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.