Natural wines are everywhere at the moment, they have caused quite a stir and the Natural Wine Movement seems to be gaining momentum all the time. People are talking about them and asking about them – which is great as I want people to talk, ask and think about wine.
As a name ‘natural wine’ sounds wonderful, it sounds pure and well…natural. It also implies that all other wines are somehow NOT natural.
Is that fair? Are all wines that do not declare themselves to be ‘natural wines’ not natural or somehow un-natural?
I know of many producers who do not like to make much of a song or a dance out of their ‘natural’ credentials, but to let their wines speak for themselves – so you can enjoy their wines without knowing that they are made from or organic grapes or on biodynamic principles. So, are their wines unfairly assumed not to be natural? I think so.
A part of me thinks that the term ‘natural wine’ is so massively positive towards a small minority of wines that it becomes overwhelmingly negative to the remainder – it implies that there is something wrong and artificial with all other wines. It is a bit like the anti-abortion people describing themselves as ‘pro-life’ – as if those of us on the other side of the debate are somehow opposed to it.
That makes it a very successful marketing term, but I think it is unfortunate as it is very easy to latch onto with very little knowledge. I have been astonished quite a few times of late by how fierce some people’s support of the ‘natural wine’ movement is, how extremist their views and how contemptuous they can be of other wines. At almost all of my tastings nowadays someone is dismissive to the point of rudeness about wines that do not come under the ‘natural wine’ heading and yet nobody seems to really know what it means.
Including me – so let’s get a definition or two.
Wikipedia (I know, I know) defines it like this:
‘Natural wine is wine made with as little chemical and technological intervention as possible, either in the way the grapes are grown or the way they are made into wine. The term is used to distinguish such wine from organic wine. Organic wine is organic in the sense of having been produced made from organically grown grapes, but it may be subject to technical manipulation in the winemaking process.’
It goes on to say:
‘Most definitions of natural wine include some or all of the following :
Hand-picked, organically or biodynamically grown grapes.
No added sugars, no foreign yeasts.
No fining or filtration
No adjustments for acidity.
No other additives for mouth-feel, colour, etc.
No micro-oxygenation or reverse osmosis.
Little or no added sulphite.’
However the article goes right to my main problem with the term ‘natural wine’ when is states: ‘The concept of ‘natural wine’ is extremely controversial, particularly in the English-speaking world. Many critics reject it as misleading. There is no established certification body and the term has no legal status. Winemakers who describe themselves (or are described by others) as ‘natural’ often differ in what they consider to be an acceptable level of intervention.’
Spare a thought for Champagne, Sherry and Port – there is a pretty high level of intervention in their production.
Casting around for more definitions this argument from David Williams in The Observer almost won me over: ‘The best way to approach the new trend in wine is to think about cheese. Which kind do you prefer? A slab of plasticky, pasteurised, supermarket cheddar, a cheese that you know will taste the same every time you buy it? Or something produced by a farmer on first-name terms with his cows, someone who uses unpasteurised milk and traditional methods to make characterful cheese that tastes slightly different from batch to batch? Or, to put it another way, do you prefer your cheese processed or au naturel?’
I say almost won me over, because I was sitting at my desk reading the paragraph above and thinking how right it was, before I remembered something – there is an awful lot of middle ground that argument ignores, the choice of cheese is not limited to processed or artisan at all. What about delicious cheeses that happen to be branded and packaged well, like Boursin and Caprices des Dieux – I enjoy them both, but know they can make no claim to be natural as they were dreamt up to be brands in the relatively recent past?
That is the trouble with the people when they become radicalised, they forget about the shades of grey and the middle ground – which in my experience is often where most people are.
Struggling with all this I popped along to The Natural Wine Fair in London the other day, to see what it was all about and while planning my visit I found the Natural Wine Fair Charter of Quality:
‘ALL grapes are, at a minimum, organic
ALL grapes are hand-harvested
NO added yeasts
NO added sugar
NO rectified acidity
Little or no sulphites are added during fermentation or at bottling*
*For us, low sulphite levels means that the grower is ultimately aiming to add as little SO2 as possible but whether or not (s)he does so, or indeed how much they add, is dependent on the year.’
