Saturday, March 31, 2012

When the natural seems strange

The 2010 Lunotte Rossignoux is one odd bottle of wine, starting with its color, a fairly deep, almost cloudy yellow, which is not what you'd expect for a sauvignon blanc from Touraine in the Loire. There's a very light effervescence initially and a nose that's hard to place, but the tiny bubbles disappear and the smell settles into a pleasant grapefruit aroma typical of sauvignon blanc within 15 minutes. On the palate, this is the love child of muscadet and chenin blanc. On first swill it has the same bracing acidity as the former which is followed by a a subtly rich honey taste and some of the viscosity of chenin blanc. I even picked up a little juniper berry on the back end. Tasty, especially with cheese, but weird. Even weirder, a MFWC member whose tastes I thought skewed to the traditional Californian loved it.     

We had stumbled into the world of natural winemaking, that widely hyped phenomenon that turns out to be fiendishly difficult to pin down beyond the incantation of a few stock terms such as small producer, hand-harvesting, low sulfur, old barrels that together are the antithesis of the California chardonnay that your mother (OK, my mother) spent years guzzling. Definitional difficulties aside, Christophe Foucher, who produces the Lunotte, is clearly talented, and by these two descriptions a typical natural winemaker: and

Foucher has 5.5 hectacres on seven plots near Tours. He treats his vines with as little insecticide and herbicide as possible and lets grass grow on every other row of his vineyard. Foucher uses older, smaller oak barrels, and local yeasts (yeast is critical for fermentation). He stints on sulfur but allows his wines to undergo malolactic fermentation, a practice far more common in reds than whites and one that accounts for the light fizziness in the Lunotte.    

There's a lot of chemistry in the previous paragraph, and MFWC is not qualified to explain it, though he will try in the next blog post. But this is chemistry in the service of commerce, and the essential commercial point is easy to understand. To be salable, wine like any product has to be consistent and stable, especially if the wine is a mass market brand. Yellow Tail should taste the same from bottle to bottle and year to year, and it should be stable enough chemically to endure a wide range of conditions. Making such a product is a challenge, because wine is not inherently stable or consistent, but it's one that natural winemakers tend to reject because they don't want their wines to taste like everyone else's. They see winemaking as an expression of personality and geographic identity. If Yellow Tail is McDonald's or Pringles or Olive garden (or, to be fair, Chipotle or at the high end BLT Steak), then Lunotte/Foucher is the local chef who wants to use fresh ingredients and show off his creative flair.

Foucher does this affordably and well. Wine geeks can ask how he does it, while those not burdened by such pretension can simply enjoy the results.      

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