In beginning a Wine Weblog for Elf, it is only natural to begin with my personal take on the question we all seem to have to answer these days: “What exactly is natural wine?”
In some ways I think the category of “natural wine” is an unfair one as it is definitively what wine has been for thousands of years. So in answering the question “What is natural wine?” I would respond with another question: “What exactly is wine?”
Wine is the fermented alcoholic product of grapes, pure and simple. This is exactly what natural wine is. One ingredient that man chooses and one ingredient that nature chooses (yeast). And so I think it unfair that contemporary practices of micro-oxygenating, adding cultivated yeasts for certain flavor effects, acidifying, chapitalizing (which is adding purified sugar to the wine juice prior to fermentation to boost alcohol and body), adding wood chips, adding chemical preservatives or any of the 200 other permitted ingredients to wine should be central to what our understanding of wine is today. Commercial, industrial wine should have to have a qualifier in its title, not so-called “natural” wine. So from now on, in this blog, I will refer to industrial wine as exactly that and to “natural” wine as simply “wine”.
I would like to begin this weblog also by featuring a winemaker that we have been loving here at Elf, who comes from the bucolic and stubbornly simple Mediterranean island of Sardinia. The winemaker promotes his own wine with a label on the back that finishes, “Sorry but we don’t follow the market, we produce wines we like, wines from our culture. They are what they are and not what you want them to be.” And that is exactly why they are exactly what I do want them to be!
I drink wine to experience something new every time. I do not want predictable, always perfectly balanced wines that always just end up tasting, well, like wine. I want to be surprised and confused. I want the wine lexicon to escape me and to just fall into the glass a happy prisoner of its mystery. A great wine for me should be somewhere between Rumi and Borges, mystical and labyrinthine, without a solution or the ability to categorize it. It should lead to a feeling and not a series of tasting notes. It should be an experience, and if we’re lucky, one which makes us feel in the presence of something divine, whether that divinity feels like the Sistine Chapel or a voodoo ceremony.
And so eschewing all tasting notes and labels, I will go on to describe with these paltry and vulgar words a couple of wines from Tenute Dettori from their farm Badde Nigolosu. Now, I should say, these are wines made by farmers, they are rustic and unabashed. They are autocthonic and unapologetic and come from an incredibly unique place in the world that has not been as touched by global tastes as say our friends have in Bordeaux.
The 2013 Dettori Bianco (Vermentino) is cloudy as a witches cauldron. In fact, the first time I enjoyed it in my home, there was some light shining through it from my film projector and I could see a swirl in it that looked like a little galaxy (and this was only my first glass of the night, so don’t get any ideas)! It had honeysuckle and copper on the nose and a touch of the sheep that must herd around the vines, giving off their waste material as a source of warm and perfect life to the soil. The fruit is elusive and I will just call it cantaloupe for now, and a layered and mineral acidity follows the honeyed texture beautifully. This is a wine that has parts to it and it shows its seams. Instead of a smooth narrative arc, it walks up and down a stony path. I should mention that this is an “orange” wine that sees some time on the skins, so it also expresses some tannin, which makes it ideal pairing for heartier fare.
And while you can tell that I have been deeply inspired by their orange wine, the 2006 Dettori Tenores (Cannonau) is such a thing of beauty, it makes my tear ducts begin to swell. Coming in at 16% alcohol (I rarely drink this high of an octane in a wine) and made with a grape that is genetically related to Grenache you would expect it to be a monster of a thing, hardly drinkable for its fullness and force. It is just the opposite. The body is ethereal and enigmatic, even light. I should say the first time I had the pleasure of this bottle of wine was with my boss at Elf very late and a couple bottles into the night already. I felt badly about opening this beautiful bottle with my taste buds so thoroughly compromised by this point but we were less inhibited by then and my guilt was easily swayed by the opportunity. In order to make sure the wine was appropriately enjoyed, I suggested that we walk around the block while enjoying it under the full moon. This is exactly how this wine should be enjoyed: outside, preferably with no shoes on in conversation with and basking in some heavenly globe as our ancestors have done so long before even the automobile existed. It is something that goes back in time, through history. This is why I love wine: it gives us the opportunity to travel in time and space. Spicy, raspberries, ethereal, beautiful bricking of the color on the rim, almost browning, I would say. Lot of sediment so its good to decant. It’s been waiting in the bottle for seven years, so it’ll want to breathe when it awakens. Though this is not for the unadventurous. If you want a Napa Cab, you should stick to that, I’ll be flopping around on the ground frothing at the mouth for some corner of the world of wine where I can take a dirt bath and eat fresh sheep cheese while in the presence of the wooly producer (the actual sheep that is).