Nizzagain

[bagged bottles]Outside, all is grey or white and soft. The snow falls, and it’s gentle, but it’s also persistent. It’s the kind of snow that will be with us for a time. It blankets the city of Nizza Monferrato with silence, muting the usual urban din but also suppressing the local urge to roam. Why not stay inside where it’s quiet, and enjoy the peaceful monochromic recasting outside the window? It’s going to be a beautiful afternoon and evening.

As for our little barbera band, reassembled in a bright, open space that seems to be nearly all windows, there’s a chance to do this. For a time. We listen to another lecture, this time on the meaning and intentions of the newly-designated Nizza subzone and its producers, while yet another tasting is assembled. To be honest, the information flow is a little dry, and largely the sort of procedural and rote stuff that wine writers have heard dozens, if not hundreds, of times. Besides, it’s so nice out. Can’t we go have some fun in the snow?

Oh, but we only need wait. If it’s cooling outside, it’s heating up inside. And it’s about to explode.

In the meantime, there’s a tasting to get through. It’s true that many of us find visiting producers a more interesting use of our time, but the organizers undoubtedly find what we’re doing now a more valuable use of our time. And hey, it’s their show, their dog, and their pony.

While we might not be overly enthused about another procession of foil-wrapped bottles, it must be admitted that this one is admirably focused: all 2006, all barbera d’Asti, and all from the subzone of Nizza. Some of these wines are new, some we’ve had in a different vintage, and some are repeats from this morning’s Nizza tasting. This is, at least, purposeful blind tasting, which our forays thus far have not always been.

What might not be apparent to our hosts and the producers (who are represented in near-entirety), however, is that there are two concurrent purposes being pursued here. One is theirs: to demonstrate the character, style, and (dare it be mentioned?) terroir of Nizza. But the other is ours: to attempt to judge whether or not that purpose is being achieved. Does Nizza have an identity? A meaning beyond the simple marketing trick of differentiation?

We’re about to find out. Maybe.

Avezza Paolo 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza “Sotto La Muda” (Piedmont) – Big purple fruit. Tannic. OK in its brutish style.

Bava 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza “Piano Alto” (Piedmont) – Garbage, stewed weeds, and sour acidity. Those of a younger bent might opine that this “tastes like ass.” I’m not sure I can get away with such phraseology, but they wouldn’t be wrong.

Bersano 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza (Piedmont) – Red licorice Twizzler and unidentified Jolly Rancher. To wrest an old Texan saying: all candy, no cattle.

Isolabella della Croce 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza “Augusta” (Piedmont) – Supple. Solid purple fruit, but it’s all up front. New World in style, and good in that idiom for a few moments, but the finish is nowhere, and what’s left in the glass is much more akin to Chartreuse than it is barbera.

Giovenale 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza Ansema (Piedmont) – A soup of modernity. Very ordinary.

Guido Berta 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza Canto di Luna (Piedmont) – Gritty, heavy tannin. The wine’s got good texture despite this. Very purple in both aspect and aspiration.

La Barbatella 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza La Vigna dell’Angelo (Piedmont) – Flat. There are a few mineral-enhanced soil notes, but otherwise this wine is dead. Dead nose. Dead palate. Dead finish. A shame. I don’t even think I can make the funeral. I never knew the wine that well.

Lana 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza (Piedmont) – Sludgy cherry milkshake. Could be anything, from anywhere.

Garitina 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza “Neuvsent” (Piedmont) – Brett, rosemary, and loads of tannin. Plus, some bonus volatile acidity. Ugh.

Coppo 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza “Riserva della Famiglia” (Piedmont) – Sour, lactic, hard, and unpleasant.

Dacapo 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza (Piedmont) – A wallop of fruit with a good, graphite-like texture. And then…it dies.

Erede di Chiappone Armando 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza “Ru” (Piedmont) – Big, ripe fruit dominated by strawberries and sour cherry candy. There’s a weird lactic note competing for attention, but overall this isn’t bad.

[bannered ceiling]Franco Mondo 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza Bigna della Rose (Piedmont) – Hot, tongue-scalding fruit soup. Burnt powdered sugar. Very confected.

Gazzi 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza Prajot (Piedmont) – Stale paper. Horrid. (Post-facto edit: I have reason to believe that something may have been wrong with this bottle.)

Guasti 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza Barcarato (Piedmont) – A friendly burst of fruit dusted with pepper. Pleasant enough.

La Gironda 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza “Le Nicchie” (Piedmont) – Soupy fruit circling a black hole. In other words, not only is the center of this wine void, but that void is sucking everything else into it into nothingness.

Malgrà 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza Mora di Sassi (Piedmont) – Massive mega-purple fruit. (For the record, I’m not suggesting MegaPurple™, but the descriptor is too evocative to eschew.)

Noceto Michelotti 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza Montecanta (Piedmont) – Sour and disgusting garbage aromas, weeds, milk and bitter chocolates. Mmmmm.

Chiarlo 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza “La Court” (Piedmont) – Sweet plum and even sweeter strawberry. Girly wine.

Poderi dei Bricchi Astigiani 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza Bricco Preje (Piedmont) – Juicy, plummy fruit with good acidity. Fair.

Scrimaglio 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza Ascè (Piedmont) – Fun fruit, with a gloppy texture. In its idiom, fairly pleasant.

Olim Bauda 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza (Piedmont) – Very sweet strawberry jam, but then taking a detour through a tar-producers’ convention hall. That’s both an aromatic and structural comment. Fruit Roll-Ups™, big and structured, but lacking any sort of finish whatsoever. Ugly. This is like drinking ittle Miss Muffet after she’s been beat up by a gang of roving thugs and left for the spider to find her, bruised and sobbing, beside her tuffet.

Tre Secoli 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza (Piedmont) – Candy powder, pollen, cotton candy, and Starbursts™

Vietti 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza La Crena (Piedmont) – Brett and sourness. Thankfully, it’s extremely short, so it’s all over quickly. But, like ripping a bandage off a scar, there’s still discomfort.

Villa Giada 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza Bricco Dani (Piedmont) – Dominated by olatile acidity. Nasty, overworked fruit. Wretched.

Vinchio e Vaglio 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza Bricco Laudana (Piedmont) – Stale oils. Nothing else? No, not of note. Vile.

Whew.

Conclusions? One inevitable one is just how bad this sort of mass-production blind tasting is for both wine and taster. There were six wines that appeared in both the morning and afternoon tastings. Two of them have completely different notes, both organoleptically and qualitatively: the Gazzi, suggesting something wrong with the afternoon bottle, and the Guasti, which I hated in the morning session but was more receptive to in the afternoon, and didn’t describe as anything like the same wine. The other four match fairly well in qualitative assessment and less, but still forgivably, well along general organoleptic lines. One might think that two out of six isn’t bad, but of course that’s just over the wines common to the two tastings. If one extrapolates those results over the entirety of our blind/group tastings, that’s a lot of mistakes and inconsistencies. Too many. Whatever this says about a taster’s (or this taster’s) skill might be notable, but is really irrelevant in comparison to the level of unfairness with which a so-afflicted producer is burdened.

[expectant glasses]So how about Nizza and its signature characteristics? There’s absolutely no way to say, because the wines are too variable and, in so many cases, too tricked-up. I don’t mean actual fakery…because that’s an accusation I wouldn’t make without evidence…but modernizing, fruit-enhancing techniques in vineyard and cellar coupled with the increasingly nefarious influence of new wood. If they really want to showcase the Nizza terroir (if indeed it has one worth identifying), they’re going to need to show us the unoaked, “traditional” versions they seem to be hiding in their cellars as shameful, deformed cousins. Given this evidential set? Nizza means very close to nothing.

Of course, even if we can’t discern a terroir-based similarity, that’s not all an appellation can mean. Is there at least a typicity? No, decidedly not, outside a vague uptick in structure…though much of one structural element likely derives from the wood. How about a marketing advantage? Possibly, though of course it’s far too early to tell. The whole “d’Asti” designation is soon to be dropped on these wines, leaving just “Nizza” on the bottle; whether or not that will be a help remains to be seen, but certainly shortening label verbiage and simplifying wine identification is rarely a bad thing. (Are you listening, Germany?) Aside from the place name, there’s some tightening of standards: 100% barbera rather than Asti’s required 85%, for example. Excluding other, and especially international, grapes is at least a step in the right direction, if the goal is to produce something with an identifiable, individual character. And it’s still very early in the game. Ten years from now, such a tasting might provide a surprisingly uniformity of purpose. And maybe even terroir.

But really, the only arguments that can and will ever be made for this subzone are the wines themselves. And neither collectively nor qualitatively do they support the petition under consideration. I can’t go to the other extreme and call this a “vanity appellation” (even though Michele Chiarlo will say some things later that make me wonder), because there’s no way I can be in these producers’ heads. Still, this remains: if there’s an argument for Nizza, it hasn’t been made today…and any wines that are making the argument have been lost in the fog of techno-oenological war.

The order and outcome of that battle? Coming soon. Don’t miss the exciting conclusion!

