Okay… Today’s tricky wine question is:

What does Robert Parker have in common with the “natural” wine movement?

Until about five minutes ago, I’d have found this a really tough one to handle, but now I have an answer whose implications have begun to rattle around in my brain.

Over the last three decades, the sage of Monkton, in common with other US critics, has been accused of fostering the market for, and the production of, ripe (some would say over-ripe), sweetly vanilla-oaky and alcoholic, immediately-appealing, young wine. Many of today’s generation of wine drinkers have rarely if ever experienced older bottles and do not like it much when they do so. I can think of several tastings and dinners I have run at which the majority of people present greatly preferred vintages such as the 2005 and 2000 to the 1982 and 1990. Where, they asked, was the fruit in those older wines? It is hardly coincidental that recent vintages command higher prices than old ones.

Now, at first sight, the fans of “natural”, low-SO2 wines seem unlikely bedfellows for Parker, Suckling et al. After all, they would rather go thirsty than drink some of the latter group’s 100-point young Napa Cabs. But the naturalistas, in their own way represent even more of a challenge to those of us who, at least occasionally, relish the flavour of wine that’s 20 or 30 years old. (And I’m not necessarily talking about great wine here).

The notion that wine was stuff to “lay down” partly – I might say largely – stems from the days when drinkable vintages were the exception to the rule, and when entire crops were often lost to disease, pests or bad weather. As recently as 50 years ago, Bordeaux drinkers could expect little joy from 1963, 1965, 1967, 1968 or 1969. Holding onto some 1960, 1961 or 1962 made a lot of sense if you wanted to be sure of having something vaguely acceptable in your glass. And what was true then, was even more so in the 19th century and earlier.

As they drank the wine they had stored, our forebears (often monks) naturally discovered that the wine changed – just as cheese changed – with time. It developed layers of flavours it did not previously possess. Sometimes these flavours were pleasant; sometimes they weren’t. The ones that scored most frequently helped to gain a reputation, both for the plot of land where they were produced and the year in which they were made. 

“Natural” wines are produced in some of those same pieces of wine, but their potential to age is questionable. As I have mentioned in a previous post, Doug Wregg of Caves de la Pyrene, UK Mecca of “natural” wine, has said

 60-80% of natural wines fall apart [after the first year]… They’re meant for wine bars rather than cellars”.

When I asked Alice Feiring, one of the leading lights of the “natural” wine movement how she felt about this lack of longevity, she glibly responded with  a “Who cares?”, pointing me in the direction of Chateau Musar as an exemplar of the way some of her more favoured wines can stand the test of time. (I’ll talk about Musar on another occasion, but would simply say that when choosing from a wine list of old bottles from across the world, my finger would pass across that particular Lebanese effort quite quickly).

That “Who cares?” was echoed last night by a Canadian sommelier who suggested that tastes and times have changed and that maybe paying hommage to mature wines is an outmoded concept.

Inwardly, part of me applauded her comment. I’ve been served too many old bottles whose only role would have been to satisfy the perverted tastes of vinous necrophiliacs. And I recalled an occasion when I was filming an interview with Lalou Bize Leroy who was renowned for her love of old Burgundy. The session was not going easily and in an attempt to create some empathy with Madame Leroy, the director talked about an interview she had filmed with Michael Broadbent in which he had described tasting an 18th century claret. Broadbent had said that, at first, it was as though the wine was an old man asleep in a chair. Then he woke up, said a few words and went back to sleep. The director told the story well and smiled in expectation of at least a nod of appreciation. Instead, she got a brusque “I have no time of old men – or old wines – with nothing to say!”

But then I remembered the ethereal quality of all the old Burgundies (including examples from Leroy), Rhones, German Rieslings and, yes, Australian Shirazes and Semillons that I’ve ever been lucky enough to drink. It will be something of a tragedy if a combination of the Parker-Feiring Axis and the lack of experience and enthusiasm of a new generation of sommeliers should turn those wines into even more of an endangered species.

  1. Very interesting post. Don't you think that the problem also extends to people entering the wine trade today and wine journalists – they too have little or no experience of drinking old wines as we are increasingly steered towards wines that can be drunk young either because they are 'natural' or accessible in a way that old wines are not being both rare these days and normally expensive. In the Loire we are lucky that we can access old Cabernet Francs without paying a premium but they are very different in style and many of our clients find them completely different to anything they have ever tasted before. I think it would be a great shame if we move into an age when we expect to drink all wines within a couple of years. I don't think paying hommage to mature wines is outmoded but it does seem to be the preserve of the old world wine enthusiast.

  2. Funny how opposite ends of a spectrum have more in common than they realise. I remember once drinking a 1961 Palmer with The doyen of wine writing in Ireland, T.P. Whelehan and he said that as a young man (in the 50s & 60s)drink classed growth Bordeaux the common perception was that if you could taste fruit in the wine it wasn't ready to drink and needed to be aged longer until it became more savoury and silky! How times change. I suspect that these things go in cycles and in another 25 years it will be the view again. For myself, even though I've tasted many older wines I do prefer younger.

  3. I generally prefer younger wines too,. And I don't listen to classical music every day. But when I do encounter a delicious older wine – or hear some Beethoven or Mozart, I know how sorry I'd be if they disappeared from the scene.

  4. A great article, Thank-You Robert Joseph.
    Your analogy with music is comprehensive. Some like “Free Jazz”, to quote another of your music analogies, some like hard rock, some only listen to teen pop, and most listen to what they are told; There is a good chance some of the above have an appreciation of Beethoven too.
    It becomes a problem only when a dogmatic free jazz artist or frustrated pop star starts saying that Beethoven had no clue how to make music.

  5. Robert,
    STILL on a roll? Do you not have anything better to do than write interesting thought-provoking articles? 🙂
    I like to think that the mass-market for wine, which RP has been so influential in creating/expanding over the last few decades, is not the only market out there. There are also niche or minority wine markets, for example people who like old vintages! Perhaps there are still the same number of people who buy and lay down wines in their cellars, but nowadays they’re in a minority because of the growth of the mass-market? I also like to think that some of the consumers that who start off in the mass market will move on to more interesting and complex wines, as they get older, and if they get bored the standard offerings of the mass market. I would love to have a personal cellar to lay bottles down in!
    With regard to natural wines, I think that most natural wines today are in fact made to be drunk young; they are generally not made to age, so it’s hardly surprising that they “fall apart after a few years”. A Beaujolais Nouveau, or any other wine not designed for aging would also fall apart after a few years would it not?

  6. Thank you Fabio for the kind comment. I think we are in general agreement but it will be a pty if a readiness to drink old wines at least occasionally becomes too much of a niche activity.

  7. I dunno, some of “Natural” wine shops I have been to have old vintages of Emidio Pepe, and will have old vintages of Bourgueil and even Muscadet! Displaying and selling aged wines that most thought couldn't age.
    I also don't see those naturalists celebrating styles of (unsulfured)wine that should (or shouldn't) be drunk young influencing Brdx or Cali Cab producers..

    Additionally as is said before, Coming into the trade , it is nearly impossible to to try true ageble wine since all these “benchmark” wines are out of reach financially. Why won't younger people get excited about the best natural producers, when they will never try DRC or Lafite.

  8. I disagree that wines need to be of DRC or Lafite price or quality to be aged. There are plenty of humble wines that are worth ageing – including Muscadet and Bourgueil. But without sufficient SO2, no wine – whatever its price or pedigree – will be worth keeping at all.

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