Natural wine's divide

An argument is going on within the natural wine community over the merits of glou-glou. Simon Woolf explains.

Glouglou bar in Amsterdam
Glouglou bar in Amsterdam

Facebook has its fair share of communities dedicated to natural wine, but the Vin Naturel/Natural Wine group curated by Brazilian soul singer Ed Motta had become one of the biggest by 2018, with about 4,000 members. Then it fell prey to a strange user-contributed virus. Members started uploading post after post, with nothing more than a picture of a funky wine label – invariably French, more often than not red – and the simple caption: glou-glou.

The split

The group’s faithful didn’t provide any description of the wine they were drinking, its provenance, or details of its redeeming qualities. It was enough to be glou-glou, or “glug-glug”, to translate loosely from the French vernacular. Glou-glou as a term has evolved over the past half decade as a catchphrase for easygoing natural wines – and more particularly youthful reds, with little or no tannin, often made using variations on the Beaujolais theme of whole-bunch, semi-carbonic maceration. It is a close cousin of that other Frenchism, vin de soif.

Some members of the Facebook group expressed frustration with the banal glou-posts. They were swiftly reprimanded by the proponents, who insisted that tasting notes or any similar such fetishism were passé – and even that they were intrinsically anti-natural in ethos. The group splintered and the glou-glou phobes peeled away to a less acid environment. Easygoing glou-glou, it seemed, could also be divisive.

Also in 2018, VinNatur (one of Europe’s largest volunteer associations of natural winemakers) inaugurated a wine workshop where 12 international wine journalists, critics and pundits blind-tasted their way through some 200 of its members’ wines. After two days of tasting, the guests were asked for their feedback. Two of the Parisians, both youthful and ardently pro-natural, took it upon themselves to give the assembled group of Italian winemakers some advice: the Italians had it all wrong. Their wines were too tannic and too high in acidity. They lacked drinkability. The French wines shown in the workshop demonstrated how it should be done.

Thankfully for international relations, many of the Italian winemakers lacked sufficient English to grasp the arrogance of this message. The subtext, however, was clear.

The French contingent expected their natural wines to approach the glou-glou paradigm, and not to challenge palates with the kind of food-friendly Italian style that thrives on tannin and acidity as a counterpart to cuisine.

Heading to homogeneity

Glou-glou’s problem is that it has become all-pervasive in 21st century natural wine culture. Hip bars and restaurants in all corners of the globe now serve up gallons of undemanding, vaguely funked-out natural wines by the glass. Nick Gorevic, co-owner of June Wine Bar in Brooklyn, adds that: “It goes along with a general trend in Americans’ palates away from tannin and body, oak and all that stuff.” 

The flavour and texture profile of glou-glou hardly varies, whether the wine hails from Beaujolais, Languedoc or Barossa. How different is Axel Prüfer’s Le Temps des Cerises, which impressively reduces fierce Carignan to soft, easygoing glou, from Marcel Lapierre’s Raisins Gaulois or Tom Shobbrook’s Tommy Ruff? Tannins are not welcome at this party, and neither are fuller bodies, discernible wood influence or alcohol of more than 12%. Alice Feiring noted the trend in her predictions for 2019: “Gulpable. Crushable. Digestible. Glou-glou. Whatever you want to call them, light, low-alcohol vins de soif will continue to rule the day.”

The trajectory isn’t too hard to understand. One of natural wine’s points of difference is its purported ability to achieve lighter, fresher styles compared to the more “technological” wines of old. Vineyard practices such as dry farming or biodynamics (both key components of the natural creed) can allow growers in warmer regions to harvest ripe fruit at lower potential alcohol. Somewhere along the way, natural fans conflated this with glou-glou, to the point that it has now become a meta-profile for natural wine overall.

