Nothing added, nothing taken away: Wine goes au naturel
For foodies, there was once the Naked Chef—a.k.a Jamie Oliver—and now for the wine set there is naked—or natural—wine. Culture Map caught up with wine writer, wine lover and wine expert, Alice Feiring, at Vino Vino on her recent trip to Austin promoting her second and newest book Naked Wine: Letting Grapes Do What Comes Naturally.
When writing Food & Wine Magazine’s Official Wine Guide 2001, Feiring realized she no longer liked the wines she had long loved. Her new favorites were wines from France that were naturally made. In a wine world with, which now has 200 approved wine additives, natural wines are all about getting back to basics. Natural -- or naked -- wines have “Nothing added and nothing taken away,” Feiring says. “You do all your work in the vineyard.”
Tell me about how you really got interested in wines.
There are always various stages of development, but the moment I fell in love with wine -- when I knew there was no going back -- was when my father’s mistress told me to raid her soon-to-be ex-husband’s wine cellar. I took three bottles and one of them was an 1980 Barolo that I brought back to Boston and had with a couple of friends. When I tasted it, I just couldn’t believe it. It was unlike any other wine I’d ever had. I was doing a lot of wine tasting at that point, and that was it. That is when I fell in love.
The second phase of falling in love with wine came when I started spending a lot of time in vineyards, which took it to a whole different level.
Do you remember your very first glass of wine?
Yes, a Manachevis (a kosher wine) mixed with seltzer. I was probably about three years old.
Tell me a little bit about your book, Naked Wine. Why did you write it?
In all honesty, I really thought the world could care less about a book about natural wine. When a friend, an editor of mine, told me he wanted to write a book on natural wine, I realized if anybody does a book on natural wine, it has to be me. I had been thinking about it, and I knew what I wanted to do, I just didn’t think anyone would care.
The second reason is that so many people were co-opting the word natural—because natural got to be such a big thing. I realized that, no matter what, natural is going to become a marketing tool and people are going to say on their inferior wine that it’s natural. I wanted to write a book to show people where the movement came from, so there was some historical benchmark for it.
I try to give a lot of information in a readable way so it’s not like a textbook. For better or for worse, you are going on some sort of journey with me, and some of stories are pretty funny. It has a lot of history and it’s based on me making wine in 2008 in a place that was hostile towards natural.
How do naked, natural wines relate to the local and green food movement?
I see myself in that movement of trying to get the food people who care about their food, but don’t seem to care about their wine in the same way. I don’t understand the disconnect. I’m trying to heighten that awareness and reach out to food people and say, “There are 200 approved additives that are allowed in wine today, are you sure you want them?” If they say they don’t care, that’s fine. But wines that don’t have those additives are like free-range chickens, they are just exciting.
I just don’t understand the people that care about what they put into their bodies when food is concerned, but don’t care when it comes to wine. They can make an active choice to have something that is healthier, better for them, more alive and that tastes better.
Are there significant flavor differences between natural wines and conventional wines?
Yes. A very conventional wine is marketed towards a certain taste and it’s shaped to a certain taste. A natural wine is the wine maker against the vintage and just presenting it. It’s not going to be cookie cutter, so the flavor differences depend on the vintage. It’s like breaking the fourth wall in acting—they are more alive, they aren’t thick and they don’t feel as fake. They have a wider variety of flavors.
What are some of your favorite naked wines?
Having just come back from Burgundy, the wines of Naudin-Ferrand. I love the Beaujolais from Jean Foillard, the wines from Thierry Puzelat and Dard & Ribo.
What do you think of Texas wines?
I’ve only had two Texan wines, and my favorite out of those two is certainly from Lewis Dickson (La Cruz de Comal). I think that—this isn’t going to be very popular—the best possible wines from Texas should be made with hybrids and not vininfera. It’s not your ideal wine growing climate, so you have to go with it and not have some idea of growing what does well in Europe or what you like to drink and really figure out what does best here.
It seems that we so often get stuck in the well-known varietals - Merlot, Cabernet, Chardonnay, etc. What are some of the lesser known varietals that you recommend?
Well, for example, I just came back from Burgundy because I was doing a story on Aligoté, which is one of the six grapes that you can grow in Burgundy. It is known as a grape that is really only great to make a kir [a wine cocktail made with a splash of creme de cassis]. I think it’s an extraordinary wine that is totally underrated -- people should drink more of it.
I adore Cabernet Franc; Chinon, which for some reason it has a bad wrap but I think people need to experience it; Macabeo, a white grape that I actually think would do well in Texas and is ground a lot in Spain and is pretty delicious; Trousseau, and I could keel on going.
For a wine novice, what’s the best way to start an education in wine?
The best way—even better than taking a class—is have your own tasting group. Get five people together. A blind tasting is a good way, but it’s really fun to do it region by region—all the regions from the one village in Burgundy or spend three months tasting the wines of Chinon. And then move on to Bourgon, which is right next door, and you see how the soil is different. If you care about food and wine pairings, taste a couple of wines blind at dinner and see which ones you like and go get another kind of wine that is similar. But the best way is to get together with friends, choose a theme and do it regularly -- twice a month, or even once a week.
What are some of the hottest wine trends at the moment?
Natural wine is probably the biggest wine trend right now. Wine bars are very popular around the country. And for a long time we have bought wines based on the grape and now people are going back to thinking regionally about wines.
If you could have one last glass on wine, what would it be?
It would have to be a really rare wine. I’d like to taste a 1937 anything from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. It’s a great year in Burgundy. I’ve had other ‘37s that I’ve loved and since I really do think that the land that Domaine de la Romanée-Conti farms from is exalted, I would like to see what they did.