Disclosure: all wine, food, lodging, and all transportation paid for by various interested parties. See http://barbera2010.com/ for details on the people and entities involved. My tasting notes have not been influenced in any way, nor has my work on this blog and/or my own site, but the content of any work appearing only on the official Barbera Meeting 2010 blog may (or may not) have been edited for content.

Paris, naturally

My submission for saignée‘s inspiring 32 Days of Natural Wine event, found here in its original form. Go read it there, and then read everything else in the series. You’ll be a better person afterward.

[nouveau ad]Paris may not be the heart of the natural wine movement… that and all the other vital organs reside in the cellars and the regions whence the wines emerge…but it’s almost certainly the head. It’s got a critical mass of consumers, from enthusiast to hipster (and wannabe-hipster), and a vibrant commerce that serves that mass.

Natural wine nirvana, right? In a sense. If there’s a bright, or even popular, future for natural wine, Paris is what it looks like in its ascendance. One can revel for weeks – perhaps even months – in the unsulfured and unyeasted with the right list of purveyors and a fat carnet, or at least sturdy shoes.

Except…I did that. Ate, drank, cooked, and shopped as naturally as I could. And the shocking (to me, anyway) takeaway was that I found it a little boring. What’s more, it made me realize something: not everything is lit with rosy natural light in La Ville Lumière. There are some shadows lurking on les routes ahead.

This is going to require some explanation, I suspect.

What can destroy a wine category these days? Lack of quality, certainly, but this is a slow actor; the general unsaleability of Mâcon or the turning away from Tuscany didn’t happen overnight, but over decades. What can kill it a lot faster, even from a position of apparent desirability, is the reality or perception of over-uniformity. Of externally-enforced conformity. Of cynical boredom. By way of example: remember when muscular Australian reds of both gravitational and evaluative endowment were the point-laden rage? Notice how, just a few years later, one can barely give them away? There’s more than one factor at work in that Icarian tale, but a major contributor is that the thermonuclear fruit devices that were so lauded by critics and consumers are available from just about everywhere on the planet (including Australia) at a much lower cost than those paragons of pricey (purported) pulchritude.

Now, let’s be honest. There are those who drink for predictability. Who – though they would probably object to the metaphor – crave a certain McDonaldization of product, in which consistency and the comfort of the familiar are atop the pyramid of virtues. Rather obviously, those folk aren’t buying natural wine. At least not on purpose. The market that rejects the standardization of industrial viticulture and outcome-oriented winemaking is, by definition, counter- and anti-. This market seeks sensation, but the sensation it seeks is that of authenticity, of difference, of deviance. Among the principal appeals of natural wine are its unfamiliarity and unpredictability. Both of which are, as they must be, measured against the norm…which is, in this case, traditional (which is inclusive of, but not of necessity, industrial) wine. Without that contrast, much of what is unfamiliar and exciting about natural wine is decontextualized.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that without the alternative, natural wine would be less appealing. But then again, there’s probably a cohort of devotées that would experience that little twinge of dismay that all adherents to the alternative feel when their private affection goes mass-market. It’s true in music, and maybe it’s true in wine. That said, we’re talking about a nano-niche within a micro-niche here, so let’s move on to a more important conjecture…

My somewhat leisurely encounter with Paris’ natural wine scene delivered a lot of sensation, difference, and authenticity. No question. But viewed through the contextual lenses of time and post-facto consideration, it delivered something else.

Ennui.

It’s not that any given wine demanded this reaction. Mostly, I drank very well. Extremely well, actually. I could have gone many more months without repeating a libation, without going back to something a second time (though that did happen once, for which I must blame Jean Foillard’s uncanny skill with Morgon), without being forced to act not as an eager dabbler on the frontier, but rather as an actual wine consumer stocking up on quantities of favored bottles. That’s the wonderful breadth of potential natural wine experiences that Paris provides, and it’s unquestionable that had I been in Paris long enough, I’d have had the opportunity to develop a deeper understanding of wines that were otherwise no more than ephemeral dalliances. There’s great value in that, for sure, and I look forward to suffering that burden in the future.

No, it was the commercial face of my natural wine crawl that brought on the ennui. Wine bar, store, restaurant…wine bar, store, restaurant…wine bar, store, restaurant: the same list, the same selection, the same labels. Almost without fail.

The immediate objection – why is this bad, exactly? aren’t most of the world’s wine collections the same boring and industrial (or at least traditional) wines, over and over? – is both taken and acknowledged as correct. Yes, the sin of boredom is committed so much more frequently outside the natural wine world that it hardly bears mentioning inside it. But the special thing about Paris’ genre concentration is that it previews the consequences of a triumph of the alternative. And in that triumph is born a redundancy that looks an awful lot like all the familiar redundancies. I’d like to see natural wine avoid that fate.

The problem is self-segregation. Natural wines have…by the deliberate choice of their selectors but also by a somewhat surprising inertia…ghettoized themselves into a self-referential niche. It’s a reasonably successful niche, and the marketing advantages probably go without saying, but a niche it remains. I know there are some who prefer this state of affairs – there’s your alternative music analogue writ vinous, in which the magi of secret knowledge tremble in fear of the moment in which their favorite becomes known to The Other – but there is also a legitimate argument against this preference.

In various cities around the U.S., cities in which natural wine is decidedly alternative and hard-to-find, there are a few stores, wine bars and restaurants to which one goes to be guaranteed a selection from the genre. There might, for example, be just one “natural wine bar” in an otherwise wine-soaked metropolis, or a sommelier whose iconoclasm is rewarded by a dedicated but niche fandom. In that situation, rigid orthodoxy is a marketable virtue, and should neither be gainsaid nor challenged. In such locales, rigidity of concept is a virtue.

[mccafé]But in Paris, where it would seem to be thrilling that there are considerably more than a handful of such establishments, the effect is somewhat different. The wines are no longer hard to find, for the interested. What they are, instead, is gated within a neighborhood of like-minded peers, largely unchallenged by dissent from within or without. It’s an oeno-epistemological closure that just can’t be good for the category.

“Well,” one might ask, “why not?” Given that both the old and the modern ways have been dominant everywhere and everywhen, shouldn’t natural wines be allowed their own time in the sun? (Or rather, their time in a humid, slightly chilly environment in order to avoid the much-feared instability allegedly inherent to the genre?) Wouldn’t it be better if even more establishments went au natural?

No. That is to say: sure, I’d like to see a lot more natural wine, presented however a given establishment wishes, as long as that method gets it to my glass. But what I’d really like is, when forced to go to some standardized culinary purveyor of comforting mediocrity by out-of-town guests who’ve heard the chef’s name on the Food Network, to have natural wines on that wine list. I’d like to walk into a wine shop in Nisswa, Minnesota and be able to buy something that’s not industrial. I don’t want natural wine to be something one must go to Paris (or New York, or San Francisco) for, I want it to be part of the everyday experience of oenophilia. An equal voice in the conversation inherent in every glass. An accepted part of the landscape, neither feared nor a cranky curiosity, but just another typical geographical feature

That may be an impossible dream, since natural winemaking doesn’t necessarily scale all that well. Sure, OK, I get that. But if there are a lot of natural wines (and ideally, as time passes, there will be more), why not spread the wealth a little? Why not some intrusions into enemy, or at least unfamiliar, territory? If there’s a reason one loves natural wine – whether that’s taste, philosophy, or something else – then it’s hard to understand a lack of desire to see that taste/philosophy/etc. exert influence outside the fold. It’s great to welcome a new addition to the natural family. But wouldn’t it be more valuable if, say, Villa Maria abandoned inoculated yeast thanks to the influence of natural wine? If, for example, Drouhin and Jadot massively reduced their use of sulfur? If Wolfberger decided against chaptalization? No, it’s not a clear path to perfection, and the wines still won’t be “natural” by anyone’s definition. But the perfect – as the cliché goes – must not become the enemy of the good. Progress is preferable to the alternative.

That said, I don’t think industrial wine can go away. Nor should it. The demand for crushed grapes outstrips anything the natural set can provide, and especially so if I don’t mistake the generally anti-corporate inclinations of those in the natural wine cohort. Traditional wine can’t (and won’t) disappear, either. But I’d love a wine world in which the two éminences (pinot) grises were not the entire story, and in which natural wine was more than a brief appendix…or worse, a screwily-fonted footnote. To expand to chapter form, natural wines are going to have to expand the range of their thought and worldview. They’re going to have to deal with their competition. Face to face, vino a vino.

It’s easy to miss that they’re not doing this. Are you a Beaujolais booster? A Loire lover? A Jura junkie? You – and I – are in luck: the best of the appellation could very well be represented on the natural wine shelf. But what about Irouléguy? Bandol? Burgundy? The Rhône? Bordeaux?

My own personal oenopiphany of ennui occurred, I suspect, because I’m an advocate of Alsace. Now, it must be acknowledged that not many natural wine folk share my enthusiasm for the region. There are various and entirely supportable reasons why, and the whole “natural” ethos is just one of them. That said…looking at what’s on commercial offer within the category, who can blame them? Aside from Barmès-Buecher, the offerings are wildly inconsistent at best, and too often downright wretched at worst. And so, in store after bar after restaurant, the same labels appear. The same, awful wines. Or maybe the good stuff, but in any case that good stuff is still identical to the good stuff at the last place. And the place before that. And the place before that. Worse, in no sense are the pinnacles of the appellation – the benchmarks that define that potential for a region – represented. Alsace is hardly alone in this, but it is (for me, as a self-professed fan) a convenient stand-in for the complaint.

