It’s not often that you get the chance to travel backwards or forward in time, so I’m still in a state of some shock at the 30-year leap into the past that I took on the first of the two days of the third RAW wine fair, London’s annual gathering of “natural”, low- and non-sulphored and low-intervention wines. Back in the 1980s, most wine tastings I attended were minefields in which a line-up of bottles would usually include some that were delicious and several that were more or less disgusting. When Charles Metcalfe and I ran the earliest International Wine Challenges (IWC), we came up with shorthand terms for these efforts. These included NTBTI – Not To Be Taken Internally – and DNPIM – Do Not Put In Mouth and my favourite: AE – Auto Eject – which referred to wines that were so horrendous that they were automatically rejected by the human body.

Some of these unpalatable efforts were searingly acidic – brimming with acetic acid – while others smelled of rotten meat or horse manure. They were mostly the result of poor winemaking that had allowed the wine to be affected by some kind of bacteria.

By the mid 1990s, the cleanliness-conscious model set by New World wines and the efforts across the globe of young Australian and New Zealand “flying winemakers” had more or less relegated those faults to the past. Even the least successful wines in the IWC tended to taste dull rather than actively nasty.

The ascendency of “natural” wines – produced with as little human intervention as possible, and little or no sulphor dioxide, has, however, taken us back to the days of actively faulty wines, in much the same way that the decision by a generation of British mothers not to give their children MMR immunisation jabs has recently led to over 1200 cases of measles.

To be fair, none of the wines at RAW were nearly as unpleasant as the worst examples I recall from the 1980s, but there several that sent me rushing in search of something with which to wash out my mouth.  

I like vinegar. I do not like wine that tastes of vinegar

I like (quite) tannic red wines. I do not like (quite) tannic white wines

I like horses. I do not like wines that smell of horseshit (AKA brettanomyces)

I like cider; I do not like wine that tastes like cider. I’d rather drink cider.

As in the past, there was no way of knowing from the label of any bottle whether the stuff it contained was going to be pleasant or unpleasant; never has the preliminary sniff and the proximity of a spittoon seemed to be more necessary.

On the other hand, some of the wines I tasted were first class by any standards- wines like le Clos Perdu from S France, Ch La Coste from Provence and the Pearl Morissette wines from Ontario, for example.
An old friend – and a good example of  delicious
S French winemaking 
 A new – to me – discovery from Canada

 Classy efforts from Provence
I really wanted to like a wine that was labelled “FRENCH WINE NOT DEAD!”  but the white I tasted was horribly reminiscent of cider vinegar. I did not sample the red, but a brief search on Cellar Tracker revealed that on 3/3/2012 “DRWINE2001” wrote “No, not dead, in fact very much alive and blooming with bret. Barely drinkable through the stench.” so I’m not really sorry to have missed the experience. 

This is a good example of a wine that
tastes just like cider vinegar. French wine may not be dead;
it has simply metamorphosed into something else 
Like most other Georgian amphora wines I’ve tasted (both in Georgia 
and elsewhere), this was not really a drink that I’ve been able
to come to terms with.

Wines with these and other faults do not reflect their soil, any more than a rotten fish reflects the flavour of the sea, or my efforts on the piano reflect Bach. They simply illustrate incompetence and a failure to tell vinous wrong from right.

I shared my confusion over the range of wines with two friends I bumped into at the fair – Gerd Sepp, a German winemaker who once bought and made wines for Marks & Spencer and Irish Master of Wine, Martin Moran. Both agreed that they had encountered some memorably faulty wines at RAW – along with some they’d have been delighted to buy and drink

To be fair, Moran’s, Sepp’s and my distaste for some of the wines did not appear to be shared by the several hundred members of the public who attended the event when I was there. They all seemed to be having a great time, making their way from producer to producer and wine to wine. Are our professional palates too finely attuned to faults? Or did the non-professionals treat the exercise of sampling good and bad wines in the same spirit as they might have brought to riffling through the similarly varied garments on offer in the Vintage Clothing market in the building next door?

All I can say is that I came across enough good wines to want to return to the RAW fair next year but that I plan to do a lot more mine-avoidance homework beforehand. 

