How did you get into wine professionally?
I gatecrashed the party. I was a science editor with a bit of time on my hands and a wine habit. It was my hobby, and I started a hobby website that grew and grew. And then I approached editors and pitched article ideas to them.
What is the most enjoyable thing about your job?
The flexibility. The intellectual stimulation of dealing with an interesting subject with few constraints on what I investigate or cover. The great people in the world of wine. The chance to travel to wine regions worldwide.
What’s the worst thing?
The more commercial side of the wine industry is pretty ugly. The world needs cheap wine, but the larger retailers and wine companies try to pass of their cheap wines as more expensive bottles, which is ultimately dishonest. And it results in joyless, tricked-up wines, over-packaged and over-sold. But I have to deal with this side of the industry from time to time, and it’s a bit depressing.
How many bottles of wines do you sample per year?
I don’t count, but it’s a lot. In the thousands, for sure. It’s no badge of honour.
How many bottles of wine do you drink (as in willingly finish the bottle)
Quite a few, actually. I really love interesting wine, and there are lots of them around. Most of the wines reviewed on my blog are drunk as opposed to just tasted. It’s the difference between a handshake and spending an afternoon with someone.
You write for a variety of audiences ranging from beginners to experts. How difficult is it to adapt writing style to different audience?
It takes some thought, but through it all you have to maintain your own voice. If I’m writing for beginners, I think back to when I was new to wine and the sort of writing that appealed to me, or I think of what it’s like for me in another product category where I lack expertise.
I gatecrashed the party. I was a science editor with a bit of time on my hands and a wine habit
NATURAL WINE DEBATE
Are you surprised that the term “natural wine” provokes such controversy? Whenever you cover the subject on your blog it elicits plenty of animated (mostly negative, it has to be said) reaction – what is the major reason, in your opinion, for this term inciting this kind of response?
I think it’s insecurity. Many people are threatened by the unfamiliar. They have gone through wine education and have put wine neatly in a box: this is what wine tastes like, this is how we describe wine, and wines from these places taste like that. Then they are faced with this new category of wine that blows all the rules out of the water. They are faced with new flavours. And they use their knowledge like a sword to try to defeat this imposter. Classic insecurity. People who are confident and at peace with themselves don’t find the unfamiliar so threatening.
“Natural” is a loaded word. If this kerfuffle revolves around definitions pure and simple- would you be able to give a definition that captures the meaning (or the spirit of the meaning) when you think of natural wines.
A natural wine is a wine made with as little added to it as possible; where a skilled winegrower has been able to choose to withdraw unnecessary intervention in order to make a more elegant, compelling expression of the particular place where she or he is working. It is a wine where skilled work in the winery (not neglect) has freed the grapes and the microbes to create an authentic expression of place, unencumbered by the clutter of too much winemaking.
You’ve written a book called Authentic Wine. Authentic is an interesting concept– what does authentic mean to you?
Authentic is about the results, rather than the process. It is a wine that rings true: that manages to be an intelligent expression of its origin. It is a holistic term that embraces all the elements of wine: the site, the microbes, the grapes, the people.
Natural, naked, no-intervention – but also minerality, typicity and terroir – so many of the words that some of us take for granted are shibboleths for many others. Is it important that we can physically prove the existence of these concepts or understand that there are acknowledged truths which have no precise definition?
I’m a scientist, but not a scientific fundamentalist. Science has been incredibly useful in so many ways, but it is merely one way of understanding the world, albeit an incredibly powerful one. You can sum up a person in scientific terms, but this tells you relatively little about the very important elements of that person; things that simply can’t be captured in scientific language. If we talk of love or loyalty or bravery in scientific language, we have stripped these concepts of their very meaning. Natural, mineral, terroir – these are all words that are very useful, and which are used effectively in wine communication, even without precise scientific definitions. There are levels of meaning to these terms which are beyond science, and so we shouldn’t be bullied into not using them.
Wine is largely taught in courses and in oenology schools as an academic subject and an exact science. Do you think that received scientific wine wisdom can (and should be) questioned?
Absolutely. It should be questioned, but not rejected out of hand. I love integrating different avenues of learning. I think science, if it is humble enough, has a lot to contribute to the conversation around fine wine. But let’s not let the scientists tell us we are wrong about things when we have seen and tasted ourselves that they are true. I like multidisciplinary thinking that brings together contrasting – and even, sometimes, seemingly opposing – views, to create a better understanding. Paradox is part of life, and often the truth lies in tension between two opposing viewpoints.
Do you believe that there is a natural wine movement as such? Is there a better term than movement to describe the groupings of growers and supporters?
I would say it is less a movement, and more an alignment of people who share common ideas and cultural viewpoints.
Is a problem that there is no clear definition or certifying body? Or is that part of the strength in that it liberates vignerons, allowing them to push the boundaries and work off-piste?
Certifying bodies end up being parasitical, creating checklists that focus attention on subgoals, and then sending in a big invoice. Don’t try to fix what isn’t broken. The natural wine scene is vibrant and in rude health: why risk this? The only time we’d need certification would be if there were a commercial incentive for use of the term ‘natural’ on a label. Currently there isn’t.
