Friday, 2 March 2012

An Evening of 'Natural' Wines at the SAT Food Lab

I had the opportunity to visit SAT’s Food Lab last night.  This fun Montreal restaurant-meets-cafeteria is run by two former Laloux chefs: Seth Gabrielse and Michelle Marek.  The menu changes weekly(-ish), with this week’s menu happening to be a vigneron theme.   However, it wasn’t for the food that I made my way downtown during a bizarre March blizzard.  (Fine, blizzard by Niagara standards.)  Rather, the wine list (crafted by La QV and Oenopole wine agencies) emphasized only ‘natural’ wines.  These are the type of wines that you rarely get a chance to purchase at your friendly government monopoly liquor stores.

I won’t dive into the intense, and almost downright nasty, on-going debate on natural wines.  All I will say is that these wines were made from grapes grown according to organic and biodynamic viticultural standards, with the resulting wines having little to no chemical additions.  That means, by and large, these wines are a product of wild (or natural) fermentations, then bottled without fining or filtering and little (or no) sulphur addition.  The goal is to craft a wine that is a true expression of terroir.  (Whether natural wines are a true or ‘better’ expression of terroir is another story.)

These are the five wines I tried:

(1)  ‘Epaulé Jété Blanc’ 2010, Domaine Catherine and Pierre Breton, Vouvray

100% Chenin blanc (I believe).  Organic, biodynamic viticulture; hand-harvested; wild fermentation; non-filtered; little to no sulphur addition.  A simple, clean, crisp wine with minerality, green apple, and peach.  A non-descript wine that, if tasted blind, could have been any number of varieties.  This is very much a food wine. 

(2)  ‘Les Amandiers’ 2009, Chateau La Tour Grise, Vin de France

100% Chenin blanc.  Organic, biodynamic viticulture; wild fermentation.  This is not AoC accredited.  The first thing that immediately jumps out at you is the colour: its deep, golden-brown.  And the first taste confirms that, yes, this is oxidized.  Nevertheless, it is an interesting wine, as it turned out to be one of our favourites of the evening.  The wine has bright acidity, with nutty minerality and apple.

Nothing that I could find on the producer’s website indicates that this wine was purposefully oxidized.  This leads me to think it’s just one of the potential consequences (benefits?) of low (or no) sulphur additions.  It’s interesting now, but I don’t know if that’ll be the case in a year.

(3)  Pinot Noir 2009, Domaine Meinklang, Burgenland

This producer does not have a website.  The nose provides an initial whiff of smokey bacon.  I found the smokiness to dissipate over time, and was replaced with cherry and blackberry fruit.  Overall, a decent wine.  My comment at the time was, “This tastes like a Pinot that costs $18.”  (I was a little off; La QV lists it at $25.)  For me, though, there was something missing – as is so often the case with Pinot at this price range.

(4)  Epaulé Jeté Rouge 2010, Domaine Catherine and Pierre Breton, Chinon

100% Cabernet Franc.  This is a textbook Chinon: herbaceous with cherry, raspberry fruit.  I picked up a slight minerality on the palate and, interestingly, a little tar on the nose.  Perhaps it would have been better appreciated when paired with food.  

(5)  Method Traditionelle Rosé 1999, Chateau La Tour Grise, Saumur

Blend unknown; I assume some combination of Cabernet Franc and Chenin blanc.  I cannot believe that this from the 1999 vintage.  The colour (albeit the lightning wasn’t ideal) shows no indications of aging, and the wine is incredibly clean and fresh. Bright acidity, fresh strawberries, and beautiful creamy texture.  This was completely unlike the 2009 ‘Les Amandiers’ we tried from the same producer.  Overall, by far, my favourite wine of the evening.

And what did I learn?  A natural wine does not ipso facto make a good wine; but natural wines can be great wines.