  1. Wink Lorch wrote n Facebook
    Thanks Robert, you assessed fairly, I think… I keep retuning and keep finding a few exciting wines I love and are new to me, but far too many others that I not only hate, but make me question over and over what could be wrong with my palate that so many people seem to revere these wines, yet I do not… I end up puzzled and confused, and of course I will go back. Excellent ending, read to the end, people!

  2. Ekaterina Zakharova wrote on Facebook Great article! Though I haven't tried the wines 30 years ago and thus can't compare, I couldn't agree more with the rest. Robert, have you had a chance to try Russian wines? Do you have an opinion? Sadly, to my mind most of them could easily fit in your “need to spit in” classification…

  3. @jasondmillar
    @jamiegoode @robertjoseph Where does this ubiquitous assertion that consumers love natural wine come from? Sales figures? Not my experience.

  4. A marvellous article, fair and entertaining. As a wine retailer I'm often asked why we don't carry sulfite-free wines and I simply tell them I don't want to risk offering bad wines. This invariably prompts a friendly discussion which usually shows that the customer really just wants a characterful and thoughtfully-made wine.

  5. Sulfite free is bloody difficult to achieve, but NOT necessarily an impossibility. Gerard Bertrand maks one called Naturae which is sold by M&S, has a best-before date and seems to be both good and reliable. But Bertrand is a quality-conscious producer who'd be mortified to be associated with needlessly faulty wine.

  6. Absolutely. We have the same thing with organic wines, where people are not necessarily that bothered about the strict organic aspect as they are about the wine being well-made in a conscientious fashion. None of them are really thumping the table about it, and I suspect ultimately it points to a growing public thirst to be better informed.

  7. Accurate summation of the raw fair Robert. Public seemed happy to drink wines that taste like cider when there was actually some much cheaper cider on offer.
    read Hosemaster's brilliant satirical blog on subject and following comments inc mine from the other day.

  8. Accurate summation of the raw fair Robert. Public seemed happy to drink wines that taste like cider when there was actually some much cheaper cider on offer.
    read Hosemaster's brilliant satirical blog on subject and following comments inc mine from the other day.

  9. It's perfectly reasonable to be highly critical of natural wines. But I wonder whether critics who take pains to point out the wines they hate at a natural wine fair would do the same at a conventional wine fair, where surely a high percentage of wines are undrinkably boring.

  10. Thanks Eric. “Undrinkably boring” is an expression that I can't imagine many consumers using. The point I was trying to make is that the faults I encountered at the RAW fair were of a nature – no pun intended – I had rarely encountered in decades. It was like attending a motor fair and seeing Soviet era cars.
    I am not a fault fascist. I do not relish squeaky- clean wines, but after 30 years of watching European winemakers discover the benefits of introducing cleanliness into their cellars, it seems bizarre to see downright dirty wines getting a free pass from serious critics.

  11. Robert,

    I visited Vinistra a couple of weeks ago (a decidedly “un-natural” wine fair!)
    I struggled through 2 hours, 40-50 wines before giving up, mainly due to boredom. Oh, another Malvasia vinified in stainless steel? Yawn.

    I had to notify producers about no less than 4 corked bottles – at least two of which were close to being empty.

    At Raw, I was excited to the last. No corked bottles. One or two wines were flirting with VA, and one or two had something odd (oatmeal on the finish) about them which I would say might indeed have been some kind of microbacterial infection.

    I guess I was lucky on the Brett front – no reported instances this year (but I did skip almost all of France)

    My point? I'd rather life was interesting and varied, even if not everything works.

    I'm glad you found enough of interest to want to go back next year.

  12. Robert, But why the focus on those wines that you've deemed to be faulty? Nothing to say about the beautiful terroir-expressing ones, of which there were plenty?