A lot of growers all around the world, having tasted cracking examples of what we might term natural wines, are experimenting with a barrel or a particular “non-interventionist” cuvee. This evidence seems to contradict the view of certain commentators who observe that the natural wine phenomenon is a very small closed world. How would you assess the impact of natural wine in the overall wine world?
I think this small movement has had a huge effect on the mainstream wine world. The next generation of sommeliers, wine writers, retailers and winegrowers all seem to share a sense of excitement about natural wines, using less sulfur dioxide, not messing around too much in the winery, and using alternative means of elevage (such as large old oak and concrete). It has sparked massive intellectual curiosity. Even those who would never call themselves ‘natural’ are thinking about how they work, and how they might make more compelling, authentic wines.
One wine educator observed that natural wines are more likely to appeal to the younger/newer generation of drinkers. This suggests that people with conservative palates just won’t (and maybe don’t want) to get it. Will there be more wines made in this vein; what are the limits of such a phenomenon and will natural wine ever become mainstream?
I think that many of the older generation aren’t flexible enough to re-learn their wine knowledge and embrace natural wines. They’re currently the gatekeepers, and so it will take a generation before natural wine is accepted into the mainstream. But it’s already making covert headway, bottle by bottle, winning over converts. For natural wine to become fully mainstream would require a large shift in the wine retail scene, with a move away from large retailers and supermarkets to people who can better sell and store these wines. They’ll never be as cheap as more mass produced stuff, but it is in that middle ground that they could make a lot of headway.
Some critics of natural wine refuse to believe that clean wine can be made without sulphur. Are they right, or is more complicated than that? And what is clean anyway?
Great question. I have had so many clean wines made with no sulfur dioxide that I’m sure it is possible. But your second question is also good: what is a clean wine? What is a fault? What is beauty? Ultimately, the proof is in the glass, and its consumption, and then the consumption of the rest of the bottle. Some people seem to get really angry that I can enjoy a bottle of wine that they ‘know’ to be faulty!
Do you think the quality of natural/low intervention winemaking has improved in the last few years?
Yes. I think there’s a misconception: people think natural winemaking involves neglect. It doesn’t. It involves even more attention than conventional winemaking. To do nothing requires great understanding and skill.
Another analogy is that in every generation there will always be artists, musicians, dancers and writers who bend or break the rules of form, structure and offend contemporary taste. Can the natural wine phenomenon be seen in these terms or are the growers simply rediscovering a traditional craft wherein the human being is close to the material in which he or she is working?
Art builds on what went before. In this case, we are seeing something different: we are not seeing a progression of what went before in terms of winemaking, but a cultural rift; a deliberate turning away from how things are currently done. The natural way isn’t even a regression to how things were done in the past, although some participants in the scene do seem to be nostalgic for a past that probably never was. It’s a rejection of modernism, yet at the same time it’s a striving for something of greater purity and authenticity. In truth, all these streams seem to exist within the natural wine movement. It’s an organic, bottom up, self-organizing system, not a centralised movement.
There’s been pointed criticism recently of the natural wine bar culture and a concern that sommeliers will populate wine lists with exclusively natural wines. These concerns have been articulated by some of the most highly respected commentators in the wine trade. Would you say that it is an accurate representation of what goes on? Do you think people are slavishly following a perceived trend (and if so what is responsible for that trend) or do you think that the growers and their wines have spontaneously excited a new audience of drinkers and that sommeliers and wine buyers are responding accordingly?
My view of the new wine bar culture is that it is driven by people who are just very curious about interesting wine, and so as a result have many natural wines on their lists. But few are exclusively natural. I love it that the proprietors of these bars have the guts to offer people wines they are truly excited by. This is quite new in London, where so many wine lists are cynical profit centres. If I go to a great restaurant, I want the chef to serve me what she or he thinks is great food; I delight in being taken outside my comfort zone. But wine commentators are bleating like babies the first time they go to a wine bar and can’t find the sort of wines they know they like on the list. Once again: a manifestation of insecurity.
Authentic is about results, rather than process. It's a wine that rings true...an intelligent expression of its origin
FAULTS & FLAWS
There’s a lot of discussion of what constitutes faulty wine – those faults seemingly range from high VA, “cidery aromas and flavours”, brett etc. Can you make a case for faults being a point of interest or a point of singularity in a wine? And can you clarify what is the difference between a flawed wine and a faulty one?
Some faults are always faults – TCA/cork taint is one of these. Beyond this, the presence of a ‘fault’ compound such as 4EP from brettanomyces doesn’t render a wine faulty. It depends. What is beauty? Sometimes flaws help render beauty: you see the beauty more clearly because of them. Oxidative characters and volatile acidity can work beautifully in the context of some wines.
Can technical correctness be a kind of fault? In other words where the desire to eliminate faults becomes the end in itself and denatures the wine?
Yes, absolutely. The wine is a whole. Purging faults doesn’t make for beauty. To use a religious analogy, holiness is not simply the absence of sin. The puritans scrupulously avoided ‘sin’, and they weren’t much fun to hang around with, I suspect.