[le verre volé]Herein resides the gnarly core of the problem. It’s not that I care that much if Boxler, Weinbach, Josmeyer, Trimbach, or whoever one wants to name as their flûted standard-bearer is available in a given venue. But when they’re not available in any of them? And when the natural alternatives are similarly absent in the non-natural establishments, for reasons I dare not guess? I don’t want to overstate this as vinous apartheid, because that would be an abrasive and confrontational step too far, but it’s a separation that need not be, and the wines as separately-presented are most definitely not equal.

(A caveat: natural wines cannot always stand against alleged “benchmarks” due to the particulars of their élevage. If the pinnacle of a place is considered to be some forty-year-enabled wine, an unsulfured alternative is unlikely to be equipped to challenge that supremacy. And fair enough. But when comparisons are apt, they’re also quite valuable. Not because one should drink with winners, losers, and hierarchies always in mind, but because the qualities that make natural wine appealing are – as noted zillions of words above – most clearly defined by their alternatives. By not pointing directly at this distinction, natural wines are missing their…pardon the pun…raisin d’être.)

Natural wine needs to shed the yoke it has secured ‘round its own neck. The concentrated focus of its endorsers should continue, and should expand everywhere that is and isn’t Paris, but there’s so much more it could accomplish once it gains a firm foothold on the foundation. A full engagement with the marketplace of wines will engender a crucial, corollary engagement with the marketplace of ideas. As it stands, natural wine’s separatism allows – even encourages – a destructive factionalism. Here, for example, is a (representative, unfortunately) California winemaker on this very topic amid a recent wine forum debate about the word “natural”:

“[…] but if they say what they do is ‘natural,’ then that is a direct marketing attack on other wineries.”

To answer this: it’s mostly not (there are always exceptions), and the winemaker is being needlessly defensive, but he’s also expressing a widely-held opinion. What’s more important is that it’s a reflexive and resentful feeling that need not be. When natural wines self-segregate, they require the argument for their quality to be conducted solely with words, with philosophy, and with rhetoric. This is, necessarily, unequal to the task. Were the wines physically coequal with their otherwise-identified peers in the marketplace, the dialogue wouldn’t be one carried out in the strident, bickering, posturing tones of blogs, web fora, and print, but by the character and quality of the passion represented by each bottle. The wines would, perforce, speak for themselves.

And isn’t that what natural wines should do? Isn’t the fundamental philosophical purpose of natural wine to express without mask or interpretation? Without interlocution? Without filtering?

The Paris of my desire – and the stay will be longer next time, and much longer the time after that – should not be a carefully-constructed list of naturalia with GPS coordinates and hours of operation. It won’t be a parallel universe. It won’t be a matter of choice, of division, of convention vs. dissension. In my idealized Paris…and eventually, elsewhere…“natural” will no longer be separate, only, and first.

It will be…only natural.

Countdown

Cory Cartwright is doing a sequel. His 31 Days of Natural Wine was a watershed moment in the genre, and now he’s attempting to surpass it. Numerically, I mean. This year, it’s 32 Days of Natural Wine.

I’m not saying you need to love, like, hate, or be indifferent to natural wine, as a category or a concept. But this is as much of a wine bloggy event as can be conceived. It is, to the extent that anything is in the genre, “important.” (Though Cory would unquestionably twitch at that descriptor. And I don’t blame him. It sounds a little like a “very special episode of Blossom“) If you want a definition of natural wine…well, just read the series at saignée. If you still want a single, bright-line definition at the end of the series, you may have missed the point. (But that’s OK.)

Cross-promotion? Why, yes. Thanks for asking. My contribution goes up today, assuming Cory doesn’t reject it for confrontationalism. Or invented words. Or length. Though I can’t imagine it suffers from any of those three problems…

Château the line

[dancing in the dark]If, as Eric Asimov asserts, the wine-soaked youth of America are giving up on Bordeaux, it’s perhaps not as interesting a point as it might, at first glance, seem. Trends and shifts in consumption are ever-present – who among us drinks as much Port as our great-great-greats did? – and today’s retreat may be tomorrow’s triumphant return. What’s interesting is the “why” of it.

A number of reasons are suggested by the article, one a quote from someone who admits to not even liking the major grapes of Bordeaux (and thus I’m moved to wonder why his opinion on Bordeaux would be deemed especially quotable), but no one really gets at the heart of what’s separating the younger generation from its Haut-Brion. Yes, all the reasons suggested by Asimov and others are part of the equation – price, a reputation for overt commerciality and luxury good positioning, a (deliberate) disconnection from the appealing narrative of a farmer and her land – and there are some others the article missed, including the rigidity of a structured wine that is not as agile as many others in dealing with the ever-increasing fusion of culinary influences, even in its modern, somewhat Californicated form. But Champagne suffers even more profoundly from some of the same issues, and the younger generation still drinks it. In fact, they might drink it with more enthusiasm than their immediate elders.

There’s a reason for that. What people of the age cohort described in the article (and I dislike the generational division therein; I think the dividing lines are more related to philosophy and preference than they are age) drink from Champagne are not the major brands stacked to the ceiling of every middle-of-the-road liquor mart. They drink the grower Champagnes, which range from solidly traditional to wildly experimental, and which have both a story not concocted by a marketing department and a price that reflects a lack of that same department…which is not to say that that price is always lower than the familiar names (often, it isn’t), only that it is more directly tied to the quality and/or reputation of the wine than the needs of a worldwide branding campaign.

So the anti-Bordeaux folk, apparently so hung up on price and prestige, still drink pricey wines from the one region even more afflicted by excessive prestige-ery. Given this, it’s unlikely that what’s really bending their necks about Bordeaux is either price or prestige. In reality, it’s marketing…a success in Champagne, contrasted with an abject failure of same in Bordeaux.

Why are these theoretically disaffected youngsters still imbibing in bubbly, even if they reject the widows and the monks behind the overly-familiar brands? Because they’ve tasted the wines. Yes, there’s a story and (usually) a connection to the land, but more importantly, the wines are out there in the market, year after year, being flogged by their importers – the tireless Terry Theise gets much credit for leadership here, but he’s far from alone anymore – to trade and press. And they’re poured for consumers, too. Wine bars, both hipster and less so, are encouraged to provide these wines alongside the more eclectic sparklers that are the “other” Champagne alternative, and at by-the-glass pricing, young tasters can experience and make up their own minds about these wines.

Not so for Bordeaux. The classified growths and their companions from across the river barely even see store shelves anymore; they’re ordered as futures, arrive as intact cases, and move directly from store basement to customer vehicle based on whichever critic the consumer has chosen to follow. No tasting there, unless you’re the critic in question. Those that make it to restaurant lists are priced in the exosphere, and thus both bottle and (rare) glass consumption are targeted almost exclusively at those who are already fans of Bordeaux and can support such elevated prices.

“But what,” an on-the-ground Bordeaux winemaker might argue, “about all the other wine we make? All the reasonably priced bottles that have nothing to do with luxury brands or lofty titles?”

These are indeed difficult times for the majority of the Bordeaux winemakers, the ones not blessed with a 155-year old classification or a modern equivalent. No one wants the wines, and even centuries of tradition can’t stem the receding tide. When there were few alternatives, the market for the “good,” “OK,” and “not bad” of Bordeaux was assured. Now, with flavorful offerings from nearly every winemaking country on the globe, that locked-in market is essentially gone, and probably for good. Bordeaux’s singular qualities are not, and have never been, those of the fruit-forward, generous wines that dominate the lower end of the market, and in a competition with those alternatives, Bordeaux will lose each and every time. Even in France, long a safe haven for Bordeaux, the sale is becoming more and more difficult.

There is, however, a middle ground. Small wines, perhaps without the grand ambitions of the crus, but which exhibit classic Bordelais characteristics. Wines that have their own stories to tell, as rich as any other. Wines that could speak to the same folk who are instead choosing refosco or Bierzo. These wines exist, and with very careful searching they should be locatable.

But where? Effectively, nowhere. At least, not in the States. There’s no Terry Theise…there’s not even a Kermit Lynch…promoting these alternatives. Working the markets. Telling the stories. Getting placements in interested wine bars, restaurants, and stores. Proving – at a reasonable price to all – that Bordeaux is not just about Gucci handbags and Walmart schlock, with nothing in between. These wines need an advocate, and they don’t have one.

Viewed from the Gironde, it may be hard to see that there’s a problem. The wines are selling, are they not? And for ever-escalating prices? Well, maybe they are, though the markets are shifting eastward. And maybe they’re not, except through artful market manipulation and artificial scarcity. I’m not here to argue these controversial points, because what matters is that this speaks only of the classified growths and their point-laden brethren. Of the superstars. Putting aside low-cost dreckery like Mouton Cadet and its ilk, that still leaves the overwhelming majority of Bordeaux with neither a market nor a future.

