In the Swan Valley near Perth, Western Australia, reigns Faber Vineyard, for me far and away the best producer in the area. Faber is owned by husband-and-wife team John Griffiths and Jane Micallef. John is no Mr. Nobody, having worked as a winemaker for large producers in eastern Australia, as well as 6 years for Houghton, storied and large producer of Western Australian wines. He is a great winemaker, thoughtful yet wonderfully direct, with an approach to winemaking that emphasises the craft aspect of winemaking, as opposed to arty-farty claims to artistic greatness or “naturalness”. Hence the name Faber, which is Latin for artisan or craftsman. At Faber he produces some fantastic wines, among which I want to highlight the Swan Verdelho, the Reserve Shiraz and the Liqueur Muscat.
Like so many other wine producers, Faber sends out a newsletter from time to time. However, in contrast to most newsletters, which tend to merely provide commercial updates, Faber’s newsletter sometimes provides insight into the inner workings of a small wine producing entity, as well as focused opinion on the wine world. In the most recent newsletter, Faber writes the following (verbatim):
One of the great things about wine is it comes in so many shapes, sizes and colours. There are so many wine regions and varieties. There are numerous types – red or white, sweet or dry, still or fizzy, fortified or not. There are traditional old world styles, modern new world styles. No one approach to winemaking is more correct or more virtuous than any other. It’s just wine! It’s not how it is made that is important, it’s how it tastes!
Most wine lovers are simply interested in finding flavoursome drinkable wine that they can choose with confidence. But there are those for whom selecting a wine is a fashion statement. Rather than wanting wine to be simple they make it more complicated. Unfortunately you can’t taste fashion. Too often they are attracted to wines that are “heavy on novelty, light on the things that make wine’s culture so rich, such as tradition, quality and history” to quote a Melbourne reviewer.
Right now one fashion holding sway around the world is for so called “natural” wines. This fashion holds that modern wine is unnatural because the winemaker influences how it tastes rather than it being a “natural” expression of the grapes and vineyard from where they come. It’s a very romantic notion but completely ridicuous.
The first wine John made was as a winemaking student at Roseworthy in the early eigthies. He foot trod the grapes in the bath tub and let the must ferment in a garbage bin. He plunged the skins down each morning and evening. The must gave off a variety of aromas – pungent, sweet, earthy, chemical. After about a week he squeezed the bright scarlet wine out with tea towels and put the cloudy wine into some flagons he had cleaned up. The wine slowly settled and after a month or two he syphoned the clear wine off the lees. The colour was attractive but it tasted somewhere between balsamic vinegar, nail polish remover and wine! A lot of fun but not much drinking!
The act of planting a vineyard is not natural – it is a highly unnatural landform creating a monoculture with vines that have been selected and breed to the point where they no longer resemble their native ancestors. The addition of selected yeasts (similarly breed and selected like the grape varieties) and tartaric acid (actually produced as a byproduct from grapeskins after the juice is squeezed out) , traditional fining agents such as egg whites or fish collagen (isinglass) and filtration are practices that have allowed winemakers to improve the quality and consistency of wines over the last hundred years or so. In fact depending on the source of these finings and additives, and the grapes themselves, the wine may still be considered organic!
The “natural” claim and the inference “normal” wines are not natural is ridiculous – particularly when the standard is applied to the winemaking but not the grapes!. Sure some wine is made in large wineries resembling oil refineries – it’s generally cheap and ordinary – but most winemakers are crafting beautiful wines in small wineries using traditional techniques and benefiting from modern practices. It’s fine if a winemaker chooses to reject normal modern winemaking practices – viva la difference! – but whether more than a very small minority of committed adherents really enjoy these rustic “wild” wines remains to be seen.”
I could not agree more. I enjoy “natural” wines when they are well-made and reasonably free from defects, but to confer upon them some sort of metaphysical goodness merely because the winemaker was thinking good, wholesome thoughts while (not) making them is folly.
I recommend Faber Vineyard to anyone interested in great wine. These are not “natural” wines, but extremely well-made, concentrated, balanced and highly drinkable. Check them out on http://www.fabervineyard.com.au.