|Brian Barry, 85, one of the great Australian winemakers, watching my interview with wine scientist Ray Beckwith, who was nearly 101 when he died late last year. Beckwith spent his life fighting nature's destructive influence in wine so that subsequent generations could enjoy cleaner, more stable and healthy beverages; Barry is one who still uses Beckwith's discoveries to magnificent advantage - we last dined together at Penfolds Magill in December 2011, at the Old-timers lunch, also attended by Thelma, Max Schubert's widow ... image captured by Milton Wordley on his telephone|
The first labeled ones I encountered came from McLaren Flat, where the late Gabor Barenyi made them in the old Hungarian style in the ’seventies. I recall his white, which was orange but called Gold. His rosé was brown. Sometimes I swore they had polka dots. He recommended that they be drunk cut half-and-half with soda, as they were extremely alcoholic, which he thought protected them from spoilage. He had a red fortified to 29 per cent alcohol. I had a friend who habitually necked them from the bottle and boasted that they never gave him hangovers.
“No chemicals,” he’d say, unaware that all wine was composed entirely of chemicals, not to mention the ethanol he craved.
Gabor himself was on the record saying “You won’t get any headaches from my wine. You can drink beer or anything else after them and wake up clear-headed in the morning.”
They never gave me hangovers. They never got a chance. They had all the loveliness inherent in natural biological acitivity: volatile acidity, aldehyde, rampant bacterial business ... I could tell there was something extremely natural going down, especially when I compared them to the crisp fresh brightness of the sorts of whites Colin Gramp had invented at Orlando, or the brilliance of the Leo Buring Rieslings John Vickery made from Clare and Eden Valley fruit.
On the other hand, I’d observed unlabelled red ones many years before in my father’s little church. Believing the world’s most famous winemaker - after Maynard James Keenan - was a teetotaler, he preached that the wine referred to in the Bible was in fact unfermented grape juice, which is what he attempted to share with his faithful congregation as a symbol of their God’s blood each week at communion.
The thought of natural grape juice staying fresh in the Holy Land 2000 years before the invention of the fridge was anathema to little Whitey. But even the Old Man’s grape juice wasn’t natural for long. Granny Davis was the God’s blood monitor. She’d get red grape juice, boil it, and sometimes blast it with saltpetre to prevent it from fermenting in all those little glasses in the blistering Mallee summer. She used saltpetre, or potassium nitrate, because it was the preservative which kept the pink colour in her corned beef. Maybe she felt it would maintain the hæmoglobin count in the Lord’s vinous blood; only he knows what her damned saltpetre did to his veinous yeast. We had a nerd in the congregation who reckoned the nitrogen in it fed the Candida strain. I’ll never know whether it was Candida in those glasses, but the battle between God and the Devil was usually well underway by the time the blood was drunk: I could see it fizzing.
There’s not much difference between rotting and fermentation: in both cases tiny critters and perfectly natural chemicals eat the stuff under consideration and make something else from it. If the result is really bad for you, it’s considered rotten. If it’s not so bad, and is, say, merely ethanol, we instead say it’s fermented. As if ethanol was harmless.
Regardless of this micronit-picking, this is why the Romans used red lead to stop their fermented grape juice from going rotten. It made the wines seem sweeter, heavier in the krater, and killed whatever lived in them, like residual yeast and bacteria. But red lead is so poisonous it makes people go crazy awhile and then it kills them, too. This was one of the reasons for the Caesars of Christ’s time being abject nutters: you wouldn’t want to do too much accubating on the divans of Nero, Caligula or Claudius.
|Caligula: a right nutter!|
So they invented the use of sulphur as a general bug killer, added that instead, and tended not to marry quite so many horses or make senators of them.
While the natural wine movement is driven by folks who like to plunge backwards through time to the pre horse wedding days when everything was pristine and wines had no added preservative at all, the general quality of the wines they make today indicates that some of them are stuck dangerously in the middle.
Once they’ve replaced the vineyard tractor with a perfectly natural draft horse they’ll have to face the possibility that their beloved hayburner may need some shoeing, footware which, being made from a metal which is dug from the ground, must be as unnatural as sulphur and lead. These are dug out too,
Which leads me to the slightly more sophisticated marketing arm of the naturalists: the frigging amphora. Many natural wines are made by squashing grapes, letting them ferment, straining the result, or decanting the best bit off the top, and bottling it. Or storing it in a bucket or carboy or something. But the latest fad is amphoræ. Fair dinkum. Amphoræ.
Everybody’s suddenly making natural wines in amphoræ. My mate Julian Castagna uses huge egg-shaped concrete fermenters he sometimes calls amphoræ to make delicious biodynamic wine, but he wouldn’t call it natural in the way the natural wine movement insists things must be natural. Instead, he suggests there’s a natural movement in the form of a gentle current which occurs in the wine stored in such vessels, minimizing the need for intrusive and violent stirring and pumpovers.
As his big concrete eggs are quite thick, they obviously offer a certain degree of insulation, too, and as concrete is porous, there’s probably a small degree of evaporation occurring on their outer skin, keeping things cool. After such fanatical attention to detail, Castagna sensibly stabilizes his wines before bottling by adding a minimal amount of sulphur.
|Tarandsud, the French master coopers, will sell you an amphora-shaped barrel for $45,000, boasting of its natural lees circulation capacities|
These bland, confected wines are as easily recognized as the worst of the naturals. While they’re basically sanitary, and make up the majority of what’s on our shelves, they have nothing on the sorts of beautiful, responsibly-made wines that I slave away to isolate and recommend.
As inanimate storage vessels, amphoræ don’t begin to deserve the ridicule the natural winers have brought them. They’re no more responsible for the advent of today’s worst natural wine than they were for the madness of the Caesars.
But the most interesting aspect of natural wine is the vivid proof it offers that many people who consider themselves to be connoisseurs and aficionados seem happy to threaten the livelihoods of the makers of wines which burst with the signs of maximum love and care of both environment and customer but who can guarantee their wines will not quickly become unstable, or really horrible, in the bottle.
There IS hope, however. When I asked my naturist whether she would accept a transfusion of blood which had been kept naturally in an amphora for a year or so, she said no.