What is Bordeaux doing to rebuild that future? Nothing. Without tasting Bordeaux, in any form, on a regular basis and especially in the crucial, palate-formative years, the only members of upcoming generations who will develop a taste for the region are those wealthy enough to dabble without consequence and those blessed with friends who have deep cellars and an enthusiasm for evangelism. That’s not enough to sustain a market over generations. And so, Bordeaux’s upper class fiddles, secure in their lucre, while the chai underneath them burns.

Bottle shock

I’d thought I’d lost the ability to be shocked. I was wrong. eRobertParker’s forums are closed, and going subscriber-only.

We are a small company with limited resources and, after months of deliberation, we’ve come to the conclusion that it is in the best interest of the people who count most – our subscribers – that we change our policy with regard to the bulletin board. On April 27, the entire Mark Squires’ Bulletin Board on eRobertParker.com will become a subscriber-only forum, open only to subscribers of Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate or eRobertParker.com. […] Change is always difficult but, like this action, often necessary. We are sorry to say goodbye to those posters to Mark Squires’ Bulletin Board who are not subscribers, and who have made valuable contributions. We will miss you, but our overwhelming goal is more focused support and assistance to our subscribers, who are our bloodline of support and make all the fascinating features of the bulletin board possible. We look forward to better serving our loyal subscribers through a more focused effort on them.

As a “protect your power and image” move, it’s absolutely the right call. For 2005. And before. But now, in the social mediasphere, where collaboration is the value? Absolutely inexplicable. Everyone who is not the Wine Advocate wins big, starting…right now.

[jean-baptiste sénat, dusty bottle]

To the Nth power

What is natural, and what is Natural? As explained in the previous post, “natural” is a guiding philosophy, not a set of rules. It’s possible (and even probable, given the lack of control inherent in the category) that no two natural wines are alike, and even more certain that any given set of natural producers will disagree on details of viticulture and vinification. Thus, a rigid external definition of “natural” is unlikely at best, and misguided at worst. Yet another reason to prefer “more natural” as the implied synonym, rather than bicker about this or that process leading to disqualification and banishment from the category.

Capital-N “Natural” is a placard. It’s a printed t-shirt, a social media fan group, an “ask me about indigenous yeast” campaign button. It’s a public statement that one is following principles one deems to be natural, because it’s important to the person making that statement that others know this. It’s a form of marketing. It’s coming out. It’s not necessarily a movement, though it often looks that way as commercial entities coalesce around the term. It’s an open self-identification as much as a philosophy, and what others think (and how they react) is now a matter of importance, whereas for a lower-case “natural” producer all that need to matter are the process and, hopefully, the result. Once interest moves beyond that to the market (of ideas or commerce), it’s no longer just natural, it’s Natural.

The whole idea of a Natural wine movement seems strange to oenophiles in many countries. Yes, there are importers and wine bars that trumpet “natural” as a guiding principle, but the majority of wine is not “natural” except in a very denuded sense of the term. (Nor, it should be stressed, is it ever likely to be.) There are natural and Natural producers everywhere, but the movement as a Movement – there’s that upper-case signification again – really lives and breathes in France. Especially Paris, where there are dozens of bars and restaurants that embrace, promote, and…after a fashion…are the only identifiable manifestation of Natural (vs. natural) that many will experience. There are establishments elsewhere in France, there are wine fairs and gatherings, there is a vocal and ever-growing base of media and fan support (and corollary hostility), and of course there are the producers at the heart of it all, but to really understand what Natural means and how it differs from natural, one needs to be on the ground in France, visiting both producers and their commercial advocates.

Any broadly-tasted observer of the natural scene might choose this moment to object, noting that an awful lot of the wines that fit into and in fact define this category come from Italy, despite a general hostility towards the concept in mainstream Italian wine circles. But the center of gravity remains in France. Why? Because it’s not about natural, it’s about Natural. Italians have managed to cobble together a few natural wine fairs as alternatives to VinItaly, but the seemingly genetic Italian antipathy towards organization and conformity makes the likelihood of a true national movement extremely unlikely. Even those Italian natural wine events exist mostly because they’re the nonconformist alternative, rather than an establishment position. If natural wine ever became a Movement in Italy, I suspect it would fall apart at the seams. (In fact, since there are competing natural wine fairs, in a way it already has.)

I and others like to joke that the French are terrible at marketing. In some ways, this is true. In others, it’s most decidedly not – what, after all, is the appellation system if not marketing codified into the very law of the land? – and when it comes to natural wine, producers seem to understand what I’ll call “marketing the minority” quite well. Capital-N Natural thrives because the alternative is the vinous majority, and there’s always something to position one’s self against. If that’s not marketing, what is it?

The odd thing is, France – for many wine drinkers – is already the alternative. Isn’t the Old World model of traditionally-made, structure-forward wine the philosophical opposite of the fruit-forward, low-structure, texture-oriented wine that has come to prominence elsewhere? Aren’t the legendary forms of French wine the very definition of one side of the traditional/modern dichotomy?

Yes, perhaps. But traditional/modern isn’t the same division as natural/interventionist. In some ways the practices of the naturalists are thoroughly modern, in that the rejection of control is based on a sound fundamental knowledge of the chemical consequences of each action. In others, they’re a modern freedom to market to a philosophy rather than live from sale to sale or bet one’s future on the reputation of one’s history and one’s neighbors’ histories, which is how the appellation system functions. But of course, the naturalists are in essence the über-traditionalists, rejecting not only the clever manipulations of modern winemaking, but also the tried-and-true manipulations of traditional winemaking. A naturalist, for example, might reject chaptalization even though it has been practiced by seven generations of her forebears, and even though it would allow a thoroughly traditional way of working and marketing the results.

One may work quietly but naturally and reap benefits anyway. A surprising number of producers do this, based on reputations already made and ensured by the quality of their wines or the fame of their sites. But others – especially the previously-unknown, whether they be newly-splintered growers who used to supply a cooperative, or young turks eager to prove their mettle – want and need a hook. Especially, in France, given the inherent (and arguably desirable) conservatism of the AOC system. That hook? Natural…capital N intact and, in this case, necessary…winemaking.

The thing is, a marketing hook inevitably leads to marketing-speak. And sometimes, that blather can be aggressive and hyper-critical, selling an old/new category of wine not on its merits, but solely on the points of difference and denigration that can be applied to the alternatives. Difference quickly becomes superiority, and superiority soon becomes a rhetorical target on which opponents of the Natural crowd can hang their objections.

“This wine is better because it’s natural” is a nonsensical statement, and yet one hears it a little too often from producers who should know better, but either don’t or feel that the marketing advantage still works to their favor. A wine is natural because it’s natural (apparently it’s made from late-harvest tautology grigio), but it’s better because it’s better, and the quantified twain ne’er shall meet.

Here’s the important exception: for some producers, tradespeople, and drinkers, “natural” may be a desirable characteristic all by itself. People make philosophical choices about their purchases and their foodstuffs all the time, and why should wine be exempt? For such people, a natural wine does have an inherent advantage over a less natural one, because of what it is. But let’s not conflate concepts: an increase in desirability due to naturalism is not the same as a purely qualitative advantage. One may, given a certain philosophy, reasonably conclude that a natural wine is more desirable than a less natural wine even though one thinks that the less natural wine is, by some personal standard of quality, “better”…just as (for example) one might choose local agricultural products over transoceanic products for environmental and philosophical reasons, even though this means a net loss in the quality and/or variability of available ingredients. Choosing natural is a very different thing than saying natural is, by definition, better.

Advocates of naturalism engage in their own bad faith when they merge the two concepts, whether they’re just plain ignorant or because they perceive there’s a marketing advantage to be had. A producer or consumer may honestly believe that natural wines are qualitatively better for any number of personal reasons, but they cannot demonstrate this to others beyond doubt or counter-argument, nor can they prove a correlation between nature and quality. Even in the most amenable of universes, one in which natural is a widely-recognized cause quality (and that is not necessarily our universe), there would still be those who preferred alternatives. In that universe, “manipulated” (or “Manipulated”) might be the same sort of marketing hook that “natural” is now.

(By the way, cards on the table: I tend to prefer, all else being equal, “natural” wines for philosophical and organoleptic reasons. I think that diversity is generally enhanced when adjustments are minimized, and I greatly value diversity. I think terroir is obscured when changes are wrought to a grape’s intended expression of itself and its site, and I very much value both varietal character and terroir. I tend to dislike some of the common vine and wine manipulations – primarily those that elevate alcohol, limit structure, and create or encourage specific flavors – that very often go hand-in-hand with an interventionist philosophy. There are qualitative exceptions to my philosophical preference in each of these cases, however, and that is why I can’t cast my lot with the Natural crowd, but can and do support the generalized goals of the natural set.)

So yes, there’s bad faith on both sides. That said, let’s not over-equate those sides. Natural (capitalized or not) producers represent the thinnest possible wedge on the pie chart of all wine philosophies. They are a “threat” to no one except the incomprehensibly insecure, and are an actual threat to no one at all, because they’re only an alternative, not a theocracy. How can the existence of one style of winemaking hurt any other style of winemaking., absent legislation (from which natural winemaking could not be more remote)? It can’t, of course. If the varying and competing styles of are qualitatively appealing , there should be room for everyone at the table. What there probably isn’t room for is pointless sniping over who can and should use which term, or who has the right to a concept, or whose philosophy is “better.”

