I recently asked a vintner acquaintance to come taste so-called “natural wine” with me at a little joint called Ardor, which only serves wines described as “natural.” She practically laughed in my face. “I hate natural wine!” is what she said.
Natural wine still has the reputation of an oddity—more freaknik protest philosophy than fine beverage. It sometimes smells…unusual. It can be bracing and electric. It’s often rife with what wine people call “faults.” But that’s what I love about it—it doesn’t exist just to please me. I have to come to it.
What’s it mean for a wine to be natural? A lot of the usual apparently technophobic, chemophobic, neo-Luddite stuff: Organic grapes, minimum of additives, no reverse osmosis, micro-oxygenation, centrifuging, or other high-tech manipulations. Reading descriptions of natural wine from outside (and inside) the industry, that’s exactly what it sounds like: paranoid hippie nonsense. But in reality it’s not a dogma, but a guiding principle, an attempt to explore the margins of the fermentable universe, trace the outer limits of acceptability, and to plumb the depths of wine history, by doing as little as possible.
“Natural” is such a beautiful word, which is probably why it’s been tortured and abused to the point of surrender and enslavement. It uselessly limps along in semantic shackles, dragged to its final resting place by an army of slovenly ideologues. So regardless of what those bearded French weirdos who pioneered the whole natural wine concept back in the 70’s want to call it, we’re going to use the term “minimal intervention” as a stand-in. There’s clearly nothing natural about wine. Just putting grapes into a container for the purpose of collecting the products of fermentation creates an artifice.
As a term, I realize that minimal intervention isn’t beautiful or succinct, but it’s more true, allowing us to see right through to the idea itself, while protecting our asses from naysayers who would argue semantics all day rather than engaging with the truth of our visions.
So why intervene in the first place? Why not let nature take its course and take whatever happens? Because experience has taught us that we operate within very narrow strictures of acceptability. So starting a small fire at the mouth of your cave will give you a little place to warm up while still leaving you fresh air to breathe. Starting a bonfire in the back will ruin your whole primitive existence.
Likewise, crushing fresh grapes into a clean container and protecting the juice from insects will often yield potable ethanol, while letting moldy fruit sit on the counter for a couple of weeks will produce something less pleasant, perhaps even something poisonous. But then we strive and refine, we envision an ideal end: the caveman builds a chimney, eventually gets forced air heating. The vintner strives to make chardonnay that is clean and crisp, in which fruitiness takes a backseat to acidity and minerality, in the mode of the day.
But what if we’re blinded by our own dazzling visions of perfection? What if forced air heating deprives of us a measure of dynamism in our lives? What if a rocket mass heater could actually make us happier and more fulfilled, but we never new such a thing could exist? What if we like lactic acidity better than malic acid, but the fashion of the day deprives us from ever even experiencing such a flavor? The course of history has delivered us here, with so many decisions already made. We’re almost incapable of imagining another mode of existence, ways of life, ways of satisfying our appetites for alcohol and warmth, ways that might be fully as acceptable, even better than what we’ve been presented. Until one day, sitting in front of your gas furnace, glass of California Cabernet in hand, you start thinking “Man, I feel like this warming and drinking paradigm is a little restrictive. There’s gotta be another way.” This should be why we go out of the house, to learn about other ways of being, not just to have our expectations satisfied.
And that’s how I ended up at Ardor. I was tired of just having my expectations satisfied, I wanted to learn about other modes of satisfying my thirst for sweet, sweet ethanol. It’s a wide, wide world it turns out.
I’m a wine ignoramus, with nonetheless expensive tastes informed by the rare sips of truly great wine I very occasionally got to taste in restaurants. I like reds that are lean and taut, yet rustic and rough. I like whites to be clean and uncluttered—get that passionfruit and melon outta my glass. That said, if I want to learn about something, it makes sense to start with the fundamental iteration. So to learn about wine would I start with micro-oxygenation, reverse osmosis, and fining agents? No, I’d start with picking and crushing grapes, and letting them spontaneously bubble.
That spontaneity is what I find most intriguing about minimal intervention wine. It harks back to the roots of drunkeness, the fact that alcohol actually is a gift of nature, a chemical granted to us by life itself to make the going a little easier. Chimpanzees, birds, butterflies, pen-tailed tree shrews, even fruit flies, take advantage of the metabolic waste of yeasts, some to the point of inebriation, and for many of the same reasons we do. Chimpanzees steal palm wine from the villagers of Guinea seemingly for the love of the flavor. Birds eat fermented berries because they’re hungry, and aren’t deterred by the sweet tang of ferment. Male butterflies drink beer to increase the potency of their “Nuptial Gift!” Drinking is so primal that male fruit flies apparently drown the pain of sexual rejection in drink. The tree shrew, although phylogenetically not too far from human, apparently just lives on the stuff.
Imagine the thrilling variety of fermentation byproducts enjoyed by our genetic ancestors and their modern day descendants alike! Imagine the breadth of aromas and flavors that have accompanied them on the path to drunkeness! What I wouldn’t give for a taste of spontaneously fermented palm sap, or the indigenously fermented nectar of the bertram palm flower. What do we lose when we select just a few from the endless variety of fermentation microbes out there? On average, it’s probably worth what we gain, but why allow our technological power to limit our interface with our drink?
