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Is Natural Wine Spoofy?

Spoofy wine. You have probably heard the term. If not, a quick 101; the term ‘spoofulated’ or ‘spoofy’ seems to have come out of the East-Coast US wine scene (although I welcome corrections on this – it’s not as if I have spent time researching the etymology) and is on occasion used to describe wines that are made in an overly slick, international style. There’s no definition of what it is that makes a wine spoofy, but a few typical features might be a long hang-time (giving over-ripe and indistinct flavours, sweetness and low acidities), cold maceration (giving a slick presence of fruit and plenty of well-fixed colour – at least that’s my take on it), and plenty of new oak (to tart it up). Of course, one person’s tarted up wine might be another persons nirvana, so from that point of view it isn’t a term I have ever used (before now, anyway). Such wines naturally deserve critique, but to me the term ‘spoofy’ always seemed to be imbued with more than a hint of derision, not just for the wines but also for those who drink them.

Spoofy wines are ‘wines of process’; they aren’t so much about the the fruit, they are more about the winemaking, about the technique. Spoofy wines hide their origins; taste a spoofy wine from St Emilion and it doesn’t speak of the terroir, whether it be sandy (I have to confess when thinking of the style certain sandy-terroir St Emilions spring to mind first) or from the clay or limestone of the plateau and côtes (I can certainly think of one or two here as well). What you get is jammy and ill-defined fruit, sweet oak, the whole package polished to a state of ambiguity.

What is the antithesis to spoofy wine? Natural wine is surely the answer, wines that are ‘honest’, some would say ‘authentic’ or ‘real’, or some similarly indefinable term.

The word ‘natural’, when applied to wine, is imbued not with derision, but with superiority. Our wines are natural, ergo yours are unnatural. The term is no less challenging to define than ‘spoofy’, so I’m not even going to try, but ‘natural’ wines do tend to follow a schema in the same manner as spoofy wines, although here it is nothing to do with hang-time or oak. Instead, the important aspects of the fermentation are the negatives; no enzymes to clarify the juice; no manipulations with added acid, tannin, colour or similar; no preservatives, most notably no sulphur dioxide. There are some positive rather than negative correlations though, the most notable of which would have to be the widespread use of novel fermentation vessels. There is, apparently, nothing more ‘natural’ than a wine fermented in qvevri, amphorae or a concrete eggs. Another correlation is extended skin contact, in some whites, giving us orange wines.

However you look at it, ‘natural’ wines are also ‘wines of process’. Even though much of the winemaking schema is about what the winemaker shouldn’t do, as opposed to what he/she should do, there is to my mind an undeniable dogma to it. Even though the original intention may well be to let the wine express its origins without manipulation, as a consequence of following this dogma many ‘natural’ wines I have encountered do not achieve this stated aim, and instead they display characteristics reflecting the winemaking process, obscuring the origins of the wine. This isn’t true of all ‘natural’ wines of course, an example that ticks all my boxes being the 2012 La Lune from Mark Angeli, a wine which sings so clearly of Chenin Blanc and schist. But so many fall short of achieving this. Instead, their origins are obscured by features such as oxidation (the most common problem), refermentation, Brettanomyces or other funk, all of which are direct consequences of the winemaking dogma. Indeed, these are the ‘natural’ wine equivalents of the slick texture, ill-defined fruit flavours and the new-oak vanilla and toast we find in spoofy wine. Therefore, is it not true to say that the two wines are fundamentally the same; whether ‘natural’ or ‘spoofy’, are both not basically process-driven wines that fail to speak of their origins?

Was that Natural Wine Week?

So this week should have been coined Natural Wine Week perhaps? I spent Monday at the RAW Wine Fair, a smorgasbord of natural wines gathered together by Isabelle Legeron MW, and Tuesday at the Real Wine Fair, where Doug Wregg was holding court. Much has been made of the existence of two fairs with such similar themes, held on the same few days, seemingly dividing the world of natural wine down the middle. You know the old adage, divide and conquer? Or maybe, divide and be conquered, in this case? It seemed to many as though the world of natural wine was about to shoot itself in the foot.

As it happens, I don’t think that was the case at all. For a start, it seems as though there are plenty of natural wines to go around, and plenty of winemakers ready to pour and talk about these wines, more than enough to fill two such fairs. In the end, although some who would rather promulgate the romance and mysticism of natural wine (or real wine, or whatever you want to call it) might not like to admit it, where the diving line between the fairs was drawn reflected the fact that, no matter what your methods and philosophies are, natural wine is still a product that needs to be commercialised and sold. The Real Wine Fair was, naturally, stuffed to the gills with producers who sell their wines through Les Caves de Pyrène. Whereas at RAW there were a host of individuals and domaines associated with other UK merchants, including Aubert & Mascoli, outspoken advocates of natural wine, and others new to me such as Wine Story, run by Thibault Lavergne who I met on the day, or Dynamic Vines. That just about sums it up. The ‘battle’ between the two ‘rival’ fairs was overplayed and excessively talked up by some, I think.

Second, if the two fairs continue as separate entities (as I suspect they will – both seem to have been sufficiently well attended to justify repeat performances next year), I hope they continue to ‘clash’ in the manner that they did this year, partly for selfish reasons, partly for the good of the fairs. Separating out events such as these may well be fine for local Londoners and those who live just a short distance from the capital, so if those are the customers and clients you care about go right ahead and hold the fairs on separate weekends, in separate months even. But as we saw with this year’s Salon and Renaissance tastings in the Loire (which are usually sequential, one Saturday-Sunday, one Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday, but this year the Salon was a week later than usual) visitor numbers may well fall as a result. For me, two days tasting in London was a viable proposition, even though it meant two four-hour train journeys (and the first, thanks to technical problems, stretched out to seven hours), because what the two fairs offered (in terms of exposure to the wines of the Loire) was worth it. But I find to do all that for one day’s tasting is increasingly too exhausting, and also expensive. Might I choose to come to just one of the fairs if they were held at very different times? Perhaps, tiring as that would be. Would I come to both, travelling twice to do so? No. And I’m sure I wouldn’t be alone in that; there were attendees at these fairs from far afield, including some international travellers. The two fairs together could become a star attraction in the tasting calendar.

So I hope organisers of both RAW and Real liaise with one another over next year’s fairs, realising – as I hope InterLoire have realised (Virginie Joly told me the 2013 Salon des Vins de Loire has moved back to its usual slot, and will thus follow on from the Renaissance tasting) – that it is better to co-ordinate and co-operate, for mutual benefit and for the good of all potential visitors, than it is to try and best one another, or disrupt the other’s activities.