“It’s a bit too clean, missing a bit of dirt” was a criticism I sometimes heard levelled at wines during the early 2000s. Wine technology has come a long way in the last half century, and it’s now straightforward for winemakers large and small to be able to produce clean, fruit-driven wines that are crystal clear and star-bright.
The trouble is, these wines aren’t necessarily very interesting – hence the dirt comment. For interest, you need some grit, a rough edge here or a quirk there.
We used to talk about dirt, now we talk about natural wine. This loose ideology, sometimes more accurately termed “minimal-intervention winemaking” is based around the idea that the most expressive and enjoyable wine shouldn’t be airbrushed or manipulated beyond what’s necessary to get it into a bottle. Rather, the individual characteristics of the vineyard, the grape varieties and the vintage should be allowed to shine.
Some wine-lovers struggle with natural wines which are too “raw”, or where the “funkiness” (I equate that with “dirt”) starts to dominate. It’s a matter of taste, but perhaps also of aesthetics.
While travelling in Japan (appropriately enough, to lecture on natural wine), I discovered the Japanese aesthetic concept of wabi-sabi. Often simplistically explained as the idea of beauty in imperfection, it is (like so many Japanese philosophical constructs) in reality a much more complex idea.
Wabi-sabi has its origins in Zen-Buddhism, and the meaning has evolved over many centuries to its current nuanced form. The American author Leonard Koren summarises it in his classic book Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers as “..a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. It is a beauty of things modest and humble. It is a beauty of things unconventional.”
What does this have to do with wine? Natural wine has a buoyant market in Japan, and several Japanese commentators within the natural wine scene draw parallels between wabi-sabi and the natural wine ethic.
The comparison feels very apt. Koren suggests that the closest translation of wabi-sabi using a single English word would be “rustic” – and natural wines often display rusticity, and frequently make a virtue of it. The macerated Malvasias of Emilia-Romagna (La Stoppa et al) are a great example of a farmer’s beverage that has now become a cult natural wine.
As a means to show what wabi-sabi is, and what it isn’t, Koren also compares it with modernism (the art and design aesthetic which has come to most represent modern industrialised society). Here’s the thing: substitute “mainstream/mass-produced wine” for modernism and “natural wine” for wabi-sabi, and the comparison functions seamlessly.
For example, modernism is “ostensibly slick” where wabi-sabi is “ostensibly crude”. Out of this seeming crudeness emerges the beauty – the interest, the dirt. Modernism is “people adapting to machines” where wabi-sabi is “people adapting to nature”. Again, there’s a direct parallel in wine – natural winemakers recognise that nature (vintage conditions) will determine the wine they make, not their supermarket client or an unchanging formula. Similarly, modernism “romanticizes technology” while wabi-sabi “romanticizes nature”.
Modernism is about “mass production”, whereas wabi-sabi represents “one of a kind”.
All of this helps to understand natural wine and what its protagonists aim for. Natural winemakers don’t look for perfection, they don’t want to sand down the sharp edges or filter out haziness. They’re focused on creating something individual (one of a kind) that will continue to evolve (or even devolve) after it has been bottled. All of this sits perfectly within the ideals of wabi-sabi.
Wabi-sabi has been called “the quintessential Japanese aesthetic” – so perhaps that helps explain why Japanese wine drinkers have taken so readily to natural wine. They implicitly understand that what could be seen as faults are actually the imperfections that unlock beauty.
It’s a poignant reminder that the most transformative wines are inevitably those with quirks and even slight defects. My all-time favourite wine for demonstrating this theory is Château Musar 1995. That bit of dirt is what makes it so unforgettable and beautiful – at least if you’re able to channel your inner wabi-sabi.