[netted grapes]

It’s only natural

“This wine is red.” Say it out loud. Do any wine geeks within range raise immediate objections? No, unless they’re completely soused and apt to object to their own names unless supplied in song form. But is the wine actually red? Probably not. It might be magenta, purple-hued, infused with a pale salmon color, or bricking orange-brown at the edges. It might be nearly opaque, or it might be a faint tint in an otherwise transparent liquid. What it probably is not is plain-and-simple “red,” nor is exact correspondence with a specific wavelength on the electromagnetic spectrum necessary in order to employ the term. It’s not white, pink, or orange? Then it’s red.

How about “this wine is dry”? Residual sugar can be measured and quantified, certainly, but sweetness is an organoleptic response, powerfully affected by factors beyond a quantifiable measure. And the seemingly crucial fact that very few wines are actually entirely free of any and all residual sugar probably won’t enter into this discussion, because “a dry wine” doesn’t mean “zero residual sugar,” and wine folk understand and accept this as part of their shared language. There might, if there’s to be any debate at all, be a discussion of apparent sweetness as experienced by different tasters, but that will probably be the extent of the controversy.

So let’s try another short, easy-to-understand, and useful phrase. “This is a natural wine.” Quickly now: cover your ears, lest you’re deafened by the escalating responsive din. “Natural wine doesn’t exist,” you will be told, with impatience and, sometimes, actual exasperation. “Wine doesn’t make itself.”

Yes, because that’s exactly what “natural wine” means to those who use it: grapes that ferment themselves, fall into a bottle that’s sprouted from the ground, acquire both label and closure thanks to the charitable works of passing insects, and then walk (on newly-sprouted bottle feet) to the nearest port for transport and eventual sale. It is then purchased by fairies and leprechauns to be consumed at the Midsummer feast while conjuring unicorns.

(Why isn’t there an HTML sarcasm tag? Or is it better to just assume that the entire internet is enclosed within one instance of the tag?)

This increasingly tiresome debate continues along these lines, unabated, as more and more wines self-identify as “natural.” But a lot of the arguments are in bad faith, because people insist on a strict definition for “natural” that neither corresponds to reality nor is demanded elsewhere within the language of wine.

Imagine that, hypothetically, there are exactly one-hundred things that a winemaker can do between and inclusive of vine, must, and bottle that will change the nature of the wine: additions, subtractions, and transformations. A winemaker might do four of them, or all 100 of them. Which of those wines is less a product of nature and more a product of human ingenuity? That’s an easy question to answer, and unlikely to be debated. So why does identifying the opposite condition lead to such indignant rhetoric? If the latter wine is less natural, what’s wrong with calling the former wine more natural? Without even digging into the marbled meat of the matter, but instead as a matter of language, it should be clear that these disparate reactions don’t make a bit of sense. If one pole exists, so must the other.

And “more natural” is really the full extent of what “natural” means in common parlance. With one caveat: a natural wine is more natural than an arbitrary less-natural alternative, while (here’s the caveat) remaining within some arbitrary and personal threshold whereby deformative manipulations have been eschewed to the extent possible. (In other words, Kendall-Jackson can’t sensibly claim itself natural because they use two fewer techniques than Gallo, but seventy more than Edmunds St. John.) It’s not a boast that no human has participated in the process, it’s not an assertion that the grapes were magically transformed into wine by the wave of a wizard’s wand, and it’s not an insistence that absolutely no agricultural or technological measures were undertaken. It’s a philosophical approach to the craft of winemaking in which the myriad opportunities for control tend to be ignored rather than taken, and in which most choices remain unmade. That’s tend to be, not must be. Enforced naturalism is fundamentalism, and fundamentalism is not natural winemaking, it’s religious winemaking. In fact, it goes against the principles of naturalism in that it, too, is a recipe, insisting on rather than allowing specific choices during the winemaking process. This matters because far too many observers incorrectly conflate fundamentalism with naturalism, and in fact the insistence that “natural” can only mean one single (and impossible) thing is to insist that naturalism is a synonym for fundamentalism. Which it most certainly is not.

The other problem with a debate being conducted along lines in which “natural” is not allowed to have any meaning beyond fundamentalist purity of practice is that both it and all related and opposed terms become laden not with meaning, but with inferred (not implied) value judgments. But this need not be the case. The employment of the term “natural wine” does not inherently presume an opposing category of “unnatural wine” (which is certainly a laden phrase), it simply places natural wine near one end of a range of practices and guiding philosophies. To pretend that that range does not exist, and is not represented by many producers at each point along its length, is ludicrous. And yet, this is what deniers of the concept of “natural wine” claim to believe when they insist that the term is without meaning; if one end of the range doesn’t exist because it can’t, then the other doesn’t and can’t either, and thus all wines are essentially the same in both intent and result. Which they unequivocally are not.

Some posit that the problem is the word “natural” itself, claiming that it does imply an opposite, unnatural practice. But if the popular counter-argument to natural wine is that all wine is inherently unnatural, existing only as the work of man, then why object to “unnatural” at all? If this is the case, “unnatural” must be assumed as a synonym for the word “wine,” in which case “natural” has no meaning at all. But didn’t our objectors just decide that “natural” is a synonym for fundamentalism? Clearly, they cannot have it both ways.

Obviously, the actual problem with “unnatural” is that it’s not a particularly marketable word (to say the least), and the fear is that customers will reject it as a result. In reality, then, this set of definitional objections aren’t about definitions, they’re about positioning product in the marketplace. And that’s not a linguistic, scientific, or a philosophical debate, is it? This is an clarion example of an argument being undertaken in bad faith. The problem isn’t “natural,” the problem is the fear that it makes selling the alternatives more difficult.

So how about the alternatives? “Less interventionist,” “less manipulated,” and so forth. Better? No. In general, the same people object, and for the same reasons: how does one sell “more interventionist” and “more manipulated” in a wine market in which endless bullshit about the natural gifts of a pastoral, vine-covered countryside is peddled by the most industrial and mindlessly commercial wineries in the world, with fake jitneys, fake overalls, fake dirty fingernails, and depictions of moldy barrel rooms miles from the glistening tank farms of reality?

But here’s the bald truth: some wines are more manipulated, more interventionist, and so forth. Honest producers will tell you why and how they manipulate and intervene, and will be both proud and explicatory as they declaim their thoughtful justifications for each decision. The desire for control, or in a more comprehensive sense safety, are part and parcel of a directed, goal-oriented philosophy of winemaking, one in which the myriad opportunities for meddling tend to be embraced rather than ignored. This is not bad. Let me repeat: this is not bad. A huge percentage of the greatest wines of history have been made with this philosophy, and great wines are still made this way. There are many paths to beverage brilliance, and naturalism is not the only one.

That said, a given producer, importer, seller, or drinker may choose – or prefer to choose – wines in just one mechanistic category, for reasons that seem good to them. This should not be viewed as an opportunity for opprobrium, as it so often is by winemakers (nor their fans) who manipulate more rather than less. Rather, it should be emblematic and celebratory of the diversity provided by a modern, scientific understanding of winemaking that allows, rather than forces or narrows, decisions in the vineyard and cellar. Natural winemakers who are not just following the recipes of yesteryear – and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that path, either – are able to make a philosophical rather than practical choice because they have a fair idea of what will happen as a result. This is not really a rejection of the technology that their neighbors employ, but rather an embrace thereof for the purposes of rejecting its use. That’s an important difference.

Those who grow virulent at the mere mention of the word “natural” are ignorant at worst, but at best perhaps understandably tortured by the baggage the word has been forced to carry. The virulence is even more amusing when one understands that natural wines are a tiny percentage of all available bottles, and that the strength and volume of the objections are far out of proportion to the market presence of the wines that actually self-identify as natural. This, too, is explained not by an earnest desire for linguistic precision or rigid taxonomic categorization, but rather by resentment and hostility over the implications – though I rather suspect inferences are actually at work – of the terms for wines not categorized as “natural.”

So that covers the bad-faith arguments by those who oppose naturalism. What about the other side? For they and their arguments draw hostility from many who are not part of the natural crowd, and not always unjustifiably.

Well, there’s another category of natural-ness that’s not just a matter of less intervention, and I think it causes much of the artificial hue and industrial cry over the term. My personal shorthand for this category is Natural, as opposed to natural. And what does that seemingly insignificant capitalization mean?

That’s for part two.

Eating the pig

Here’s a break from the endless barbera postings (which are about half done, I’d estimate), and also the overlong essays. So what is it? Food, wine, Alsace. No more than that.

[half-timbers]Le Moschenross – Straight out of some forgotten century, through a hotel that looks like it might be decrepit and a lobby so dim that it nearly puts one to sleep, is this surprisingly bright, airy, but frozen-in-time restaurant. In most places, this would be ultra-traditional food, but in Alsace it actually qualifies a little adventurous, moving past the same fifteen or so dishes everyone else serves to…well, let’s call it twenty dishes.