  13. Interesting to read your report, thanks. We seem to have an ever growing number of natural winemakers here in the Loire and while some seem to be producing some quite interesting wines others are making frankly undrinkable stuff that everyone else seems to be raving about. I've been at local tastings stood beside wine journalists extolling the virtues of a wine that I thought barely drinkable – was this the bottle variation that can occur with natural wines? Maybe. I think we all agree that wines made with minimum intervention, chemicals etc are a great idea but not at the expense of drinkability. The cider aspect is common in natural Chenins and I can just about tolerate that (from time to time) but fizzy reds, nail varnish remover aromas and farmyard hints are a no no. Henri Marionnet in Touraine makes a no sulphur Gamay called Vinifera that is terrific by the way so there are some decent ones out there. A little fine tuning required perhaps from other producers. To be continued no doubt…

  14. Fabio, I said “some of the wines I tasted were first class by any standards”. However, I make no apology for focusing on faults, just as I make no apology for focusing on other occasions on the incidence of TCA and random oxidation associated with natural corks. Unlike many of my peers and friends in the wine world, I find no romantic attraction in the Russian Roulette aspects of wine. From what I have seen in the past, events like RAW tend to be attended by people who are already sympathetic to the cause and far too ready to overlook the faults that I found so offensive.
    On this occasion, as I said, my opinion was shared by a couple of other non hard-core believers who had. like me, taken the trouble to head to Shoreditch.

  15. Thank you Cathy. I am a long-standing fan of Marionnet's wines and also admire the “natural” wines Gérard Bertrand is making in the south and that Foiillard produces in Beaujolais. But I find it frustrating and frankly inexplicable to watch people – in your words – “raving about” wines that by any generally accepted vinous (or other) standards “frankly undrinkable”

  16. Nothing like a big wine expo to tune up your tastebuds and give you the big picture of where wine is going. Had those revelations at VinExpo last year while researching new book.

  17. Robert, yes, I understand your position, and am not questioning your right to choose what you post about! And no apologies required for anything! Perish the thought! I was asking 'why' you choose to focus on the faulty wines. After all, there are always some faulty wines present at conventional wine fairs and tastings, but nobody bothers to dwell on them. So why dwell on them at a natural wine event? It makes it look as if it's normal or even typical of natural wines to be faulty, when this is clearly not the case.

  18. Couldn't agree more. I was asked check a local SA raw organic wine by the person selling it to see if the bottle was OK – because she doesn't drink wine. “There is nothing 'wrong' with the wine, it is not corked” I said “but it is just not very nice wine. In fact it is horrible. I don't like drinking vinegar.” She could not understand why I didn't like it but has never herself tasted it….

  19. It might – and that's why I made the comment.

    Sadly it does seem that France still succumbs to “la gout du terroir”, much more often than it should.

    I felt the standard was highest amongst the Italian and Slovenian winemakers. But then again I didn't get to anything from Spain or Portugal. (Sorry Fabio – if you had been there, of course it would have been different!)

  20. Howard Winn wrote via Facebook Yes I remember the wines from the 80s and 90s!!
    The most extreme were some early Georgian wines sent as samples, we just looked at the bottles without even opening them!!

  21. Ralph Kyte-Powell wrote via facebook Spot on Robert. I have seen young and groovy wine trade people impressed by liquids that resemble a cocktail of aldehyde, acetic acid, hydrogen sulphide and horse manure, and praising their “terroir.” It's a joke, but it appears to be a commercially successful one. I'm going out to buy an amphora, maybe I can make a few quid out of this.

  22. I enjoyed reading your post very much, why the super focus on the bad things as we human beings usualy do? Were really these two other wines and the canadian one the wines your palate enjoyed the most and the only? Is France and Austria doing so bad that Domaine de l'Ecu , Gut Oggau and other do not impress your palate? I hate cidery and faulty wines as well but your report gives the idea that 98.3% of all wines were faulty (177/180) which is totally insane….

  23. Thank you, Vincent. I have to say that my aim in writing that post was not to write a review of the RAW Fair – or to offer lists of my favourite “natural” wines, as I might have done in the days when I was a consumer wine columnist.

    Plenty of other people want to write that kind of post nowadays, and I am happy to leave the field open to them to do so.

    The point I sought to make – one that few people have picked up on, I admit – was that my experience at the fair reacquainted me with wine faults that I had not seen in many years.

    Whatever one's view of “natural” wines, there is no denying that many – not all – of their producers and fans are far more tolerant of volatile acidity and brettanomyces – and other forms of bacterial spoilage – than those who favour “conventional” wines.

    Now there is an argument that an excessive focus on wine “cleanliness” has made for wines that are more “boring”. On the other hand, it has also made wine buying and drinking easier and more pleasant for people (like me) who find those faults offensive.

