Natural wines continue to intrigue and—happily—are getting a little less ‘natural’
A few years ago—as the ‘Natural Wine’ thing was beginning to posit itself as part of the mainstream, not exactly an acolyte, Wine Geek offered his opinions:
Fast forward to the winter of 2020, and the ‘natural wine thing’ is more than a trend; it appears it is here to stay. And to be honest, Geek has tempered his aversion to the category as a whole, though surely not to the worst examples of the genre. But this could be due to the fact that the advocates and participants have raised their quality standards a bit and maybe even become less dogmatic about who gets to be in the club. The mousiest of the uber-natural renditions are harder to find now. And none other than the president of the club—author/champion Alice Feiring—has taken some vintners to task for putting out unsound wines, citing in one blog post: there are too many boring, sloppy natural wines being poured. Just because a wine is natural does not mean that it is worthy.
To recap, ‘natural wines’ are a loosely defined group of wines whose producers practice what Geek used to refer to as ‘low intervention wines’, but that went way, way down that path to abolish additions of anything other than grapes, including sulfur (a staple in hygienic winemaking), and laboratory yeasts (that bring a dependability to the fermentation process/assuring complete, healthy ferments). The mantra is ‘nothing added, nothing taken away…except sulfur if you really need it’. Though we understand (sort of) the aversion to adding things like yeast nutrients, additions of sugar, boosting acidity, and maybe even being against using things like egg whites to fine the wines, we still do not understand the issues regarding using oak barrels (aren’t trees ‘natural’?), using tractors (for vineyard work and/or harvesting) and temperature controlled fermentation.
The good news about living in middle America is that most trends start on the coasts and work their way here…like a pot roast, the center gets heated later in the process. So though natural wines were being discussed and offered for sale here in Michigan four or five years ago, it’s only been for the past year or so that we’ve had lots of our customers inquire/offer them for sale. So as the natty wine industry worked out some kinks, we were mostly on the sidelines. As we dive in a bit, most of our options are much cleaner, more stable. and better balanced. All of this said, Geek will admit that many of the recent offerings we have seen are actually delicious (and Geek rarely changes his mind!). Albeit a different sort of delicious, but delicious nonetheless. And frankly, some of them work very well at the table.
Circling back to the beginning, as mentioned in our first post on natural wine, most people like the idea of natural wines, although not necessarily the taste. The reason for this is that some of the steps natural winemakers skip are essential to making a ‘sound’ wine, i.e. one that isn’t cloudy, won’t referment (and blow up) in the bottle and doesn’t taste like a dead mouse. We prefer the term and practice of ‘low intervention’ wines; wines that receive minimal manipulation and attempt to reflect the place where they were born. Admittedly some producers care more about consistency/dependability/pleasure than ‘authenticity’. But what is wrong with that? This same question was asked in a New York Times article last year by a respected wine writer, where she argued that those ‘every day wines’ deserve a place at the table as well. OMG…you would have thought she called your baby ugly, and the trolls quickly cut her to size and told her to go eat at Mc Donald’s. Geek doesn’t eat at McDonald’s very often, but millions and millions of people do. Who are we to tell them they shouldn’t? We think drinking wine is a natural thing, and we don’t care what a person drinks as long as they enjoy it! Happily, the world of wine has something for everyone.
Based on much feedback and questions from the trade, the term ‘orange wine’ should be mentioned here as well. Many (most) people conflate these two categories, which is incorrect. A natural wine might be orange, but an orange wine need not be natural. Indeed, orange wines—essentially white wines made using the non-traditional method of leaving their skins in play during fermentation—are often kissing-cousins of natural wines. Some of the most famous orange wines are indeed natural: most Georgian qvevri wines are natural—they throw grapes in a clay amphora, seal it up and drink the contents in a few months. But there are some producers of orange wine (maybe most) that use sulfur, tractors, and pumps…all things the naturalistas disdain and disavow. Orange wine too can be an interesting addition to the table…working with dishes that usually eschew wine affinity such as curry dishes, kimchi, and super-stinky cheeses.
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