A few months ago, I received a very beautiful bottle, from a producer I absolutely love. He makes some of my favourite wines in a style I really like, but that is suffering from a bit of a decline in popularity. His latest project was reviving an ancient, nearly extinct local grape, and making a authentic, traditional, natural wine with it.
Everything about the wine was amazing - I opened the bottle, it smelled great, it looked stunning (more pearly than cloudy). I tasted it... and gagged. I would describe it as one of the most disgusting wines I have ever tasted. On the nose, there was some floral, some stone fruit, a little hint of oxidativeness. But on the palate, that oxidativeness sort of becomes earthy, dry sherry, and just indescribable offness. My co-tasters didn't mind it so much, and actually quite enjoyed it, but it just didn't cut it for me (note: apparently the taste was not off so much as what the grape is meant to do... weird!).
I've had somewhat similar, albeit lesser, experiences, with other natural wines. They're cloudy and gross, or maybe just a little out of balance. They go too far with the 'natural' and forget that first and foremost they're wines. I may not mind oxidised wines too much, but on most other flaws, I'm well in the majority - they're not good.
Natural wine has to come to terms with the fact that I don't want foxy or funky, I want great wine. Very often, making it natural is a great way to harness terroir and really capture the flavour of the grapes, and I think natural wines are so often better than their sterilised industrial counterparts. But that mustn't be taken too far.
Fortunately, in this case, the story has a happy ending. I left this natural wine on the counter, with the rest of the cooking wine. A few days ago, before pouring it into a risotto, I tasted it. It still had the earthy dirtiness, but it had softened. It was still potent, but much less unpleasant. Despite being uncorked months ago, it still tasted fresh and what little change it had experienced seemed only to improve it. I actually really enjoyed finishing the bottle.
And that really clinched the deal for me - I gave it a 4/5, despite having all but poured down the sink initially. I don't know whether it was healthy indigenous yeast or absence of sulphites or just skillfull winemaking, but this was a wine that was only better after a quarter of a year sitting open, forgotten in a cupboard. It still had its distinctiveness, but despite what I threw at it, kept its head held high and delivered on the job... eventually.