    As I've written in a previous response, I'm not a fault-fascist, and I frequently relish red Burgundies with noticeable levels of VA and Bordeaux with traces of brett. But I don't like vinegary or mousey, or horseshitty wine and I don't believe that most other people do either.

    One of the uncomfortable truths for those who deride “boring”, “industrial”, “conventional” wines is that the countries most associated with their consumption – UK, US, Australia, NZ – are the ones where wine consumption has risen most dramatically in recent years. France, the major producing country most associated with “traditional” winemaking is the place where 37% of the population now classes itself as non wine-drinkers and where the biggest growth area (up to 14m bottles) is in grapefruit-flavoured rosé.

  24. the spanish producers in raw, wants you visit us…but we always be the last in the “circuit”…the next time!

  25. I did read it once again, you said “some” once. Regarding the VA and brett, I have attented ,as Eric Asimov said, tastings of conventional wines where the flat plastic fruit and oakiness prevail, what do you think of this? Regarding trends in consumptions in those countries that have the lead, consumption is led by sheep people that listen to some critics instead of making their own decisions. What is terroir anyway : a fake plastic industrial product or a dirty faulty wine?

  26. Vincent, in all countries, whatever the strength of advertising and local critics, people ultimately make their own decisions over what they eat and drink. You or I may not, of course, approve of the choices they make.

    McDonalds is very successful in France. The queues of French people I watch waiting for their Big Macs are not following the command of any kind of critic; they're spending their money on something they enjoy. The same applies to the wines people are buying in the UK, US and Australia. And, by the way, you may be interested to learn that Australians do NOT follow Robert Parker- and nor do Britons.

    The Chinese consumers who are now drinking basic Bordeaux are not enjoying it. I'll bet that within a short time, they too will be drinking similar sweet, fruity wines to the ones that are popular in the US.

    Finally, I am beginning to lose my patience with people who are trying to rewrite history. We have been using SO2 for over half a millenium, for the simple reason that wine is vulnerable to bacteria. To suggest that the characteristics caused by those bacteria in 21st century unprotected, wines are not faults is simply bizarre.

    You may not like wine that is heavily influenced by oak, but over-oaking, like the cut of a dress, is a stylistic choice. Acetic acid and brettanomyces are the result of inadequate hygiene. Some people may enjoy those flavours, but they remain faults.

    What I consider to be “fake industrial” wines rarely claim to have terroir character (unless you are using that term for all the Burgundies and Bordeaux whose producers choose to protect their wines for long-term cellaring with SO2). “natural” wines do make that claim. And I agree with you that dirt and faults do not express the place where the wine was produced.

  27. I am very glad you wrote this post so we can have this feedback. First of all I never talked about Parker, and as you mention consumers are free to choose any wine they like, then why dont you apply same thought on the natural wine movement? Is there a world panel in the UK and the world that determine which are considered wine faults ? What is a fault? What is wine apreciation and what is terroir? it is very subjective… I don't like the natural wine term , I enjoy well made wines and I am open to conventional and non conventional wines. I respect your career and I think that yu are approaching this issue in a very objective way. Did you realy taste most of the wines in RAW or did you just make a judgement considering what you knew 20 years ago?

  28. Vincent, I have no problem with consumers enjoying vinegary “natural” wines – or “chocolate-flavoured” wine. The market will decide how sustainable any wine will be.

    But yes, there is a “world panel… that determines wine faults”. It takes the form of universities such as Bordeaux, Montpelier, Geisenheim, Davis, Adelaide, the Wine & Spirit Education Trust and the OIV.

    Students are taught how to protect wine from bacterial spoilage. They are also taught how to make wine stable enough to allow consumers to keep it – possibly for decades – before consumption. Oenologists routinely expose wine samples to oxygen for 24 hours to test stability. Many zero and low SO2 wines would fail this test.

    Of course we can throw away the accumulated knowledge of centuries and say that there is no real difference between wine and vinegar – or only a difference of degree.

    Early in the 20th century a small number of composers thought they could trow away the rules covering music, preferring atonal and “free” jazz to melodic music. Strangely, very, very few consumers – of any kind of music – have chosen to support their view.

