Natural Wine and the Question of Perfection

Susucaru Rosso is generous to a degree you would never expect from a stranger. After screwing off the cork, the scent of raspberries rises from the bottle’s mouth. In the sunlight, the clear-glass bottle shines like rubies, and in the shade, it’s a brooding, bloody red. The first sip reminds me of the first bite into a gala apple. A few sips in, rainier cherries and cranberries swirl on the tongue, and a flinty dry after-taste pokes its head through the fruit and acid like a shy guest chiming into the conversation at a party. As Frank Cornelissen’s “entry-level” red wine, it’s hard not to love it and to feel loved while drinking it. The flavor profile is so harmonious, hitting almost every point on my mental scorecard, it’s nearly perfect.

Susucaru Rossos 2018

Is it fair to call it nearly perfect, when perfect, in this case, is just another word for “balanced”? 

In the conventional wine world, “perfection,” and the wines which attract perfect scores by critics, have long been associated with a handful of characteristics: concentrated grapes, high alcohol level, oak-aged, bottled to last for years in a cellar. Far from possessing these qualities, most natural wine is so unlike this “perfect” wine, it’s like natural winemakers set out to make something esteemed sommeliers would immediately spit out on the table. 

The rise of natural wine and its legion of devoted fans, who skew on the younger side, signals a change in the winds, a generational pivot away from “perfection” and embrace of imperfection. There is a greater appetite for weirdness in the air. Patrick Desplats’ “Vent y Tourne” and Cascina ‘Tavijn’s “Ottavio” are as strange as they are delicious; their imperfections are what make them interesting, unforgettable. Newly popular natural winemakers, like Austria’s Meinklang and Mexico’s Bichi, create wines diametrically opposed to the kind of “perfect” bottles revered by Robert Parker, the famous wine critic of yesteryear. Meinklang’s popular frizzante rosé tastes like a strong can of Recess, and Bichi, well, nobody knows what grapes are even in his wines! 

With such a glaring discrepancy between the old-guard idea of perfection and what is ideal now among a swath of new drinkers shows how unreliable the terminology is for describing wine. What is perfect has always been subjective. 

So, we can define perfection on our own terms.

For me, perfection is the quality of having balance, and as a characteristic, it’s not necessarily better or worse than other qualities. I don’t only want balanced wines. How boring would that be?Susucaru Rosso under light

Sometimes, though, I crave a wine that is easy, guaranteed to please. Susucaru Rosso is just that. While its price is a bit on the higher end of the typical dollar range for natural wine — around $30 — it is worth spending on, and it lives up to its hype.

I can recommend other well-balanced red wines. In France’s Jura region, Stéphane Tissot and Domaine de la Tournelle bottle blends and varietal wines using Trousseau and Ploussard that are bright and juicy, yet structured. They hit a sweet spot of fruit and acidity and have enough of a backbone to pair well with steak or other heavy foods. I’ve tried Tissot’s DD, Tournelle’s L’ Uva, and adored them both. 

  • Producer: Frank Cornelissen
  • Grape varieties: Field blend, roughly 85% Nerello Mascalese
  • Region: Sicily
  • Country: Italy
  • Taste words: Cranberries, raspberries, apples, flint, squeezed lemon wedge
  • Apples and cranberries roll around in a pile of ash, then get concentrated into a zesty juice to drink on summer nights.

The Price for Surprise

Long before I first tried natural wine, my dad introduced me to the kind of wine that he loved. We liked to eat at a neighborhood steakhouse on special occasions, located a few minutes away from his house in the Bay Area suburbs. It was the only fancy place in town. Seated at a table set with sparkling silverware and napkins folded into pyramids, he would order a bottle of red wine from the waiter, usually a Napa Valley Cabernet, usually something around $100. 

Swishing the wine in his glass, he would study the color, stick his nose into it and sniff, and then scrutinize the glass, watching for “legs,” the tear streaks formed along the glass bulb by wine droplets. “A good wine has good legs,” he would say, a nugget of wisdom he had gleaned from a community college “wine appreciation” class in the early 90s.

“But how would you know it’s a good wine from reading the menu?” I would ask, cluelessly scanning over the wine list’s nonsensical ordering of proper nouns. 

“Well, the older the better,” he would say. “But also, like most things you buy, the higher the price, the better the quality.” 

So for years, I assumed “good wine” is always expensive, a luxury, and by extension, elitist. I opted for the toxic sludge bottled from factory vineyards at corner stores for six dollars. 