Hannah Fuellenkemper is a young American natural wine fan, writer and winemaking apprentice. She admits to her preference for softer, fruitier and more thirst-quenching wines, but expresses frustration at the genre’s dominance: “There should be no glou-glou culture. It’s not a school, a church or a manifesto. It’s just a wine that winemakers make because winemakers like drinking and it’s an easy way to get one’s cashflow flowing,” she says. “But now it’s both a verb and a label. And because it’s such an easy sell for bars, importers and its makers, the natural wine world is drowning in it, at the expense of wines made in different styles and with other qualities.” 

The glou-glou recipe is simple, as is the return on investment: Harvest early, with plenty of natural acidity. De-stem or not, then ferment with whole grapes or whole bunches, inevitably resulting in some semi-carbonic character, as whole grapes at the bottom of the tank (or vat) are crushed and start an intra-cellular fermentation in the absence of sufficient oxygen for a yeast-based one. Bottle a few months after harvest, perhaps with no sulphur additions. The end result will have very light, if any extraction, fruity aromas and maybe a light funk from the lack of free sulphur. It will be drinkable and therefore saleable immediately after bottling – financially, an important point for small producers with cashflow issues.

However much they may talk of terroir expression, most winemakers have at least one eye on the market. The number of freshly conceived joven or nouveau-style wines that have hit the shelves in the past few years provides further proof of glou-glou’s ascendance. Tom Lubbe (Matassa) is well known for his savoury, age-worthy red wines, produced from high-altitude vineyards in Roussillon. Lubbe created the Brutal Rouge, named in homage to the well-known Barcelona natural wine bar of the same name, in 2017. It’s a blend of whole-bunch fermented Syrah with a smidge of Muscat, a typical example of the glou-glou genre.

The issue with this and other similar wines is not that they are bad – there’s much to enjoy about lightweight wines with modest alcohol, especially for those who remember when winemakers across the planet were pushing alcohol, ripeness and extraction in an effort to court Parker points. The issue is the irony that natural wine, supposedly a philosophy that strives for better terroir expression, shows far less regional or varietal character when vinified in its glou-glou guise.

Whole-bunch fermentation, used indiscriminately, produces exaggerated, perfumed fruit aromas and flavours whatever the raw materials, as confirmed by Brigitte Chevalier, winemaker/owner of Domaines de Cébène in Faugères, who uses whole-bunch fermentation. “This technique can result in a standardised wine – it goes in the opposite direction of terroir expression,” she says.

The path towards omnipresent glou therefore risks taking natural wine into blander, more banal territory. It replaces philosophy with a set of stylistics. The glou-glou Facebook posters demonstrated this clearly. Who cares how the wine tastes, or what makes it unique? It’s enough that it’s glou-glou. Fuellenkemper laments that: “Each wine, each vintage, each hill has its own thing to say. But the idiosyncrasies we drink for are being levelled by fashion.”

There’s a further irony inherent in the labels. Since many natural wine producers either fail to get their wines classified under more traditional appellations, or prefer not to use an appellation that is seen as unsupportive, it is frequently impossible for consumers to figure out the geographical origin of the wine – Vin de France and other generic classifications usually don’t permit the producer to namecheck the region. Could provenance actually cease to matter in a post glou-glou world?

Learning curve

Nick Gorevic concurs with the popularity of style but takes issue with its disparagement. “I just think carbonic is a tool and some use it better than others,” he says. “In the hands of a skilled winemaker it can evoke terroir just as well as anything else.” He asks, “Is a super-light red that’s complex and expensive still glou-glou? Some classic palates might think so but I disagree.” 

Perhaps, as Isabelle Legeron MW suggests, this is nothing to lose sleep over. “It’s enough that people are drinking naturally made wines from good farming. Their tastes will evolve and perhaps change over time.” Yet natural wine risks morphing into parody when its fan base confine themselves to the limited parameters of glou-glou, and spurn anything else in their glasses. Ed Motta, the soul singer who curates the Facebook group, has a new album entitled “Criterion of the Senses”. Surely even he would not wish natural wine to be gauged on glou-glou alone. 

Simon Woolf

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