Brian Croser on natural (or 'accidental') wines

[I recently contacted celebrated Australian winemaker and consultant Brian Croser to get a few quotes on the topic of natural wine in Australia, and its sometimes uneasy relationship with the more conventional side of the country’s wine industry. He ended up penning an essay, and with his consent, I’m publishing it here in its entirety. I think it’s an important contribution to the discussion on naturalness in wine. I’m not saying I agree with everything he says, but it’s a considered viewpoint that has a lot of merit.]

ACCIDENTAL WINES AND WINES OF TERROIR

By Brian Croser

The universe of fine wine making is not binary, it is a continuum from high degrees of informed intervention through to benign neglect.

There is a valid argument that neither of these extreme styles of wine making produce fine wine. Highly manufactured, technologically mutated wines do not reflect their origins and neither do the wines that have lost the clarity of their origins because of extraneous, uncontrolled microbiological/chemical mutations and their over-riding random sensory effects.

Early on beliefs enter this discussion and it is my belief and that of the vast majority of fine wine producers, that fine wine is defined by its origins. Fine wine reflects the still mysterious effect of the vineyard environment on the physiology of the vine, which in turn produces a fingerprint unique grape composition. It is here the argument starts.

How that unique grape composition is converted consistently and recognizably into a unique wine composition and pleasant sensory experience is the core of the question of the legitimacy of the fine wine making endeavour.

My thesis is that the carefully observed and minimally modulated wines made by modern conventional methods achieve the conversion of the vineyard defining essential grape components into sensorally consistent and pleasant aromas and flavours.

This broad category also dominates the commerce of fine wine.

These fine wines can be made with minimal intervention, starting with organically or biodynamically grown grapes, They can be made with natural fermentation in small vessels, gravity transfers in a cool cellar with no mechanical conveniences and no ameliorative additions fining or filtration. The exception is the addition of small additions of SO2 to pause the entropic effect of oxidation.

The effect of scale of production is to force winemakers to reach for mechanical advantages, pumps instead of gravity, refrigeration instead of cool cellars, otherwise the chemistry and microbiology of the process and the composition of the end product is the same.

They are in every sense natural wines made from natural grapes.

This leads to my only protests at the accidental wine movement.

I reject their appropriation of the term natural, inferring that all other wines are less than natural.

I reject their appropriation of the term authentic implying all others have less authenticity of origins and or process?

Rootstock they can borrow but to me it means the bottom half of my vines.

There my protests at the accidental winemaking community stop.

They do occupy a legitimate space where consumers rejected corporate, conventional, science and technology because of the established power and pervasiveness of technology in our lives. The parallel universe of rebellion against science has a quasi religous dimension and at least with wine only the willing consumer stands in harms way as opposed to the broader infection of society caused by the anti-vaxxers.

To understand the sensory chemistry of accidental wines versus conventional is to understand changes to the generic components of grapes and wine, not those that depend on the vineyard site for their presence and concentration. All wines contain alcohols that can be converted to aldehydes, organic acids and esters. Site doesn’t determine the presence or concentration of these. The fermentation conditions, temperature, presence of oxygen, grape solids and the microflora that conduct the conversions dictate the sensory outcomes here. The compounds that dominate are sometimes described as spoilage compounds, organic acids, aldehydes and esters.

In the special wines of Jerez, the Jura and Tokay these compounds are part of a regional style, their composition established by consistent methodology over the centuries. These are far from accidental wines.

However the random concentration of these same compounds can dominate accidental wines to the detriment of terroir expression.

The argument reduces then to which winemaking method better preserves and converts the unique compositional finger print of the grape to a unique and reproducible wine composition and sensory effect?

Which winemaking method most effectively suppresses the over-riding sensory effects of the microbial conversions of the generic compounds in grape and wine allowing the more subtle, complex and pleasing sensory effect of variety and site to shine through?  The answer to that question has been my mission in the winery for the past 50 years.

To the makers of accidental wines, have fun, please your devoted cohort of consumers and add some colour and excitement to wine as a beverage. But please don’t steal my legitimacy as a dedicated producer of natural and authentic wines.

BJC. 28/6/2018.

13 comments to Brian Croser on natural (or ‘accidental’) wines

  • As natural is to wine,so is punk to music. At the end of the day its about generations acceptance and approval, and onwards to succession of a consumer product, and brand… if it makes you happy then smile. If not then maybe take a look in the mirror.

  • Haydn Deane

    He who makes sense makes good wine!
    He who makes no sense makes nonsense wine!

  • Brian M

    Interesting essay.

    I still remember one “natural” Gamay from the Loire Valley (the winemaker looked like he sleeps under a bridge, so I am guessing soap is not natural) that tasted strongly of spoiled peanut butter.