Once I discovered natural wine a year and a half ago, I learned my dad’s metric didn’t really apply anymore, at least not to the stuff I drink now. 

The “price to quality” ratio is not as clear-cut when it comes to natural wine as it seems with conventional, non-natural wine.

When you go to your local, natural wine-focused shop, you’ll see most bottles are neither cheap nor prohibitively expensive. From what I’ve seen in New York, while the cheapest bottles are around $14, the vast majority of natural wine retails between $18 and $40. (Of course some bottles by hyped-up winemakers, like Frank Cornelissen, sell for hundreds of dollars, but that’s the special stuff for diehards). Based purely off of my own observations, I would say the bell curve peaks around $25. Most well-known natural winemakers sell their most bottled cuvée (a “batch” of wine, basically) at around this price. 

What’s tricky is, the dollar amount you see on the shelf will not help you figure out whether you will like the wine or not. Wines that are acidic, fruity, light, big, bone-dry, perfumey, fresh, flawed or clean can fall within the $18 to $40 range. And when it comes to flawed versus clean wines, well, I can say from experience that it is possible to spend $35 on a wine you expect to like because you’ve tried the winemaker before, or it’s from a region you’re interested in, but after the first sip, you discover it tastes a little too much like reduced balsamic vinaigrette and wonder whether the wine is cooked, too young, or just “tastes like that.” 

What’s exciting about buying natural wine is also what can make it frustrating: you can’t predict what you’re going to get, let alone whether you will like it or not, based on how much you pay. Oftentimes, I spend up to $30 to be surprised. 

The sense of discovery inherent to trying a new natural wine does not inherently work in ones favor. It creates friction for casual newcomers. On the one hand, natural wine is accessible. Much of it is juicier, lighter, leaner, easier to drink, less likely to give a hangover. Some pet-nat’s, like the affordably priced sparkling wines by Costadilla, taste like fizzy, tart peach juice with a kick. But it’s also inaccessible, especially for those with little disposable income. When first getting into it, natural wine may seem like a black box with a moderately high price tag. After all, outside of France, and they only defined it earlier this year, the industry lacks a defined standard to what is and isn’t “natural.” This can confuse shoppers who find themselves surrounded by bottles with quirky label designs in a wine shop with no idea what to look for. At face value, twenty dollars is a lot for something you plan to drink without knowing how it will taste.

So how do you buy natural wine on a budget or without feeling like you may get ripped off by an expensive bottle you don’t like? Well, you can ask the wine shop salesperson what they like, assuming they have tasted enough of what’s on the shelves and your palette agrees with theirs.

If you know what importers you’ve bought from before, turn the cheaper bottles in the shop around and see if the distributor label looks familiar to you. Personally, I gravitate towards wines purveyed by Zev Rovine Selections, Terrell Wines, Scuola di Vino, and Louis/Dressner.

Or, just brace yourself for the unknown…

When Wine Is Out of Control

Vent y Tourne means “the wind turns.” The phrase, a clunky translation from French, is beguiling enough for a thousand words. 

Literally, “the wind turns” describes a change in the weather, while metaphorically, the phrase speaks to the nature of our uncontrollable universe. If you know which way the wind blows, then you know if you can anticipate a situation. When the wind turns, you may not know what’s going to happen next.

Patrick Desplats’ Vent y Tourne, a red blend of who-knows-what grapes, hails from the Loire Valley. In Loire, lots of winemakers make “field blends” by throwing whatever grapes grow in a vineyard together to see what they make of it. The method may seem ridiculous for wine-drinkers who fetishize grape varieties, believing certain kinds prevail over others, and it may perplex those who want to know exactly what wine it is they are drinking. I mean, why wouldn’t you want to know? 

Patrick Desplats Vent y Tourne on table

When I first bought Vent y Tourne, I wanted to know what was in it. The label looked like it was photoshopped in MS Paint by a high school student in 2005. “Vin de france” is printed on the label’s top right, and on the bottom left, Patrick Desplats’ name shows in small lettering next to the hyper-specific 11.8% ABV marker. That’s all the wine tells me about itself. A Google search was hardly more illuminating. One site said it is a blend of Gamay, Pineau d’Aunis, and Cabernet Sauvignon, while other sites described it as a “rare red blend.” I asked a restaurant owner who sells Vent y Tourne what’s in it. He said it contains several grapes and has no idea what they are. Patrick Desplats has almost no internet presence, so I can’t look him up myself.

