One would be hard-pressed to find a more passionate wine guy than Cassady Sniatowsky. It seems like all his waking time is consumed (literally, and metaphorically) by wine in one form or another. He chases the wine-dragon with friends whose exploits on Instagram drive people insane with envy and admiration.
Cassady grew up in the restaurant scene with his family and was always surrounded by wine. While he was working at his dad’s restaurant Kaizen in downtown Montreal, he had a Road to Damascus moment with vino. “I went from fruit-bomb Australian Barossa Shiraz and buttery Cali Chardonnay to Schueller’s unsulfured Rieslings and the natural Morgons from the likes of Lapierre and Foillard. I guess I was looking for wines with more drinkability,“ he says with a wry smile in my office the other day. “I got tired of predictable, soul-less wines. I know it sounds like a cliché these days, but I am far more interested in drinking wines that show a distinct time and place.”
What follows is an excerpt of a conversation over a glass of natural wine: Natalino del Prete “Il Pioniere” 2015.
oenopole: Why is the topic of natural wine so polarizing?
Cassady: I think it has to do more with the definition than the wines themselves. No one seems to agree on what they are. The AVN () has a charter but no one else besides the members seems to agree with it! The zealotry of the natural wine scene can get quite heavy. At times, they insist that anything that isn’t 100% natural is evil. This all-or-nothing approach can be very alienating and doesn't always make people feel comfortable about experimenting or benefiting from a mainstream approach. Being told what you’ve learned in school or what make in your winery isn't authentic or “real” can be tough to hear. On the other hand, it’s necessary to call out conventional winemakers for their half-truths and false narratives by proponents of natural winemaking.
Another issue is the “recipe approach” to winemaking. Winemakers who put forward an idea of terroir or a sense of place yet follow a recipe to make their wines are contradicting themselves.
oenopole: Why do you prefer to drink natural wines? What made you gravitate towards them?
Cassady: Authenticity, drinkability, texture, complex aromas and depth, honest narratives and respect for nature. An important realization I made by tasting wines from grape to bottle is that there are certain aspects of conventional winemaking that are purely the influence of the winemaker and have nothing to do with nature or terroir. I also realized I most often preferred the wines before filtration, that the texture was almost always beneficial to the structure of the wine.
oenopole: What is your succinct definition of natural wines?
Cassady: "Natural Wine" as a term is part of the problem, not the wines themselves. Grape juice will always want to become vinegar, that's just nature. Nature needs man to intervene and guide the juice into becoming wine. We need to stop looking for stern definitions and look at the wine world differently. There will always be badly made wines, whether natural or industrial. The important thing is to learn about making interesting and delicious wines from each other. People have to make choices in the process of growing grapes and then making the wine and I hope that whatever they do, it creates as little harm as possible to nature, the wine and ultimately the consumer.
oenopole: And when it comes to vineyard work?
Cassady: Vineyard work for natural winemaking is often tied to biodynamics, organics or ideas of permaculture. Monoculture of any kind can be a hotbed for plant diseases. Spraying chemicals in the vineyard has an obvious negative effect on the environment, including the risk of killing off natural bacteria and indigenous yeasts. The historically great region of Bordeaux is currently wrestling with the fallout from the industrialization of its wine industry with a child cancer rate five times the national average due in large part to its approach to viticulture.
Another key issue is fruit ripeness. It's important to pick ripe grapes and not pick early and adjust for that in the cellar later on.
I'm the first to admit that natural wines often have flaws, but I think we need to redefine what is truly a flaw and maybe add some new ones to the term. For example, a wine being too clean or too filtered I consider flawed. Wines that contain additives are flawed.
oenopole: And cellar work?
Cassady: I believe that the use of filtration and cultured yeasts are the hardest aspects of winemaking to justify. In some vintages the natural yeast might not be strong enough to complete fermentations but to use selected yeasts every year and then talk “terroir” seems odd. In terms of filtration, I find it's a shortcut that can often be resolved by letting settle naturally over time.
oenopole: Do we need to make the distinction between natural and conventional wine?
Cassady: It is important to point out how insufficient wine labeling regulations are. It’s absurd that wine is a food product that doesn’t list its ingredients.
Another issue is the “recipe approach” to winemaking. Winemakers who put forward an idea of terroir or a sense of place yet follow a recipe to make their wines are contradicting themselves. They are essentially taking away or altering the influences terroirs has on wine. For example, cultured yeasts take away from the natural aromatic profile that the vineyard would have imparted on the wine.
oenopole: What about the notion of defects/flaws?
Cassady: I'm the first to admit that natural wines often have flaws, but I think we need to redefine what is truly a flaw and maybe add some new ones to the term. For example, a wine being too clean or too filtered I consider flawed. Wines that contain additives are flawed. Wines overly marked by oak are equally problematic to me. On the other hand, I find that the mainstream wine establishment is quick to use any levels of brett, volatile acidity and reduction as flaws instead of looking at them as a part of the wine that adds complexity.
oenopole: Why are natural wines so popular all of a sudden?
Cassady: More natural wines are available. Sommeliers and importers are better educated, better versed on what is available all over the world, and are bringing them in. Consumers are certainly more interested than ever before in trying them.
oenopole: What are a few examples of natural wines that you’ve had made you believe that they are truly "different" from conventional wines?
Cassady: Vodopevic's Vitovska, Overnoy's wines, Schueller's Pinot Noirs, Julien Labet’s whites, Tom Lubbe’s work at Matasssa, Terpin and Radikon's examples of Pinot Grigio, Cossard's Chardonnays, the rosés of l'Anglore, Riffault ‘s Sancerre…
oenopole: The Del Prete wine we had. Thoughts on it?
Cassady: A little high on alcohol, but tasty. The texture of the wine balanced it out. I would love to have it with some grilled meat and vegetables!
Cassady is currently working on a project to make wine in Spain and has been spending lots of time in the Republic of Georgia.