  29. Robert, I am glad to read now that you are ok with people drinking faulty wines, I understand you completely when you talk about bacterial spoilage and it is a must in the world of wine to achieve hygiene. Otherwise in Germany the yeast companies teach in the universities that spontaneous fermentation is dirty, education anyway; I did study in the wset and you are taught that hazy wines are faulty but they also teach that it could be the winemaker did not want to fiter the wine on purpose. Independent films are not so famous and accepted by the collectiv as mainstream films, neither is jazz music as popular as Katy Perry. Authentic wines are a segment, and it is growing despite the efforts of people trashing the wines. and for the record I am all in favor of SO2 and cellar hygiene. When I first read your blog I imagined that some of the wines were growing bacteria and smell like rotten eggs which is totally not the case as I have drunk most of the wines that were present in RAW. There are bad wine and good wine in all segments not just in the so called “natural” wine movement. I totally disagree with you that all french producers in RAW are bad , you are taking it a little far. VA goes away in some wines like so2 goes away from a JJ Pruem when giving them time. We don't need to be so dogmatic as the natural wine movement supporters or their oppositors can be.

  30. Vincent… Two out of the three wines I said I liked were French, so I certainly did NOT say that “all french producers in RAW are bad”. I resent you suggesting that I did.

    SO2 certainly becomes less perceptible over time, as it is absorbed by the liquid. Sweet Loire, German and Bordeaux wines from the 1930s and 1940s that we enjoy today were bottled with levels of SO2 we would never allow today. On the other hand, it is questionable whether wines bottled with today's levels will taste as good in 70 or 80 years time.

    I consider those wines to be “authentic” – like the 1945 Mouton Rothschild, 1953 Margaux and 1934 Volnay that are probably the finest wines I've ever drunk – all of which owed their longevity to the protection provided by SO2.

    VA is another matter. In my experience, vinegar does not tend to become less vinegary. The acetic acid has nowhere to go. If it is excessive when a wine is young, I believe it will be excessive when the wine is older.

  31. I totaly agree with you with the role of SO2 in winemaking. I am concerned about this and other issues in current winemaking like pesticides, herbicides, added enzymes, added colour, added tannin and thousands that can modify the quality of a wine.

  32. Mr. Joseph, I must say I'm a bit surprised to read such an opinionated and whimsical blog, even though blogs do tend to lend their column space to free-jazz rants, from the Editor-At-Large of Meininger's. In fact, in addition to the cumbersome amount of invectives used, there are several essayistic weaknesses on display. I would like to address one of these, your failure to define a wine fault. Instead of defining a wine fault, you treat “wine fault” as if it were a physical constant, a quantity universal in nature and constant in time. It's not. Take for instance VA. The legendary Cheval Blanc 1947 is widely renowned for showing very high levels of VA, above 1 g/l. In general this is not a wine deemed as faulty. Indeed, this is not even an exception to a rule that says that most wines with high VA are faulty. Amarone, one of the most successful high price point wines of the last two decades, invariably shows the highest average levels of both VA and acetaldehyde of any “dry” red wine. It follows that “fault” is very far from being a physical constant. A “fault” doesn't exist outside the cultural and linguistic realm of wine, it depends entirely on something being termed, defined and expressed as “being outside an acceptable norm”. Personally, I would like to add oak flavouring, isoamylacetate and a sheer absence of taste to the list of wine faults. Unfortunately, these problems are not yet considered to being outside the norm. What if we one day realize that the “minerality” of Chablis is actually a reduction type wine fault?

    I find the discussion of faults to be of little use in appreciating wine. With the exception of exogenous taints, such as TCA, I would hesitate to define endogenous flavours as faults per se. In a few days I will attend Vinexpo. From my experience with these fairs, if I taste randomly, there is less than one in hundred wines that I would like to drink, even if deemed within the norm of the zeitgeist acceptable taste. At a fair such as RAW, I might find a few wines that I would object to due to high levels of VA or mousiness, but I would gladly drink at least some 50 % of the wines present. I fear I will never be able to say the same thing about wines presented at a conventional wine fair, not even one of high price point wines. Kind regards, Terje Meling

  33. Terje, you are – if I understand correctly – involved in selling “natural” wines and a fan of them. It is perhaps not surprising that you find 99% of the wiines you taste at Vinexpo unacceptable , while you approve of at least 50% of the wines at RAW. Taste is personal. You are entitled to yours. I am entitled to mine.