I kid, but only a little. My salad with stuffed quail legs (good, albeit a bit more livery than I prefer) and thin-sliced foie gras is a typically Alsatian rendering of something that would otherwise be light: loading it up with liver and fattened liver is the local variation. (I’m a little surprised there’s neither ham nor starch.) Next is a venison loin, overcooked but flavorful, drenched in a rich meat sauce with excellent steamed-then-fried potatoes, a medley of white and green asparagus, and carrots. Honestly, the stars here are not the meat, nor the sauce, but the accompanying vegetables both stalky and rooted, which taste vividly of themselves. Not something one always finds in northern France restaurant vegetable cookery, especially in Alsace.

The wine list is somewhat short on local bottles (there’s one extravagantly-priced wine from the Rangen, but it’s a Wolfberger, and I’m disinclined to pay around $60 for cooperative wine unless it’s excellent…which, in the past, this bottle has not been), and in any case I don’t think a Rangen anything is a good match for Bambi in this particular form. And so…

Dopff & Irion 2006 Pinot Noir Rouge d’Ottrott (Alsace) – Surprisingly full. Red berries infused with wet soil, a little oak influence, and just enough textural plushness. A very slight bit underripe in terms of tannin, but otherwise well beyond competent and decidedly into the enjoyable realm. This is a somewhat industrial and middle-of-the-road producer that, a few years ago, was trying to make some qualitative steps forward. Maybe they’ve taken a few of those steps.

There’s also a too-sweet alisier eau de vie, fragrant and enticing but just not dry enough, that seems to straddle some middle ground between distillate and liqueur, and indifferent coffee. A good meal, comfortable and filling.

At a rented apartment between two noisy churches in Colmar – really, is it necessary for both to toll lustily every fifteen minutes all day and night? – a quick market-sourced dinner of dos de cabillaud, caramelized leeks, and paprika-spiced haricots verts needs a white wine. And though it’s not a question often asked in this region, why not savagnin?

Boch 2009 Klevener de Heiligenstein (Alsace) – Spice is a regular feature of Alsatian wines, but the spice herein is exotic, white-hued, and all up top. There’s slate, a sort of cold sultriness, and weight pressing down from above. But there’s good structure, too, and some fun leafiness. Nice wine.

[cabaillaud & klevener]Côté Cour – A modernist, slick, clean brasserie right on a busy church-side plaza, and clearly determined to lighten and modernize the local cuisine. Well…to a point. My carpaccio de tête de veau (not, despite the name, raw) is meaty but less complex and interesting than a version devoured a few months ago at the brilliant Le Comptoir du Relais in Paris, and it’s followed by perfectly-cooked rouget abed Robuchon-style butter slightly thickened by puréed potatoes. There’s even a little superfluous foam around the exterior. Everything’s quite good (especially the service), but I’d like to see a stronger embrace of the future rather than just gestures.

Coffee is Nespresso and is indicated as such on the menu (oh, one weeps for the state of French coffee), but the wine list – while young – is fine. Surprisingly, it’s reasonably strong in not only non-Alsatian, but non-French bottlings.

Barmès Buecher 2005 Riesling Herrenweg (Alsace) – Molten iron. Not just the aromatics, but also the weight and density. Almost a really good, dusty, all-mineral wine, but the heaviness is just too much, and eventually overwhelms the palate. Blame the vintage more than the house.

[piggies]Restaurant Barthodli – If anything here has changed since before the dawn of time, including the staff, I’d be shocked. Be prepared for Alsatian food in Alsatian quantities. For example, my first-course order of white asparagus with ham is nixed by the proprietress, who insists that it will be far too much food if I follow it with the second course I intend ; her advice is surprising, but after I receive a platter of a dozen incomprehensibly bloated stalks, exactly right. The accompanying sauces are a butter vinaigrette (of course) and mayo, and…well, what is there to say? The asparagus is excellent, the accompaniments too much, the marriage of the two surpassing.

Another Alsatian classic follows: veal in mushrooms (lots of both), with an accompanying pan of spätzle big enough for three or four people. It’s hearty, rich, mass-endowed food, and though I don’t know how much place it has in a modern society not engaged in transhumance, it’s good to know that it’s still available.

I consider a digestif, but instead opt for yet another local favorite: frozen dessert drenched in eau de vie (in this case, lemon sorbet swimming in marc de gewurztraminer). It’s as woozy as it is good. As for the wine list: the Bordeaux-minded will do pretty well with some mature-ish wines at good prices, but the Alsatian side, while lengthy, is probably less-represented in the actual cellar than it is the wine list. Which explains how I end up with a wine I’d never have ordered had it not been opened away from, and brought to, the table without asking if I’d like a substitute. Oh, well.

Joseph Cattin 2007 Muscat d’Alsace (Alsace) – As much structure and flaky minerality as perfume. Good Alsatian muscat has a strange palate action whereby it seems to be pressing against a wall, and this wine fits into that category. Short, as is fairly typical for this grape, but good.

Sparr 2003 Pinot Gris Mambourg (Alsace) – Way, way, way too sweet and structure-free. The aromatics haven’t developed, the syrupy texture is off-putting, and the wine is just a mess.

[bisexual door]Back at the apartment, this time surrounded by old friends (of twenty years running) who’ve driven from northern Lorraine. We’ve goose foie gras in terrine form from the masterful Liesel, which is by far my favorite type and expression of fattened liver, and after the tenth or eleventh lecture of my life (from the proprietor) on how vendange tardive pinot gris is the one and only wine one could ever consider serving with goose foie gras, I feel a little blind tasting is in order.

Vincent Stoeffler 2006 Riesling Kirchberg de Barr “Vendanges Tardives” (Alsace) – Decidedly light and Bas-Rhin-ish. A bit hollowed-out. Stainless steel, very light sweetness, elegance but not much poise. Just OK.

Pierre-Paul Zink 1999 Pinot Gris “Vendange Tardive” (Alsace) – Coppery minerality, spice, bronzed pear, finely-flaked textural swirls. A really gorgeous wine…neither overbearing nor overly sweet (there’s plenty of sugar, but enough acidity to counteract). Quite long. Very tasty.

Jean-Paul Schmitt 2002 Gewurztraminer Rittersberg “Vendanges Tardives” (Alsace) – 500 ml. Spiced yellow plum, cashew, and fruity bacon fat up front, but then everything fades rather more quickly than I’d like. A good first third, but after that it’s disappointing.

There are twelve tasters to poll, and I ask three questions: what are the wines, do you like them, and which did you prefer with the terrine? The third wine is the easiest to identify (one even ventures a very specific guess of Kaefferkopf), but guesses about the first two are all over the map; literally, in the first case, as two of my friends engage in a very long debate about how the wine absolutely must be German. The second results in answers that cover the full range of possible responses. But the most important question is about the marriage with foie gras, and here the vote is: four for the riesling, two for the pinot gris, and six (including me) for the gewurztraminer. Yes, there are the individual wine qualities to consider, but this result is revealing nonetheless. Of course, after the unveiling, I’m treated to yet another long discourse on why pinot gris was actually the right choice all along, despite the lecturer’s expressed preference for the gewurztraminer…

Wistub Brenner –This restaurant has everything going against it: widespread fame, a position right on a key junction in Colmar’s touristy “Petite Venise” district, a large terrace (underused during these chilly-to-overly-layered-French-folk spring days), and a menu that looks and feels like hundreds (maybe thousands?) of others in the region. But no. The food, authentic and relentlessly traditional, is extraordinary. There’s not a surprise on the menu…at least, not that I can see…but unless one can’t tolerate the region’s traditional cuisine, there’s nothing to do but love what’s on the plate.[escaping statue]

I start with the best presskopf I’ve ever had, the meat and gelatin in perfect proportion and both of surprising intensity, and follow with tourte de la vallée: essentially a compressed pork pie, thick and surrounded by a delicious pastry crust. To finish there’s an intense raspberry sorbet swimming in marc de muscat, a perfect marriage of fruit and flower.

Heyberger-Salch 2007 Muscat “Cuvée Égrappée” (Alsace) – Floral but weedy, with a strappy vegetal note. On the upside, there’s a ton of acidity, but I don’t know that it serves this wine all that well. A few more days on the vine wouldn’t have hurt.

Léon Beyer 2006 Gewurztraminer (Alsace) – Very dry, almost to the point of being parched, as is the Beyer style and predilection. As such, there’s little in the way of stone or tropical fruit, but instead dried nut powder and the aromatic remnant of beef jerky. Very solid structure. To know if this is ever going to be good, one will have to wait at least a decade. Possibly longer. Worth noting: the wine is inexplicably caveated to me (by the waitress) as “sweet” – which it is most certainly not – and yet three fellow diners reject it as too dry and too bitter.

Trimbach 2004 Riesling “Réserve” (Alsace) – Minerality with little else except some lime-scented acidity. The minerality takes several forms – sheet, powder, and rod – and it’s both dominant and restrained. Very particular, but appealing nonetheless, though one has to like ultra-austere riesling.

Muré 2004 Pinot Noir “V” (Alsace) – Weird in all the ways that Alsatian pinot noir is usually weird, this grand cru pinot noir (it’s from the Vorbourg, hence the not-so-secret code on the label) doesn’t live up to its terroir, except in this way: the fruit’s somewhat soupy, the structure’s both spiky and insufficient, and the wine hasn’t been well-handled in the cellar. Which, it must be admitted, doesn’t much say grand cru to me. A rough go.

