I love natural wine, but...

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I love natural wine, but I worry that the natural wine movement (whatever that is), is becoming a subculture that’s self-contained, self-referential, and living in its own bubble.

Let me try to explain. I like interesting wine. Wine with a story to tell; wine with a sense of place (whatever that is); wine that is articulate in its expression of flavour; and, above all, wine that tastes good.

I really don’t care how much sulfur dioxide a winegrower uses. I don’t mind whether she or he uses cultured yeasts. I don’t mind whether they filter their wine or not. I don’t mind whether they acidify or chaptalize – I understand that sometimes this can be necessary. I don’t mind whether they ferment their wine in stainless steel, new oak or concrete eggs.

But before you stop reading, I need to clarify that I don’t care about these factors in an ideological way. I do, however, care about them when they impact negatively on wine flavour. What I have found is that ‘natural’ winegrowers tend to make the sort of wines I love. I have such fun at events like the Real Wine Fair, or RAW, where there are just so many great wines on show.

My experience is that working with low sulfur, with wild yeasts, with alternative methods of elevage (large oak, concrete), choosing not to filter, and avoiding acid additions tends to make more interesting wine. But should someone choose to work more conventionally and still make interesting wines, then I haven’t got a problem with it.

I do like the idea of adding nothing to wine. But I’d rather drink a wine that has a sense of place with some additions used in the winemaking process, than one that has lost its sense of place through the development of microbial problems.

But let’s not get too simplistic. In my experience, even where nothing has been added to natural wines, the incidence of ‘wine faults’ is surprisingly low. It’s wrong to characterize natural wine as being full of faults. And I’d also argue that there’s a place for some natural wines that display what wine scientists would classify as ‘faults’, such as brett, volatile acidity and some oxidative characters. It all depends on the context. Some wines just work, even with quite high levels of fault characteristics.

One further point. This is the large overlap between natural wine and conventional wine at the high end. Most of the world’s truly great fine wines are made quite naturally. We don’t have a fixed definition of natural wine, of course, but if you take the definition as follows:

    Organic/biodynamic viticulture
    No added yeasts
    No added acidity
    No sulfur dioxide additions, except a bit at bottling if needed
    No filtration

Then lots of fine wines that aren’t considered ‘natural’ would fit this definition. It’s for this reason that I think it’s important that the natural wine movement doesn’t disappear into an essentially private subculture, but stays connected with the rest of the wine world. Natural wine has already had quite an impact on winegrowers who wouldn’t count themselves as ‘natural’. It has encouraged people to work in more natural ways. It has probably helped, also, to shift attention away from the winery and the cult of the winemaker. So it’s important that natural wine stays part of the broader wine scene, in my view.
Natural wine should be inclusive and welcoming. It shouldn’t behave like a bad religion or a cult.

13 comments to I love natural wine, but…

  • A good, balanced piece, Jamie. I suspect that plenty of “the world’s truly great fine wines” fail to fit your definition on at least a couple of points (Anthony Barton once said that there were only two kinds of producers inBordeaux: the ones who filter and admit it and the ones who don’t admit it; and there are lots of truly great wines with more than a “bit of” SO2 at bottling), but we’re 100% on the same page when saying that natural wine shouldn’t behave like a cult.

  • David Crossley

    Could not have put it better myself, really, Jamie. I too find I love a lot of these wines. After 30 years drinking wine, they are just the excitement an often jaded palate needs. But the bad ones are bad. And to be honest I can buy great cider in the Pays de Caux for much less if that’s what I want to drink. But I like any exciting quality wine and so long as the producer doesn’t go too far on the chemicals (which quality producers don’t usually tend to do), I don’t mind either. But the fundamentalism of some natural wine producers and the vehemence of some opponents are not to my liking (as I’ve recently expressed elsewhere). Live and let live and love great wine.

  • Well written and I couldn’t agree more. We sell a number of natural wines, but as with everything else that we sell, each wine has to be great however it is made to get through our door. Some natural wines you would struggle to tell from their conventional counterparts, some most definitely wake the jaded palate and others should have an asbo’s applied to them…but then the same can be said for conventionally made wines too.

