Absolutes are for vodka

Contributed by Rémy Charest - a journalist, writer, and translator based in Quebec City, Canada. He has been writing about wine and food since 1997 for various Canadian and American print and online publications, including SevenFifty Daily, Wine Enthusiast, Cellier, Le Devoir, Le Soleil, EnRoute, Palate Press, Punch Drink, and Châtelaine, and has been a regular radio columnist for CBC/Radio-Canada. He has also judged national and international wine competitions, notably the WineAlign National Wine Awards of Canada, the TEXSOM International Wine Awards, and the International Rosé Championships.

Have you heard of piquette, the latest trend to hit the natural wine market? I absolutely love it, and I think it’s great fun, as a low-alcohol, thirst-quenching drink, made by adding water to the pomace left after pressing out wine. This old-school “second wine”, picking up on something that was made for a long time in French country cellars, is getting more out of material that would otherwise be a pure waste of the winemaking process.

Here’s the thing, though. As Los Angeles wine merchant Lou Amdur remarked this week on Facebook, « How can piquette be called a natural wine if water must be added to pomace to make it? ». It certainly goes against the « nothing added, nothing taken away » ideal that natural wine is built on. And basically, that’s fine by me. Let’s enjoy it and not get too hung up about where it fits in the spectrum of artisan drinks.

After a good dozen years of debating the principles of natural wine, and even just the validity of the term natural wine – it’s a shortcut, people, get over it – I’ve grown more and more tired of absolutes, of preachers who will tell you what is valid and what isn’t, in the world of wine. Aiming for ideals like expressing the specificity of terroir and minimizing intervention is absolutely great, but winemaking is a human and agricultural endeavour where a great, great number of elements (microbiological, in particular) interact in myriad ways and sometimes take unexpected directions that require intervention to avoid mishaps and very unpleasant results. Once you get to work in the cellar, pragmatism should take over.

The case in point about what absolutes bring you, in winemaking, is the reappearance of mousiness, an incredibly awful wine fault that has taken residence in cellars where sulphites are completely shunned. I’ve tasted many elegant, clean and delicious no-sulfur wines, over the years, and I’m not ready to dismiss them as a sort of utopia or folly – and I certainly roll my eyes when I hear some conventional winemakers go as short as saying that natural fermentations are “risky” or even “dangerous”. However, if your wines are getting mousy, by all means, please use some SO2. It’s certainly anger-inducing for me to be throwing away a whole bottle of wine because it feels like someone has scraped my throat with a rancid sandpaper left in a mouldy shed. All that energy, effort and fruit gone to waste…

This summer, I was lucky enough to taste through a long vertical of Morgon from Domaine Lapierre, one of the pioneering estates in the world of natural wine. As we tasted through and talked about how much care and shepherding natural wine actually requires, Mathieu Lapierre pointed out that in 2015, with the wines having low acidity and high sugars, and with the fermentations having trouble getting the wines fully dry, they decided to add sulphites to all the tanks, to avoid bacterial issues that would have made the wines volatile and deviant. “It’s like medicine, explained Mathieu. If you’re not sick, don’t take it, but you should take it if you’re sick or if you’re at risk.” It reminded me of a conversation I had with his father, about ten years ago, where we were discussing the same subject, and he said to me (much to my surprise), “would you be willing to lose 3,000 liters to a principle?”

Sulfites do deeply affect a wine’s chemistry and expression, in myriad ways. So SO2 additions aren’t just a matter of hygiene, and they shouldn’t be taken as a uniform, matter-of-fact thing. But neither should eschewing sulphur. It seems important to know your individual wines and work on a case-by-case basis.

I’ve been flabbergasted by the absolute opposition of some people in the natural wine trade show against temperature control. I certainly agree with them that fermenting all your white wines at 14°C creates something very uniform and stifles the specific expression of a particular lot of grapes. But if your crush pad is unusually warm because it’s 25°C in the daytime in late October, instead of 10-12°C, and your fermentation is going to go very hot and fast, is it really a crime to use mechanical means to cool it down and try to preserve some aromatics that would otherwise get cooked, or prevent a rise in undesirable volatile compounds? I think you should adjust to whatever is thrown at you and work to get the best possible result, before tearing up your shirt in defense of a supposed Truth about wine.

Fundamentally, it’s more about saying what you do, and doing what you say, and doing everything you can to create something delicious – and stable enough so that it won’t go to waste and negate all the effort and resources poured into it. Uniformity creates boring wines, when you make millions of gallons of the same thing, and it can create terrible wines if you go by principles without looking carefully at what’s actually going on in individual vineyards, barrels and tanks. Absolut is a vodka brand, not a way of making wine.

Follow Rémy on social media @remycharest


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