Bertrand Eau de Vie Sorbier (Alsace) – That’s “rowan” for English-speakers. Lurid blueberry irreparably marred by a fetid sous bois staleness. I really, really hate this.

Bertrand Eau de Vie Vieille Prune (Alsace) – Standard, straightforward. Some spice, some old raisin, some wood. Not very interesting.

Hastae pudding club

[hastae logo] “Why all this technology? Don’t you like the wines you made before? Why are you changing everything…modifying, intervening?”

While it may not be the question that defines the day, it’s the question that sets the day on its inexorable path.

Up until now, we’ve been doing what one does at large-scale tasting events: sniffing, swirling, sipping, spitting, and scribbling. Some of us with pen in hand, others with space bar under thumb. But today’s a little different. We’ve been bused to an underground space that’s both wine/food showcase and assembly hall, and we’re now being treated – if that’s the word – to a PowerPoint presentation on some viticultural research aimed at improving the quality of barbera grapes in the Piedmont.

The research itself is pretty fundamental: Guyot vs. spurred cordon vine training. The former is traditional to the region, and the latter is being explored as an alternative (or, it might be more accurate to say, a replacement). Three years of research have been applied to this question, and we are here to both listen to and taste the results.

Now, it’s true that non-farmers are going to have an inherently limited enthusiasm for this sort of material. And while it’s as clearly-presented as it can be, there’s every reason for many of the assembled to feel like tuning out…especially after yet another morning of palate-numbing tasting. But those who don’t hear some interesting things along the way. And those who do? Well, by the time we get to the end of that leadoff question, I think pretty much everyone’s awake.

Why fool around with training methods? Curiosity, certainly. But there are specific goals in mind, and several are mentioned right from the beginning. The first is no surprise, given the mumblings from producers we’ve already met: a reduction in either total or the malic portion of barbera’s acidity. The second is a greater concentration of anthocyanins, which brings along with it a parallel concentration of tannins…and if there’s one thing these new-styled wines probably don’t need, especially if they’re going to be raised in barrique, it’s more tannin. (Incredibly, the wines taste-tested during these trials had both grape seed and oak tannins added. Yes, added.) In any case, it’s the third that causes more than a few eyebrows to crest: better preservation of color while the wine ages.

Is this really an important goal? “Color needs to remain permanent as wine ages,” we’re told. Well, why? To distinguish barbera from its notoriously pale-hued neighbor nebbiolo? Because the worldwide market for well-aged barbera has been shying away in recent years for insufficient purpleosity? Because the ultimate goal of any wine should be opacity to the end of its days?

There’s no answer forthcoming. And here’s another goal they have in mind, though it’s relegated to the accompanying text and not mentioned in the presentation:

The Guyot pruning used in most parts of the […] Piedmont does not enable the operation to be mechanized […]. Its substitution with a spurred cordon training system, easier to perform and partially or totally workable mechanically, can lead to a reduction in management costs […].

Finally, there’s the maraschino cherry on this modernizing sundae:

[B]arbera, in environments of average fertility and if pruned with the spurred cordon method, can take advantage of a number of buds slightly higher than the one obtained with the Guyot method.

So: lower acidity, long-term color stability, higher yields, more tannin, and lower-cost mechanical harvesting…this is all just terrific news, and really focused on the key qualitative differentiators that will bring barbera to the next level. (The “natural” set will like this, though: the higher antioxidant levels that also result mean a lessened need for preservational members of the sulfur family.)

Most of the rest of the presentation is devoted to charts and graphs that demonstrate the conclusions of the study…conclusions which, in the minds of those funding the research, do indeed lead to higher-quality barbera. Others, with different goalposts, might reach opposite (or at least less definitive) conclusions even before tasting the wines. I write with my biases already on display, but of course this – as with so many other such debates – will very much revolve around matters of preference. Those who think barbera is not big, dark, dense, tannic, or lush enough will embrace these results with enthusiasm. Whereas we lonely few contrarians can only look on with dismay.

[cheese & confiture]Except it turns out we’re not so lonely after all.

Today’s research is being promoted by Hastae, a group of wineries that won’t be viewed with enthusiasm by anyone of a traditionalist bent: Berta, Braida, Chiarlo, Coppo, Prunotto, and Vietti. Michele Chiarlo, certainly Piedmontese eminence personified, is himself in attendance, and will be presenting tangible evidence of the research’s conclusions to the assembled, as well as answering any questions the group might have. And it turns out that we have some.

It’s Charles Scicolone who offers the confrontation that starts this report. The answer he receives is unhelpful, though it too will set a tone for the day’s discussions and debates: a disagreement with the base assumptions of the question (though the details of this disagreement are elided), followed by a complaint that the question itself is “a little insulting.” But while the barbera brain trust doesn’t offer an actual answer to his question, I think I can provide one.

A near-immediate follow-up to Scicolone’s question that wonders if too many grapes might now be on non-ideal sites, since the better wines of the past seemed perfectly quality-oriented, brings another evasion (“it’s impossible to comment on that”), and then this: until now, growers have apparently not had “incentives” to improve their grapes, and thus were “forced” to make the older, more traditional styles of wines because their production and yields were too high.

The current answer is brought to a coda with, “our research is intended to make bad wines better.” And so, there’s the answer that wasn’t made explicit: they didn’t like the wines that they made before.

An aside…while this little contretemps has been escalating, I’ve moved from my seat in the middle of the room to a standing position against a post, nearer the back. From here, I am more an observer of than a participant in the proceedings – at least visually – and while I do not want to over-dramaticize the scene around the room’s perimeter as a “panic,” it’s clear that tensions among the organizers are high. There’s excited whispering, there’s a lot of agitated frowning and gesturing, and there’s rapid movement to and fro. Onstage, Michele Chiarlo – who is seated – spends much of his non-speaking time with head down and a hand on his forehead, projecting a certain angst, if not actual pain. But while the profoundly negative turn to what was intended to be a purely informational event seems to have the organizers on edge, it’s not clear what they can do. Cut off discussion? That would be transparent and counter-productive. So, they’re forced to wait and watch, like the rest of us. And I think that, if they knew this would be the less confrontational of today’s two interactive fora, they might be breathing a little easier.

Or not.

There’s not a lot of time to muse on this, though, because we move immediately on to the third confrontational comment in a row. (That’s out of three, by the way.) Our third interlocutor notes that even if one accepts that the modern wines we’ve been tasting are more “balanced,” it is at the cost of “recognizability” and the defining character of barbera.

We get two answers to this. The first is from Michele Chiarlo, and it is declarative: “wine is a good wine when it sells.”

The potential problems with this statement have been the subject of innumerable philosophical works, so I feel neither the need nor the desire to delve into them here. From a certain mercantile perspective, of course, it’s “true,” even though it gets us quickly to a state in which Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio is the best white wine of Italy, because it sells more than all the others. As a guiding philosophy behind winemaking decisions, I admit I find it profoundly depressing. But that’s a personal reaction. Certainly I don’t find it difficult to understand; starving for one’s vocation is no more inherently noble than starving for one’s art. But I’m also glad that not everyone sees it Chiarlo’s way.

Chiarlo will double down on his assertion a little later: “Now we export to sixty countries. Before, we could only sell in Piedmont.”

It’s left to Professor Vincenzo Gerbi, one of the project’s researchers, an oenologist from the University of Turin, and the speaker who has been covering most of the day’s technical bases, to attempt a less overtly commercial response.

“Barbera, more than any other grape variety, owes its character to acidity. In the past, people have boasted – for not the right reasons – about this acidity. […] We can produce balanced and great-tasting barbera, [and w]e can do so while maintaining the defining character of barbera.”

Here is another a clear refutation of the barbera of the past. That barbera – the crisp, light, red-fruited, acidic-food-requiring wine described in pretty much every wine compendium – is to be dismissed as a necessary failing of the past. Barbera must be sold in ever-increasing quantities, and the new methods and styles are the mechanism by which that will be accomplished, and this new paradigm is here to stay.

Then, Gerbi lobs this little bomblet into the proceedings: “some producers used barriques; this was a mistake.” This with Michele Chiarlo just a meter or so to his left.

[grappa]No matter the institutional desire for an end to the confrontation, we do have a schedule to keep, and so matters come to a natural end as we proceed to a pair of very long tables for a comparative tasting. A very manageable four wines this time, produced by the Hastae group as part of the research trials described above. They are presented to demonstrate a point. And they do.

Hastae 2007 Barbera d’Asti (Guyot) (Piedmont) – Deep purple, plum, black cherry. A large-boned and firmly structured wine with good palate intensity. Fruit-dominated, but balanced and solid.

Hastae 2007 Barbera d’Asti (spurred cordon) (Piedmont) – More obvious alcohol, more “present” fruit. Graphite-textured tannin. Packs a wallop.

Hastae 2008 Barbera d’Asti (Guyot) (Piedmont) – Strong acidity and chewy, reddish-tinged fruit. A little frayed.

Hastae 2008 Barbera d’Asti (spurred cordon) (Piedmont) – Many shades darker than the Guyot-trained wine…in fact, nearly opaque. Purple milk chocolate shake.

