Natural Wine Enters Its Dumb Phase
And that's a good thing. My report from La Dive Bouteille.
Among those who cellar and age wine, there is a term of art called the “dumb phase.” This is when a bottle that’s meant for long aging goes through an awkward period, often years, where its flavors and aromas are closed, muted, inexpressive. Sometimes this is a sign that the wine is in decline. Often, though, it’s simply a lull between youth and maturity and after some time, the wine bounces back, having undergone a beautiful transformation. “Decanting doesn’t help,” says the Wine Spectator’s Dr. Vinny, “the only thing that can cure it is time.” The dumb phase remains unexplained by science and is completely unpredictable.
I was thinking about dumb phases during my visit last week to the Loire Valley, where I attended La Dive Bouteille, which bills itself as the world’s largest annual natural wine fair. It’s held in the town of Saumur, with more than 200 natural winemakers from throughout Europe, pouring their wines deep in the labyrinthine, troglodyte cellar of Caves Ackerman.
The fair itself was fun. Natural wine has become its own subculture at this point and so the laziest of observations would be, “there are more tattoos and piercings and whatnot than at a usual wine fair!” Yes, duh. I found that myself and others, particularly the men, hewed to a certain natural wine uniform: beard and/or man bun, hoodie, flannel, beanie, shoes we believe to be cool. For lack of imagination, let’s call it the “aging skateboarder” look.
The atmosphere was different than a typical, staid wine fair where trade and journalists politely taste and spit and there’s usually a color-coded map with table numbers and professional signage. La Dive Bouteille is loud, dark, and you can barely read the hand-scrawled white posters with winery names taped to the walls. And people are drinking. At 6 o’clock, the entire fair takes over a wine bar in the center of Saumur called La Tonnelle.
The wine was, of course, wonderful. I caught up with a number of favorite producers I’ve written about for this newsletter or my book: Florent Plageoles, the rare-grape whisperer from Gaillac; Loire faves such as Catherine et Pierre Breton and Thierry Germain at Roches Neuves; Italian winemakers such as Foradori from the Dolomites, Arianna Occhipinti from Sicily, and Elena Pantaleoni of La Stoppa from Emilia Romagna; Austrian producers such as Judith Beck, Claus Preisinger, and Christian Tschida.
Beyond my own usual suspects, I’m excited about a few new-to-me producers I plan to seek out back home. For instance, I was blown away by the fresh, bright, intense malbec from Sophie and Julien Ilbert, of Combel-La-Serre in Cahors. Cahors, in southwest France, is the spiritual home of malbec, where the grape is known locally as auxerrois or côt. Do yourself a favor and taste their Le Pur Fruit du Causse, which you can find for under $18.
I also loved the surprising wines from Les Vins Pirouettes, a collective of 14 growers in Alsace who are either organic or biodynamic and made by renowned winemaker Christian Binner. Have you ever tasted a natural (and dry) gewürztraminer? Well, you should look for the collective’s unique, eye-opening Saveurs de Raphael, which you can find for under $17. I don’t generally think of Alsace when I think of natural wine and so I’m looking forward to exploring further (I’ll be publishing something on Alsace later this spring).
Rounding out my trio of highlights is Domaine François Dumas, from the Rhône, where he produces in both Saint-Joseph and Condrieu appellations. As with the Alsatian gewürztraminer, I was surprised to see a natural wine made from viognier, especially from Condrieu. As we discussed a few months ago, viognier is divisive and difficult to get right. But when it works, it’s beautiful. The François Dumas Condrieu is beautiful. The only problem is that the wines are not available in the U.S. right now. Importers, can one of you please bring these wines over here?
Apart from brief highlights and recommendations, what I really want to talk about is the overall vibe at La Dive Bouteille, and what that says about the wider state of natural wine. As uncomfortable as it is to admit, the vibe felt…tired. Like a lot of things in 2022, natural wine feels…tired. Yes, ok, so I guess I’m going there. Natural wine—as a movement, as a trend, as a category, as an argument, as however you want to characterize it—feels tired.
Now, I love natural wine. Love it. I drink it, I write about it, I always defend its honor against insults from the older generation of wine snobs.