Enjoying a field blend like Vent y Tourne, much like making one, requires you to let go of the part of yourself that wants all of the answers, that feels compelled to classify and control your destiny. 

So, I tasted Vent y Tourne with the idea that I was drinking “wine” and not a specific wine. I had never tasted such contained chaos before. The first sip bursted in my mouth with an assault of tannins, charcoal, and bitter raspberries. Then, most of the tannins disintegrated, like water dissolving on lava-hot pavement, leaving a film of sweet and bitter flavors on my tongue. It was like popping a tiny water balloon in my mouth. Despite all of this, the wine drank light. It was nothing like the kind of dry, jammy bombs you encounter in some Bordeaux blends, in which the tannins stick to your gums like glue. Vent y Tourne somehow managed to be easy to drink and explosive at the same time. Quite a feat. And what I loved most about it was the moment I first swished a sip of the wine into my mouth — that meteor crash of bitter and sweet, which ends so suddenly, like a moment passing by. 

All of this is to say, the flavor profile of the wine matches its name. While the phrase, “the wind turns,” describes a moment of uncontrollable elements in a state of movement, the wine, Vent y Tourne, is the product of uncontrolled winemaking, of throwing who-knows-what grapes together. When I drank it, every sip tasted alive and active, like when a geyser erupts, or when the wind turns. 

Did Desplats intend for the wine to taste like this? Or is it simply a product of the elements: soil, sun, rain, wind, and yeast? This unknown wine asks more questions than it answers.

I often wonder how much of my life is the result of circumstances I couldn’t control. I appreciate a wine that wonders the same.

  • Producer: Patrick Desplats
  • Grape varieties: No idea…it’s a field blend.
  • Region: Loire Valley
  • Country: France
  • Taste words: Raspberries, blackberries, charcoal, pencil shavings, tannins, explosive
  • A water balloon pops in your mouth.

The Life and Times of “Daddy Wine”

Ottavio tasted like a risk. Bottled by CascinaTavijn’s Nadia Verrua, a winemaker based in Piedmont, Italy, the wine reminded me of a mixed-media painting in which all of the materials laid out on the canvas just barely come together to form a single image: a mess that somehow works.

The first sip prickled my mouth. It was so dry, the wine sucked the moisture out of my tongue like I had flipped the switch on a vacuum hose placed between my lips. A combination of raspberries, apple cider vinegar, and cherries peeked through the tannins, but the rugged texture prevailed over the fruit and acidity. It made my mouth thirsty, like I had just walked for a mile in the desert. You would think a wine so robust would be heavy, with a deep, dark crimson complexion, but it drank light, appearing ruby pink in the glass.  While drinking through the bottle, fruitiness muscled its way onto my palette. By the last sip, the disparate elements of the wine seemed to finally find balance.

Cascina 'Tavijn Ottavio

Ottavio’s mixture of extremes, the mouthful of red fruit and bone-dry tannins, made for a head-turning taste and tactile experience, but the wine seemed, to me, like a haphazard success, a risk that paid off by a stroke of luck, not by design. 

Verrua made Ottavio with Grignolino, a grape planted and appreciated in Piedmont and almost nowhere else. I had never tasted something like it before, and I loved it so much I bought Ottavio again to bring to a party. One of my friends dubbed it “daddy wine” because Verrua named the wine after her dad — the name has stuck!

Then, throughout five months I continued to buy Ottavio and gave it to friends or drank it at home. I bought one bottle to store and open on a rainy day. Cascina ‘Tavijn’s other wines appeared at Irving Bottle (my nearby wine store) and I tried a few of them — Bandita, a bold and fruit-forward Barbera; 68, an easy-drinking blend of Barbera and Ruché grapes; and, Teresa, a heavy wine with Ruché grapes that reminded me of Robitussin and black currants. 

I opened my “rainy day” Ottavio, finally, six months after first trying it and a few months after trying many other wines, and I was disappointed. The fullness I picked up on when I first tried it in the summer had dissipated. No more of that pulverizing dryness. It still had a rough backbone, tannins and an equal measure of acidity, but cheerful fruit flavors dominated the first sip and the last. It was less aggressive, more like a table wine you could chug down with ease. I still enjoyed it; it was delicious, but different, not the Ottavio that smacked me six months ago.