  • Thanks Brian for the perspective.
    Natural wine
    It has no agreed upon or legal definition. I find it a meaningless phrase.
    Wine is not natural. It is an artifact of human activity. It exists in the natural world as a few fleeting molecules before turning into vinegar and other substances.
    It’s not natural.
    Wine requires a vessel and a human. Then some processes to get fruiting bodies into the vessel and manage the results.
    I prefer to keep it fairly simple. I introduce selected yeasts and bacteria to supplement those coming with the grapes, picking process, and winery process. I mostly put juices and wines into barrels to manage the environ and results.
    It’s not natural.
    I focus most of my efforts into growing as perfect a grape as I know how. We are in our sixth year of being a Zero Pesticide Vineyard. No insecticides, herbicides, fungicides( sulfur IS a pesticide). We planted non-indigenous species. We trellis, irrigate, shot thin, leaf pluck, … It’s possibly insane human intervention.
    It’s not natural.
    Natural. A word loved by folks making granola with multiple sweeteners, also loved by folks trying to make a living by creating verbiage while writing about wine, especially ” Pet-Nat” bot tongs.
    It’s not natural .

    Paul Vandenberg
    Paradisos del Sol
    Winegrower of ingredient labeled wines from a Zero Pesticide Vineyard

  • Wine is NOT natural. There are very few processed products that may be natural: maybe honey, or coffee beans that have passed through the intestines of a mongoose. Wine is one of the most cultural products that humans produce. We should ban the word natural. The only “natural wine” is the one found in a puddle under the vines in late fall, and that should be called vinegar. That’s accidental.
    Oh, you eliminate O2, then that is not natural. Oh, you don’t use SO2, then you drink your wine soon after fermentation ends or you like the taste of acetaldehyde. You use wild yeast? Have the DNA of the yeast on your grapes checked out. They originally came from your winery or a neighbors.
    We have been developing this authentic product and selecting its fruit for 6,000 years. There is nothing natural about it. Please clean up the terminology.

  • Andrew margan

    The moment the grapevine is planted you have human intervention but that fact seems to be ignored in the non-interventionist arguments

  • Scott McWilliam

    A powerful argument and sentiment indeed.
    I wonder when the word “pure” will start to be used more often? For example, is Hunter Valley Semillon the purest form of grape flavour expressed as wine?

  • Patrick Baldwin

    Natural Wine, so the debate continues. The only thing NATURAL about wine is in the drinking of it. If the wine is good I drink it. If the wine is no good I don’t. VERY NATURAL.

  • John Struik

    Nothing good comes from Accidental Wines.
    Came round the corner of Portrush & Greenhill and the pallet of freshly bottled Shiraz slipped out and occupied the intersection.
    Decided then I wasn’t a fan of accidental wines.

    Definition of accidental – an unfortunate incident that happens unexpectedly and unintentionally, typically resulting in damage.

  • graham dixon

    Winemaking is an elaborate aesthetic endeavour extending over decades, starting with vineyard site selection, involving climatology and soil science, biochemistry, microbiology, entomology, mycology and viticulture, which require a lot of reading.
    But nowadays you can opt for ‘Natural’ winemaking, which means you can skip all that sciency stuff, and the reading, just chuck crushed grapes into vats, and trust to Nature, and learn a few spells, which are quite amenable to improvisation. Occasionally the gods smile on you, and you end up with a beverage you can hold down. Then you can always find other wannabes (who often call themselves rebels) to appreciate the ‘unexpected’ funky aromas and flavours.

  • Bob Colman

    I make natural wine, ie wine with nothing added including SO2. People like it, I like it, it sells. I have a cellar full of wines I’ve been collecting for, in some cases, many many years. I now find most of those wines of little interest to me and am starting to sell them off except for a few which are kept for friends who like them. To me, natural wines are fresh, fun to drink, age nicely and suit the food my wife and I eat. I must be a hipster of advancing years I suppose.
    Still, each to their own and the more diversity there is in wine, the more people will drink it and that is a good thing.

  • Kenny Tudhope

    If it wasnt for Brian Croser we would not have the winemakers in Australia that we have today.

  • Mike Hayes

    Well, well, well! I think the recent comments about natural wine intriguing to say the least. Whether it is named natural or not I have a major issue with spoiled wines being passed off as artisan or natural, if the wine isn`t sound,then it has a fault and I for one do not want to drink crappy wine, I whole heartedly agree with Brian and his views. By the way if we were all meant to be natural we wouldn1t wear clothes, brush our teeth, wash our hair or cook food and live in a nice shiny house, hmmm food for thought or should I say wine for thinking.

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