    In fact, I might agree with you about being happy to drink “at least 50%” of the wines at RAW; I would have fewer problems at Vinexpo, but would certainly agree with you too about oak flavouring and isoamyl acetate (in the sense of these being added artificially) being faults.

    However, wines that have gained the banana character of isoamyl acetate naturally from the way they are fermented (such as Beaujolais) or are heavily marked by contact with new oak barrels, I consider to to be a matter of style. Just as I consider Versace dresses to be stylistically different to Chanel's.

    Regarding “accepted” faults, however, I think you are trying to rewrite the rule book. Yes, of course Recioto is prone to high levels of VA, as is icewine. This does not make those levels acceptable in other styles.
    By the same token, Cheval Blanc 1947 is a very famous case, partly because it is the exception to the rule, and entirely the result of a lack of cooling equipment in a hot vintage. I do not believe that Pierre Lurton has sought to replicate that style in more recent times.

    Yes, faults depend on their cultural context. As do crimes. There are things I can do with impunity in London that I could not do in Saudi Arabia. In the US, it is a crime to sell a beer to a 20 year old. But wine faults have been recognised internationally by the OIV in the way that it requires accredited wine competitions to be run. Wines are supposed to be marked down for cloudiness and VA, for example. Students at wine schools such as Geisenheim, Montpellier, Bordeaux and Davis are similarly taught not to make wines with these characteristics.

    You may choose to disagree with these rules, just as I may choose to disagree with the minimum drinking age in the US, but it is pointless for either of us to deny that the rules exist.

    But, and this is crucial, I am not saying that wines should be fault-free, merely that I don't like drinking wines that smell of horseshit or taste of vinegar (not the case of Cheval Blanc 1947) or cider.

    PS, With regard to the “minerality” of white Burgundy, you might like to read this,
    if you have not already done so.

  34. Hi Robert, thanks for responding. I hear what you are saying about the rule book but I'm not sure that it really exists, at least not as a physical constant or a definitive norm. Perhaps within certain circles of the wine business there is a certain agreement and maybe even a common nomenclature being used, but I wouldn't try to generalize that into a rule book valid in any circumstance for any wine professional. Most research show that what we talk about when we talk about wine is a very personal and idiosyncratic experience, even amongst wine professionals. As an example of the non-existence of the rule book; most MWs I've tasted wines with are far less critical to 4-ethylphenol than I reckon myself to be. You mention cloudiness, serious red wines are most often cloudy but you don't realize it because of the density of the colour. Why should a white wine be marked down for being cloudy? Why should an orange wine, an intentionally macerated wine from ripe, yellow-coloured grapes be marked down for being true-to-style when a a tannic Barolo is heralded for the same character? If this is the rule book it should be rewritten because it lacks logic consistency and rigour. You indicate that I am a fan of natural wine because I import natural wine. I can tell you I'm not. I work with natural wine because I regard the successful versions, of which I think there are many, as superior from a professional point of view. The versions I like I score highly due to their intensity, length, concentration and drinkability, quality parameters I find lacking in most of the wines I taste at the large wine fairs, including wines from very reputable Medoc-properties. The problem with most wines is not that they are aromatically or organoleptically deviant, the problem with most wines is that they are lacking in intensity, real complexity (as opposed to constructed), concentration (as opposed to extraction) and length, which makes them, from a professional point of view, very unsatisfying.

  35. You may be right about the rule book needing to be rewritten – but not until “natural” wine becomes a lot less marginal. I can accept naturally (pun intended) accept that new criteria will need to be introduced for “orange” wines, just as they have been for sparkling Sauvignon Blanc.

    At the moment, there are two camps. the – highly enthusiastic and vociferous – supporters of what I will politely call “different” wines and those who support the status quo. The former group is very, very small. If/when it grows bigger and includes sufficient figures (winemakers, traders, critics) who have earned widespread respect over the years, I'm sure there will be plenty of amendments to the rulebook. Until then, I'm happy to see wine schools continue to teach that cloudiness is often a sign of protein haze and that Condrieu producers who take pains to avoid the “natural” phenolics associated with the Viognier grape are 100% right to do so…

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