Conclusions, then? From this grand sample of four: I certainly, as might be predicted from every vintage generalization I’ve yet heard from the producers here in the Piedmont, prefer the 2007s to the 2008s, for reasons of better balance, fullness, and structure. But that’s not what I’m here to taste. I’m here to taste training methods. And I’m afraid that within each couplet, I prefer the old school Guyot wine to that made from spurred cordon vines. What I can’t go on to say is that I can clearly identify the reasons for that preference from the research conclusions presented earlier. In both cases the spurred cordon wines reflect the qualities and flaws more common to modern, internationalized wines, but this must be caveated by noting that the ’07 Guyot bottling is no ultra-traditional throwback…not that would one expect otherwise from this collection of producers.

After talk and backtalk, there is lunch. A fine one, in which there’s salad in a Zorb, some excellent local delicacies, and a pair of interesting verticals.

Chiarlo “Cuvée Pietro Chiarlo” Metodo Classico Brut (Piedmont) – 50% cortese and 50% chardonnay. Oxidized and sulfurous…a nice trick. Coppery. Ripe, ripe, ripe fruit. Clumsy and goofy; Chevy Chase doing Gerald Ford.

Hastae 2005 Barbera d’Asti “Quorum” (Piedmont) – Big, ripe, but balanced. There’s a light chocolate sheen, but good – no, make that great – acidity. Very good in the New World style, albeit with the pinched finish so common to the genre.

Hastae 2004 Barbera d’Asti “Quorum” (Piedmont) – Sweaty. Brittle tannin hardens the wine, yet the midpalate is mushy; a weird counterpoint. It’s pretty good, to be honest, but in no way could it be called stylish. Perhaps it’s entering a closed stage.

Hastae 2001 Barbera d’Asti “Quorum” (Piedmont) – Softening, obviously and dramatically, with leafy soil, black pepper, and spiky acidity. Lots of character, but at the expense of quality.

Hastae 1999 Barbera d’Asti “Quorum” (Piedmont) – Graphite tannin, succulent red fruit, and style. Great acidity. Hearkens back to an older style, with a little more verve.

Tasting these wines, with and without food, several things occur. First, Hastae makes good wines, whatever one thinks of their style and their understandability as barbera d’Asti. Second, their style is either veering precipitously towards the modernistic or age shifts their wines into an older, more traditional mode; I suspect the former more than the latter. Third, these are definitely wines that reward age with change, even if they don’t always get better. And fourth, I have not once wished that the wines had held on to a darker, more youthful color. Who cares?

The second vertical is spirituous – the only time this trip in which we’ll actually be asked to consume grappa, rather than engaging in our own late-night volunteerism – and it’s only a vertical because I request one. Everyone before me gets a glass and a choice, while I ask if a small vertical might be arranged. This seems to please the waitstaff, and the idea spreads. Trendsetting is not my usual mode, but in the spirit of spirits, I won’t cavil.

[grappa]Hastae 2003 “Quorum” Grappa (Piedmont) – Round and very vintage-marked. Extremely sweet. More like a dessert wine than a grappa, frankly.

Hastae 1999 “Quorum” Grappa (Piedmont) – Feet. This smells like feet. Also, spices (nutmeg, mostly) and baked caramel apple. Why is there so much overt sucrosity?

Hastae 2005 “Quorum” Grappa (Piedmont) – Waxy and weird with spice and sweet brown sugar.

Hastae 2004 “Quorum” Grappa (Piedmont) – Ripe apple and spiced honey, with a lactic finish.

OK, these aren’t good at all. Were they labeled “barbera liqueur,” I’d probably be fine with them. But as it is, they’re high fructose grappa syrup. No thanks.

Lunched, wined, and spirited, we prepare to board the bus to our next destination. Snow is falling, and our transport grinds into a lower gear. We’ve somewhere to go, but getting there is going to be harder than anyone knows.

Disclosure: all wine, food, lodging, and all transportation paid for by various interested parties. See http://barbera2010.com/ for details on the people and entities involved. My tasting notes have not been influenced in any way, nor has my work on this blog and/or my own site, but the content of any work appearing only on the official Barbera Meeting 2010 blog may (or may not) have been edited for content.

Nizza man’s world, but it wouldn’t mean nothin’…

[empty journal]More Asti barbera, this time in the subzone of Nizza. Is there a difference? Read on. And see this post for important disclaimers.

Avezza 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza “Sotto la Muda” (Piedmont) – Heat and chocolate-covered strawberry candy bar…the cheap kind you’d find in a supermarket or drugstore.

Bava 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza “Pianoalto” (Piedmont) – All possible forms of brett, moving through the full range of effluvia to Band-Aid, etc., etc., etc. It’s like one of those demonstration wines for “find the flaw” tastings they put sommeliers and MWs through.

Bersano 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza (Piedmont) – Concentrated, dark, jammy fruit, chocolate, tannin, and some welcome minerality. But then there’s lactic and stale butter notes, followed by cocoa butter and a lotiony texture. Tannic lotion…what a concept!

Isolabella della Croce 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza “Augusta” (Piedmont) – Eucalyptus lozenge, fake cherry, and pink peppercorns. Huh?

La Barbatella 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza La Vigna dell’Angelo (Piedmont) – Zinfandel-like jam, and an olallieberry fruit soup. After this dalliance with character, the milk and dark chocolates clamp down hard, with gallons of vanilla pouring into the void. Finishes with a lacquer-like residue that’s difficult to extricate from my mouth.

Lana 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza (Piedmont) – Freshly-tanned leather, dark cherries, and a bit of something that feels like spritz (though it could just be unusually fresh acidity; my palate’s a little damaged by this stage) that adds some vibrancy.

Dacapo 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza Vinga Dacapo (Piedmont) – Incisive dark berries. Clean and clear. That spritzy feeling returns. There’s a little dark chocolate, but this has both persistence and a certain measure of style.

La Gironda di Galandrino 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza “Le Nicchie” (Piedmont) – A tickle of volatile acidity hovers over chocolate sludge infused with malt powder, barley, and hops. It’s chocobeer!

l’Armangia 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza (Piedmont) – Chocolate, vanilla, strawberry…all with the slowly-hardening texture of cement. An impenetrable pudding of a wine. Where’s the Lactaid?

Chiarlo 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza “La Court” (Piedmont) – Stink. Stank. Stunk. Weeds, the most brackish coffee, vegetables…and then, for good measure, a drizzle of chocolate syrup.

Nocento Michelotti 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza Montecanta (Piedmont) – Old socks soaked in fruit residue. In case it’s unclear, I did not care for this.

Pescaja 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza Solneri (Piedmont) – Smells like freisa, which at this point is better than the many alternatives, I guess. Strawberry, celery salt, fresh fruit slices. I kinda like it. I don’t know what it is, but I’d drink it.

Prunotto 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza Costamiole (Piedmont) – A fruit bomb, friendly and approachable, with milk and vanilla doing battle on the finish. Just, you know, in case there was any doubt that the wine could be made from anything or be from anywhere.

Tre Secoli 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza (Piedmont) – Herbal oak, vanilla-scented oak, coconutty oak, oak, oak, oak, oak grappa, and stewed garbage fermented in oak. Mmmmmm.

Vietti 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza La Crena (Piedmont) – Ghirardelli chocolate (that’s not praise, by the way), the salty tang of the ocean, then more chocolate. Textured like half & half.

Villa Giada 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza Bricco Dani (Piedmont) – Stinky vegetables, brett, weeds, black cherry, and cassis. Finishes with Band-Aids on Styrofoam.

Garitina 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza “Neuvsent” (Piedmont) – Roasted tomato dusted with peppercorns, celery salt, and carrying the unmistakable aroma of pork. Just bizarre.

Giovinale 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza Anssema (Piedmont) – Banana Froot™, black cherry, and a soapy sludge of vanillin (yes, I mean the fake stuff) with layers of cemented tannin.

Guido Berta 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza Canto di Luna (Piedmont) – Jam residue, vanilla, tannin, oak, and heat. As boring as an overworked wine can possibly get.

Gazzi 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza Praiot (Piedmont) – Big, shouldery fruit with dark chocolate and tannin that dries out the wine rather quickly. I can’t say I’m disappointed that it does so, either.

Guasti 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza Barcarato (Piedmont) – Fresh plum marred by a horrid soy milk texture and clover pollen.

Malgrà 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza Mora di Sassi (Piedmont) – Huge, plummy, and supple. Actually stands up to the vanilla and chocolate shakes that are threatening to dominate it. Well, it does for a while, and then the finish goes completely to hell in a syrupy, fake-fruited handbasket.

Poderi dei Bricchi Astigiani 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza Bricco Preje (Piedmont) – Vanilla, coconut, strawberry, and plum…but, remarkably, the fruit and oak here are well-integrated. Pretty good in its internationalized style.

Disclosure: all wine, food, lodging, and all transportation paid for by various interested parties. See http://barbera2010.com/ for details on the people and entities involved. My tasting notes have not been influenced in any way, nor has my work on this blog and/or my own site, but the content of any work appearing only on the official Barbera Meeting 2010 blog may (or may not) have been edited for content.