wine. And even if it’s not the best wine, you will still remember the experience.

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