There’s a lot of “airy” talk about natural wines being oxidised. Where is the dividing line between oxidised and oxidative? Do you think that a lot of winemakers and commentators confuse the two? When does a stylistic tool such as controlled oxidation become a step too far? And who is qualified to arbitrate on such matters?
If you open a bottle and it deteriorates in quality over the course of a few days, it can’t already have been oxidised. As with other faults, oxidative development can be positive, it can be negative, depending on the context. The ultimate arbiter is the empty bottle.
One even hears that orange wines, for example, are synonymous with oxidation. Others don’t like the fact that the wines may possess a certain tannic structure. How do we overcome this colour prejudice? How do you challenge such ingrained distrust when so many established growers and commentators exalt the clean-skin wines as the cultural norm?
We judge with our eyes, and most people who have been through wine training associate darker-coloured whites with oxidation and assume that the wine is dead. They are frequently very wrong. We just need better wine education and more open minds.
AESTHETICS & ETHICS
What do you find intrinsically beautiful in the wines you love?
It can’t be defined. What do you find beautiful in the people you love? It’s usually complex, and the beauty lies below the surface.
Despite the greater prominence of organic and biodynamic farming industrial viticulture is widespread with the results of chemicals sprayed over vines, water tables affected by irrigation, landscapes effectively scarred by monocultural practice. Is there a case for saying that we don’t need cheap/mass-produced wine if it affects the environment adversely? Or is cheap wine necessary because it democratises wine buying?
There’s little joy in most cheap commercial wine. It might be better to live without it. I agree that there’s a need for wine for everyone to enjoy, but can’t that wine be honest? Raise yields a little, make something for early drinking. But don’t dress it up through winemaking, and make it look more serious and expensive than it is. No one expects to get great wine for a fiver, but at least we could be offered honest drinking wine, perhaps for a couple of pounds more? Perhaps less wine should be made, and if the way to make cheap wine is to damage the environment, then it’s too high a price to be paid.
Do you think the appellation systems in various countries serve the individual winemakers well? Do wine laws help or hinder? Could you suggest any improvements which balance the need of the consumer with that of the vigneron?
Appellation systems have had the positive effect of preserving regional wine styles, when fashion might have pushed them out. But, as they are, they tend to be a hindrance to many winegrowers wanting to make really special, natural, authentic wines. Why not just insist on integrity in labelling? As long as what is on the label is true, then I don’t see a problem. I would add, though, that the use of a place name on a label is an unwritten contract with the consumer. The wine should taste of where it comes from, if that is the expectation raised by the use of the place name in this way. So it’s a complex, nuanced debate.
How important is it to preserve traditional farming methods, indigenous grape varieties and age-old winemaking techniques? Is the revival of such practices a gimmick or is there a genuine cultural value to these activities?
Where the traditional farming methods, indigenous varieties and traditional winemaking techniques produce something special – something of value – then they should be cherished and preserved because they have great cultural value. In a sense, this is the good side of the appellation system. In a world of rapid change, there’s a great need for timeless cultural anchors. They are good for our souls.
Is it patronising or just misconceived for some commentators not only to criticise the life work of growers, for others to tell consumers that they are being gulled into drinking faulty wines? Do you think this approach is helpful or has it actually backfired on certain critics?
I think it makes the critics who have behaved in this way look very silly. I believe that the death of natural wines was prophesied a few years back by one. It’s really unhelpful to tell people that the food or drink they are enjoying is bad or faulty. If you think I am drinking bad wine, then suggest to me what I might enjoy more. If you despair about my preferences, then win me over with your enthusiasm for other things. ‘Natural wine’ as it is so often criticised is a straw man created by insecure people who, in many cases, haven’t tried many natural wines, but who are sure they wouldn’t like them because they are sure they are ‘faulty’.
When you mark wines are you scoring on a scale of technical merit or are you giving an impressionistic mark according to how it makes you feel?
Any attempt to use a score to reflect some objective property of a wine is crazy. I hate scores but I use them because it gives readers a clear idea of just how much I liked the wine at that particular time when I was drinking or tasting it. I am rating the interaction between me and the wine. The score is not a property of the bottle of wine. It’s my own personal feeling about the wine.
Finally, how would you describe your palate? What kind of wines do you drink for fun? Has your palate changed over the last ten years?
I have a fairly tolerant palate. I started off with new world wines back in 1993, and I’ve grown up a bit since then. I now dislike over-ripe wines, and dislike evident oak. I can’t stand high alcohol wines, unless they’re fortified! My favourite wines are elegant, light, aromatic reds – they’re my comfort wines. But I also love cool climate Syrah, such as good northern Rhone wines. I love Pinot Noir, and I’m a big fan of Oregon, New Zealand and the new more balanced Pinots from California. I have a soft spot for Douro reds, although some of them try too hard. Good Kadarka also rocks. For whites, I’m a bit more tolerant of higher alcohol, and I can handle oak better. So my preferences in whites are a bit broader. I love Alsace, Mosel Kabinett, rich Gruner Veltliner, aromatic Friuli whites, good Rhone whites, and classic white Burgundy. I’m also developing a thing for orange wines.