None of this is to say that there’s something wrong with pitching laboratory yeast for more predictable results, but perhaps there’s something preternaturally appropriate in the fact that I chose Elisabetta Foradori’s Teroldego for our wedding red, without knowing anything about it except the flavor. Spontaneously fermented in open containers, it was robust, yet supple; upright, yet funky. It does its own thing, while still knowing how to act in civilized company. There’s something in that for me, and something for me to learn.
I once had Opus One, the legendarily hyped Napa collaboration between Mondavi and Mouton Rothschild. What polish! What finesse! What utter fucking boredom! I’m sure someone tried to identify some incredibly subtle (and likely wholly imagined) aroma emanating from that $300 bottle of spoiled grape juice: Is that strawberry blossoms? Black currant leaves? Rose thorns? Hah! No one really knows what any of that stuff smells like. That’s where the refining process of civilization gets us—imaginative blowhards looking for distinguishing characteristics where there really aren’t any to be found. This is why wine tasters so often get slammed and smeared by empiricists looking to discredit sensuality as a means of assessment altogether.
The contrary to the Opus One episode was at Ardor, where I let proprietor Ryan Jones introduce me to this so-called “orange” wine (think oxidized rosé) from Spain. Organically grown Pedro Ximenez grapes are harvested by hand and allowed to spontaneously ferment on the skins, in open fermenters. Nothing is added, and nothing is taken away (except the majority of the solids, of course). Now I know what a fundamental wine tastes like. It’s slightly resinous and heavy for a wine so pale. Nearly everyone, including myself, expects whites and pinks to be bracing and crisp these days, all stainless steel fermentation and high acidity—this doesn’t satisfy any of those expectations. But if I just wanted my expectations satisfied, I’d stay home and have a lager.
Over a glass of Listan Negro from the Canary Islands, I actually learned that the grapes are grown in pits dug into the island’s jet black volcanic sand to protect them from the unrelentingly hot and salty Atlantic winds. Ryan likes to nerd pretty hard once he gets going, so I also learned that Listan Negro is genetically synonymous with the Mission grape, the first variety planted in North America. It’s powerful, crackling with just barely restrained kinetic potential, and nearly as dark as the sand from which it grew.
They pour the glasses pretty deep at Ardor, so after those two glasses, a half-glass (yes, they pour half glasses!) of Olivier Lemasson’s “Poivre et Sel,” a French table wine, and a taste of everything else from the glass pours (there’s only about eight things on the board), we were more than warm. Since I’m ostensibly here to do some preliminary research for a story I want to pitch about natural wines, I ask Ryan what he’d recommend from the Willamette Valley—someplace I can actually visit. He takes me down to the cellar.
It’s a metro rack in the basement. White or red? Whatever’s the most interesting. Alright, Swick Cellars “Les Sous-Bois” Pinot Gris or Swick’s Melon de Bourgogne. Well the Melon De Bourgogne, I’m told, is a classic oyster pairing, and I am going to have oysters.
Melon de Bourgogne is good with oysters, it turns out. In fact, I’d say this example elevated the standing of these otherwise rather muddy tasting oysters from the Willapa bay that we ate on Christmas day. Unlike so many modern wines wherein the acid is like a shot through the heart, the acid notes of Swick’s wines are rounded and complex, due to malolactic fermentation. It’s still bracing, but it veers wildly (softly, in graceful arcs and curves) from the narrow path of angular acidity that is so popular in modern white wines. That wildness allows the wine to get down into the oysters, to really make friends with them, rather than just pierce their estuarial veil. The oysters are then buoyed up on this river of fruity complexity, and their muddiness transfigures into something more ethereal: plump pillows of fruity, saline meat.
But as you can imagine, it’s not all hits in minimal intervention winemaking. Witness this bottle of Fausse Piste Garde Manger 2014 Syrah. Smells like nail polish remover. Even a trasher liquor pig like me can’t finish a glass. We went to Dame, the most hyped wine bar in the history of Portland, and ordered up a few glasses. Here’s a novel sparkler that smells a lot like vomit. Here’s a red. You’ve heard of “barnyard” aromas in wine? This one smells like an industrial dairy barn. So maybe there is something to this idea of wine faults.
Still, it beats the alternative, the streamlining of taste. The rigidity of human desire is almost invariably informed by the desires of others. In an infinite feedback loop, our tastes get codified, ossified, changing only slowly. I’d argue that technology slows the rate of aesthetic evolution even more, since if you can have exactly what you (the producer) think you (the consumer) want every time, why have anything else?
But in the end (the beginning) we’re informed by nature, by which I mean the world that exists—but which is fundamentally the world of minerals, water, air, and life. Allowing microbial life to show us what they have to offer, what beautiful gifts (or horrendous slop) they might jettison or diffuse through their semipermeable cell membranes for our pleasure (or revulsion) punches open the aesthetic milieu a bit more. It creates breathing room for creativity.
But this province may have to wait a bit longer for creative breathing space. On my visit, Ardor was empty for hours.