It’s a shame that winter is finally coming to an end, because over at the Spectator, Bruce Palling has served up something so white and crusty it’s practically begging to be smothered in butter and dunked into a soothing bowl of leek and potato soup.
It’s about natural wine, and – surprise! – he doesn’t like it one butt. That might even be undercooking things a little. He in fact disparages it as (deep breath) “absurd”, “riddled with imperfections”, “likely to spoil”, full of “innate faults” which grow only “more obvious” over time, a product that “goes into a steady decline after a few months”, a “proper cult”, “ghastly”, “skeletal”, “lean”, “mean” and (finally, by extension) “repugnant”. Jumping on this bandwagon, Jonathan Downey – he's the guy who opened Milk & Honey, so he knows a thing or two about overrated drinks – then retweeted the column, adding a kicker of his own: “Too many of our best young chefs are captivated by the cult of ‘natural’ wine. It’s bullshit boys.”
Running into natural wine is an occupational hazard of wanking around at the fag ends of London in search of #lit new openings, and I’ve got to be entirely honest: I’ve had some truly miserable experiences with it. Palling’s criticisms hold true for many of the worst offenders – a barnyardy spoiled ciderish vibe with the reds, whites that stop dead as soon as they hit your palate.
But I can’t bring myself to dismiss the category entirely. People harp on about the inaccuracy or unhelpfulness of the word natural, but it’s actually wine that causes the problem – we all have such well-defined expectations of what some old grape juice will taste like that when something sharing the name but few other identifiable characteristics comes along it knocks us for a loop. Adjust your expectations – as you would when switching from Strongbow to cider from the Basque country – and some interesting things can happen. Just the other night I had an exquisite chunk of featherblade at Primeur. Tradition would dictate a silky claret – might I recommend the 2011 Clos du Jaugueyron, which is drinking exceptionally at the moment? – but I ended up with something brackish from the Jura. It had that familiar musky natural wine nose, but the taste was extraordinary: incredibly savoury, drier than Fino, almost ferrous in its minerality. It was an astonishing companion to the beef, bringing out notes in both food and wine that I’d never previously even thought to notice. I was fascinated.
At its best, this is what natural wine can do: totally reconfigure your palate, how you approach the question of what works well with what. At its worst – sure, it’s terrible, homogenously unpleasant, food’s worst enemy. But do you know what? You can make the same argument for “normal” wine too. When I lived in California, I eventually stopped ordering red wine in restaurants altogether, so fed up did I become paying 50 bucks (plus tax and 900% service) for inky 16% bruisers overextracted beyond blackberry jam to appease Bob Parker’s monstrous appetite.
I think variety is good. Part of the struggle of emerging into the world of grown-ass adults is realising that not everyone considers this axiomatic and that this leads to weird blind spots: perhaps the most paradoxical component of Palling’s argument is that it decries the “certain sameyness” of natural wines while writing them off entirely, conscripting him to a life of drinking that has just become a little bit more samey itself.
I’m not trying to police tastes; I wholeheartedly agree with the notion that people should drink whatever they prefer. But I don’t like the implication that this stuff doesn’t belong in high-end restaurants, that the brilliant young chefs patronisingly denigrated by Downey as “boys” should wise up and get back on the Romanée-Conti. Natural wine is ideology in a bottle: do you want to take risks, to expose yourself to vicissitudes of fate – or do you want to embrace comfort, what you know, no surprises? One of those approaches is more likely than the other to result in great steps forward, in stuff that genuinely pushes the envelope. Much like the old guard who cocked a snook at nouvelle cuisine, or Ferran Adrià’s provocations in the early 2000s – movements which also had their own horrendous lows to go with the highs – Palling and Downey are entirely entitled to their opinion. But in expressing it in such sweeping terms they risk ending up looking like a bad bottle of plonk: tasteless, and tired, and on the wrong side of history.