All of this led me to a conundrum. Did the wine change or did I change? The Ottavio I tried in the summer, six months ago, went bad if I didn’t drink it by the end of the night. Did the wine stabilize? I also drank, like, dozens of different wines since first opening it, so maybe my tongue had grown wiser over time. Maybe I was just bored of it. Or, maybe, what I had loved about it initially were actually all of its flaws, and what I drank most recently was Ottavio the way it was meant to be, after it had aged and had become “ready to drink.” An old school sommelier would probably say the Ottavio from the summer was so full of flaws, it was the epitome of “garbage” natural wine. 

What’s most likely is the wine changed, and my palette changed, too, and it was time for me to move on. Whatever the case, I’ve lost interest in drinking Ottavio again, but my experience with it over the course of a half-year seems emblematic of what it’s like getting into natural wine. 

I would recommend daddy wine to anyone.

  • Producer: Cascina ‘Tavijn
  • Grape varieties: Grignolino
  • Region: Piedmont
  • Country: Italy
  • Taste words: Raspberries, roses, bitter cherries, apple cider vinegar, dry dry dry, changeable
  • A temperamental, enigmatic father figure who goes on time out for a few months and comes back changed into a cheerful, decidedly more easy-going guy.

Cherries in a Leather Jacket

Pācina’s “Il Secondo” is bloody fruit splattered on black leather. If it were music, it would be Black Sabbath. Every sip is a study of contrasts. Strawberries intermingle with gasoline. Elegance flirts with chaos. At first the wine quakes in your mouth with such animated, angry effervescence, it’s like the screams of a death metal band, but then the texture softens to fine leather, and it feels like velvet is coating your tongue. 

Although the wine may seem haphazard, “Il Secondo” is the work of experts, a third-generation winemaker family who grow and bottle Sangiovese in the center of the Chianti appellation of Tuscany, Italy. 

A Chianti is the kind of wine ordered at expensive Italian restaurants by middle-aged suburban couples who did cocaine in the 1980s and listen to Fleetwood Mac on plush Chesterfield sofas. Chiantis had a fabulous public relations campaign in America 30 years ago, when fancy pasta restaurants displayed the wines in straw-wrapped bottles, called fiascos, on their shelves, and Hannibal Lector said he ate someone’s organs paired with “the finest Chianti” in Silence of the Lambs

“Il Secondo” doesn’t taste like that kind of Chianti. Those Chiantis have strawberry and cherry tart tones, but they lack of liveliness of Pācina’s wine. Pācina doesn’t have the “Chianti” appellation stamp because they opt out of following the designation’s rules, and yet, Pācina has made wine in the region since the 1960s, and their estate dates back to 900 AD. You can’t say their wine doesn’t have a sense of place because they’ve been in the place for over a thousand years. It has energy and a personality of its own. It’s not “Chianti;” it’s “Pācina.” 

My appreciation for “Il Secondo” is also rooted in some nostalgia. Although the wine’s strawberry, cherry, and smoky flavors loom largest on the palate, the gasoline and leather hints swirling in the mix make me remember something from my childhood. 

My mother used to drive an orange Volkswagen beetle that smelled like an old gas station. Its stick shift was a chrome rod with a black bulb on top. The car’s metal interior was scuffed, its glossy shine long worn out. CD case stickers for The Beatles, Smashing Pumpkins, Radiohead, and Tool covered the glove compartment. I was too short to look out the window, and my small body swayed and shook with the car as it bumped down the highway. I would sometimes fall asleep with my mouth open on the car’s leather seats and wake up with my face wet from drool, a toxic taste in my mouth. 

I remembered falling asleep in my mother’s Volkswagen and waking up, tasting the car, when I sipped “Il Secondo” for the first time. I suppose this doesn’t read like the most flattering way to describe a wine. “It tasted like an old car.” But I love the warmth I feel in my body when I think about the endless road trips in my mother’s ridiculous, orange Volkswagen. 

When wine is unpredictable, when the first sip confounds my expectations, and its flavors reach beyond the typical boundaries of fruit and spice, it helps me recall sensory experiences I had long forgotten. 

  • Producer: Pācina
  • Grape varieties: Sangiovese
  • Region: Tuscany
  • Country: Italy
  • Taste words: Strawberries, cherries, tart, leather, smoke, tar, gasoline, effervescent, unhinged
  • A pissed-off gothic princess on prom night serves her friends a strawberry tart from Hell.