‘Natural Wine’. Quite the buzz words with some in the wine trade these days. Indeed, there are numerous importers that sell natural wines exclusively. Who wouldn’t want something one consumes to be as ‘natural’ as possible, right? Well in Geek’s humble opinion, such may not be the case, and we are not afraid to cry foul (really foul) on many of these wines (some taste like fowl frankly).
First, wine is a fairly simple, fairly natural product in its own right: fundamentally, it is squished grapes which—with the help of yeast (found naturally on the grape skins)—can ferment into an alcoholic beverage…though vinegar is the natural end product. Of course, in the modern era, to get the wine and avoid the vinegar, it is actually a bit more controlled than this. Most wineries use laboratory yeasts (improved efficiency/dependability), most wineries ferment in vessels that are temperature controlled (over-heating can be a problem), wineries will sometimes induce or block malolactic fermentation, and almost all wineries use various Sulfur-based products in various stages of grape growing and winemaking to prevent disease (in the vineyard) and bacterial spoilage and oxidation (in the winery). Of course, some wineries/producers go way beyond these simple, fairly benign steps: yeast nutrients are commonly used—essentially extra nourishment for the yeasts to assure a complete, healthy fermentation (with names like Ferm-aid & Fermax); acidity is frequently added (usually in the form of tartaric acid), tannin can be added (in various forms, including powder). Most wineries also fine the wines using various materials (egg whites, earth, isinglass) and stabilize the wines using filtration, or temperature (cold stabilization). And to be sure, there are many, many other techniques and additives that can be applied and used to ‘enhance’ the appeal of a wine.
Most (or all) of these practices are eschewed by the Natural Wine proponents. Though there really isn’t a concise, agreed upon definition of what constitutes a Natural Wine, the dogma seems to be: nothing added, nothing taken away. Of course, Geek agrees that using laboratory yeasts, adding tannin, acidity, and SO2 to wine, and using reverse osmosis, must concentrators, centrifuges, and micro-oxygenation are forms of manipulation, but…Chaptalization* (adding sugar to the must in vintages where the grapes did not achieve adequate ripeness on their own)? What about taking the (bitter) stems out before fermentation? How about oak barrels: aren’t they flavoring the wine? Further, the most fervent dogmatists of Natural Wine fans feel that wines should only be hand-harvested, pumps should not be used, and of course, one can never irrigate.
Most Natural Wine proponents we’ve talked to or read (lots of Natural Wine bloggers out there—Alice Feiring being their spiritual leader) are attracted by the philosophy of Natural Wine, as opposed to the taste of Natural Wines. They think it is the right ethical choice (not sure what ethos cold stabilization violates), as well as being a more authentic representation of this gift of nature. One missive we read declared that these un-retouched Natural Wines are how wines were made in ancient times…which implies a higher standard (apparently said writer does not know that these ancient societies used sulfur, pine resin, and sometimes added seawater to their wines).
As stated in the first paragraph, who wouldn’t want to consume a more natural product, everything else being equal. But there is the crux of the debate: everything else isn’t equal. Many (most?) Natural Wines simply don’t taste good—not to Wine Geek, nor to most of Geeks wine loving associates (be they trade or consumers). For sure we have had a few really good wines that are Natural (wines made by Mt Etna’s Frank Cornelissen spring to mind). But the reality is that some minimal intervention/manipulation/decisions are required to make a sound wine (by most people’s standards). Let’s talk just SO2—the cause celeb of the Naturalists. Grapes are a fruit, and fruit starts to oxidize & spoil soon after it is picked (picture a slice of apple on your kitchen counter—it turns brown in 20 minutes); SO2 protects the fruit from this spoilage while the winemaking process proceeds. And the amount that most premium wineries use is incredibly small and not harmful in the least to the vast majority of consumers; there are typically way more sulfites in jams & jellies. By not using SO2, most winemakers are essentially using spoiled fruit (or at least starting to spoil fruit). Probably why the mantra of nothing added, nothing taken away is more accurately stated as: nothing added, nothing taken away…a touch of sulfur if needed (we actually read this revised version of the mantra written by none other than Alice Feiring herself). And in case the reader is not aware, grape wines ALL contain some sulfites: small amounts are naturally created during fermentation! Sulfur and filtration are also helpful in making sure wines don’t start re-fermenting once bottled (a small amount of residual sugar might make this happen), and to make sure the wines aren’t cloudy (many natural wines are cloudy/hazy).
Please don’t confuse organic, biodynamic, low-intervention, Lutte raisonée and other more natural (and increasingly popular) approaches to farming and winemaking with Natural Wine: one can grow grapes organically or biodynamically, yet still practice pragmatism in the winery. A Natural Wine producer MUST start with organic grapes to even be in the game. As mentioned above, there is no governing body nor codified rules regarding what makes a Natural Wine, though there is a ‘club’ called The Charter of Quality/Return to Terroir founded by Nicolas Joly which has a manifesto that cites what one needs to do to get their seal of approval. There is a star system with 1, 2 or 3 stars bestowed, dependent on how far down the rabbit hole a producer cares to venture, addressing things like chemical fertilizers, GMO plant materials, clones, acid adjustments, manual harvesting, and a host of other things. None of the Demands (that’s what they call them) however mention that the wines must taste good. And shouldn’t that be the first duty of wine: to taste good? There is plenty of room in this wonderful world for all manner of philosophies, likes & dislikes—this is why Baskin Robbins has 31 flavors. Some people find funky, inconsistent, cloudy wines appealing, but for Geek, clean, balanced and delicious wines are as essential as a hot shower.
*Note by the way that likely 90% of the ‘best’ wines from France have been Chaptalized; we’re talking wines like Lafite-Rothschild and Romanée-Conti. I wonder if a Natural Wine snob would turn down a glass of either of these?