Still, natural wine feels a bit like craft cocktails felt to me in 2013. Not over, per se. Obviously, to this day, people still love their $15 cocktails with layered rums and housemade bitters and Chartreuse and fat washing. But by 2013, the cocktail “movement” was over, co-opted by whatever cultural forces co-opt anything. Similarly, it feels like all the essential talking points and information about natural wine is already out there, has been covered from so many angles, and most anyone who wants to know something about natural wine has likely already learned.
More distressingly, the natural wine vibe had been co-opted by the marketplace well before the pandemic happened. Natty wines are now an entrenched part of wellness culture, with faux-health and even “spiritual” claims. Who can forget the terrible New York Times op-ed in 2019 about “natural wine as self-care”? Who can ignore the whole bogus “clean wine” trend that began the same year? Felicity Carter, in The Guardian, famously called all this natural-wine-as-wellness nonsense “the Goopification” of wine.
But more than trends or bogus health claims, it’s perhaps the ubiquitousness of natural wine that’s created entropy. Even Simon J Woolf, whose excellent book Amber Revolution, is one of the ur-texts of natural wine, this week published a rant against pét-nat!
Father, forgive me. I am about to blaspheme. I’m sick of pét nat. OK, this is not the party line for a natural wine fan. But I’m bored of every-winemaker-on-the-planet ubiquity, I’ve had it with all-over-the-floor spurters and flat-as-a-pancake whimpers where the winemaker clearly chickened out. I’m fed up with anaemic, squeaky clean fizz where someone applied the trendy label but didn’t get the memo, I’m done with half-fermented juice and could-be-from-anywhere flavours. Please, pour me a crémant, a Cava, a col fondo, a grower Champagne. Anything but another damned pét-nat.
A few weeks ago, the New York Times published a dozen natural wine recommendations under the subhead that noted, “For 20 years, natural wine has been dismissed as a fad or a fraud.” Eric Asimov, the Times critic, writes, “Most striking is how popular natural wine seems to be among younger people, the demographic that the mainstream wine industry has the most difficulty reaching.”
When Asimov talks about “younger people,” he mostly means millennials, many of whom are nearing (or have turned) 40. I had to laugh when I recently heard someone refer to Meinklang, the Austrian natural wine darling, as a “book club” wine (to be fair, when I pushed back this person replied, “Well, at least in Brooklyn.”) Still, millennials are moving into that advanced age when the tastes and trends they’ve clung to will quickly seem dated. Some tastes and trends, as we talked about a few weeks ago, will not survive the forthcoming “vibe shift.” Perhaps natural wine, the current cultural context of natural wine, won’t survive the vibe shift.
And frankly, that’s fine. Natural wine itself isn’t going to go away. Growing grapes organically and/or biodynamically, taking a hands-off approach in the cellar, fermenting with wild yeasts, eschewing additives, leaving wine unfined and unfiltered—these are all excellent techniques that more wineries should adopt.
What feels tired is everything else about natural wine: the scene, the discourse, the silly anti-natural-wine arguments from entrenched old wine writers, the overblown virtuousness from the natural-wine doctrinaires in response. Natural wine doesn’t need to be defensive or revolutionary anymore. It firmly exists as a category. Natural wine would undoubtedly benefit from a dumb phase.
The day after La Dive Bouteille, I flew to Barcelona for a few days, for a travel assignment. I met up with some friends and we drank plenty of natural wines in Barcelona—some great, some not so great.
On my last night, I ate dinner at Bar Brutal, one of the world’s natural-wine temples. The group I was with was so deep in conversation when the sommelier came that we just asked him to choose two wines for us. He served two natty reds. The first was from the Canary Islands, Envínate Benje Tinto, foot-trodden from a grape called listan prieto (aka país or mission). The other La Perdida Proscrito, was from Galicia, made from palomino (the white grape used to make sherry) and a little bit of garnacha tintorera (presumably to give it some red color). Both were outstanding, magical, light reds.
The table took a quiet moment to taste the wines. Then, we chatted about them for a few minutes. A couple of people appreciated the floral and black pepper, the volcanic quality, the intense tannins of the Envínate. The others prefered the bold, energetic fruitiness and gulpability of the ruby La Perdida. Both wines paired amazingly well with the wide array of dishes we ordered: pumpkin, the brown crab, the cured sea bass, and the octopus, and the duck breast.
Then we finished talking about the wines, and moved on to other topics—the food, the war, the pandemic, relationships, life. As one should.