So, we now have some agreement on what a ‘natural wine’ is and much of it is admirable and all of it makes perfect sense. What of course it does not do, by definition anyway, is make the wines better quality or make them taste better.
Many wines made from organically grown grapes are actually quite nasty, so that is not a benefit unless the winemaker knows what they are doing. Too many organic producers over the years have fixated on the organic part of their production and forgotten that it is pretty pointless making an organic wine that is not pleasant to drink. As for bioydynamic wines, I frequently rate these very highly, but am pretty certain that is because the people who make them are passionate and dedicated and the process of growing biodynamically makes growers really pay attention to the vineyard and to use a lot of care in what they do.
Hand harvesting can have advantages, but there are disadvantages too, so that does not help the quality argument.
Not adding yeasts is an interesting one, it sounds good to use the natural yeast, the wild yeast and it can give excellent results – Errazuriz have proved that for years with their delicious Wild Ferment Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Chile‘s Casablanca Valley. Using the natural yeast can also cause problems and produce odd flavours, so it is not always a virtue. Neither is it all that unusual or noteworthy – in fact it is quite common practice in Burgundy.
Not adding sugar is a misleading point in my opinion, I often have to explain to consumers that wines do not have sugar added to make them sweet – whether they believe me or not I do not know, as people tend to believe the Chinese whispers from what someone told their best friend in a wine shop once rather than what I know to be true. Sugar is only added to wine in very controlled ways to help fermentation. The process is called Chaptalisation and is the adding of sugar to unfermented grape juice to make the alcoholic fermentation happen – it can be useful in cool years or regions. So, is that a bad thing?
Not rectifying the acidity could refer to adjusting the acidity of the soil, but I will assume they mean that there is no change made to the acid levels in the wine. Well if the wine has undergone Malolactic Fermentation, as many of the wines must, then that statement simply is not true – that process lowers acidity. I assume they mean that no acidity is added. They seem to presume that adding or adjusting acidity is inherently bad, I do not know that to be a fact.
Adding little or no sulphites is the cruncher really, the use of SO2 as a disinfectant and preservative is widespread and long established – many claim the Romans used it and written records certainly show its use in the Middle Ages. Obviously Sulphur can be dangerous which is why its use in food and drink is highly controlled and regulated and why all bottles of wine carry a warning about it. Strangely I think that sensible warning on each and every bottle of wine has caused more trouble than it is worth because many consumers seem to assume that sulphur has only been added to wine since it started being mentioned on the label and that it is therefore some dangerous new industrial process – when actually that warning could have applied to wine throughout history. Personally I am bad at detecting sulphur so it does not really trouble me, but I understand that some people are bothered by it. The trouble is, as sulphur acts as a preservative, if the levels are too low then the wine can change beyond recognition between the winery and the drinker. That could be a high price to pay for perceived purity.
So, as far as I can see – and despite its name – the points in The Natural Wine Fair Charter of Quality represent a preference and simply do not have any direct bearing on the quality of any wine made that way – they can affect the quality if the wine making is good, but it will not necessarily follow. Guess what, that is the same for any wine at all – ‘natural’ or not.
By now you may well have detected a note of cynicism in my view of ‘natural wine’ and you would be right, I am cynical about it and I will tell you why. I tasted a good few wines at The Natural Wine Fair and I have tried many ‘natural’ wines elsewhere too – before and since – a good number of them were fabulous, well made, elegant, balanced and delicious, but some weren’t. Some were very hard to drink, oxidised and unpleasant. Some of them however are amongst my favourite wines of the moment, but not because they claim to be ‘natural’, but because they are really good wines made with flare and passion by people who care. As long as a wine is good I do not let how it is made prejudge my view of its merits.
In my opinion what matters is the liquid, the quality of the wine. Let’s celebrate good quality and delicious wine rather rather than obsess about how it is made.