  • RyanTheWineGeek

    Spot on!

  • Nice piece Jamie…

    I see this as a consumer movement for certain but don’t see any cultism anywhere. If anything Natural Wine is a category with a point of view. I’ve been into it for a long time and always felt it was inclusive if anything.

    To your other point, you may not care what is in it or not, but the consumer certainly does. Certainly taste first, but more and more, awareness of what is or isn’t added is important and will become more so. Becoming more so in food and wine from a consumer perspective will follow.

  • Doug

    I think to call this “a movement” or “a cult” is to caricature the personalities and to posit a Manichean wine world. It ain’t like that. This is about farming and vinification. Sure, there are people who work more naturally than others – viniculture is a spectrum of appoaches and there are good wines and bad wines throughout the spectrum – although people can argue what’s good and bad till the cows go home. It’s interesting to note how in the last fifteen years the number of vignerons working in a low/non-interventionist manner has swelled dramatically and the wines have improved beyond recognition. And will improve as the winemakers understand the material and the process. When we ask growers why they are changing their methods their answers are surprisingly uniform: “We want to make wines that we enjoy drinking ourselves”, echoing the sentiments of Chauvet and Lapierre a few decades ago. Perhaps, one should also look the hundreds of growers’ fairs (eg Rootstock with 13,000 visitors) which are connect the growers with the public or the rebirth of the wine bar/caviste culture which has helped to foster a relaxed & fun food-and-wine culture. And the ultimate arbiter is the person who drinks the wine – if it is not enjoyable they are not going to order that bottle again – unless they have been brainwashed by my Jedi mind-control tricks!

  • Raj Vaidya

    Superb piece Jamie, couldn’t agree more. One big concern I had pointed out to me is an issue which you did not mention. Those top end wines which are following viticultural regimes similar to the ‘natural’ group (the overlappers you mentioned) might have the inclination to lie about (or conceal) their few ‘interventionalist’ practices so as to not be penalized by the growing market for ‘naturel’ for their use. I feel as though I’ve already seen this starting to happen. If a winery chaptalizes and the wine is better, good on us all. If the winery uses chaptalization but lies about it or conceals that info, good upon none of us. The conversation about so called interventions is a valuable one until there is an exclusion of some very common and even, dare I say, traditional interventions from the emerging zeitgeist. Then it ceases to be a conversation and starts to resemble a cult or bad religion.

  • A good, balanced piece which gets to the heart of it. RAW (I have been as a customer and loved it) is good but speaking as an organic winemaker and one who wants to show my wines there, I do not qualify as some of the grapes are picked by machine. This is an example of the natural wine movement acting parochially (or isolating itself) as machine picking, though debatable, is not at the heart of what’s natural, it’s a prosaic matter of how many pairs of hands you can or cannot hire. SO I am not able to join the party even though I make decent, organic wines with low so2.

  • ed

    I recently had a five course meal in which four of five wines were “natural”, starting with a champagne. I was skeptical and completely won over. Vital, clean and fascinating drinks. The one non-natural, a Barolo, was terrific too.

  • I found one small bodega in Spain who is making wine on the most pure and natural way I have ever seen. Moreover this bodega produces wine from 100% natural fruit other then grapes such as oranges, pomegranates, medlars, lemons and tangerines.
    I don’t know much about wine-making but the story the owner told me how he started 20 years ago, the passion he has and his believe and love for his product made me partner in his passion.
    Now we became friends and I will help him to get his products known in Europe.
    My website is in Dutch, soon I will be doing the website in English, but take a look and you will see that it speaks for itself. Don’t be afraid to shoot the pianist. I will be happy to respond to any of your questions.
    http://www.principedeazahar.be

  • David Clawson

    The natural wine ‘movement’ should absolutely not pigeonhole itself like a cult, however, those who may not understand or like ‘natural wine’ should not try to portray it as a cult either. As you and many have said, it is whether the wine is compelling to the drinker that is important. I seem to encounter lots of people, especially in the traditional wine trade, who want to paint all natural wine as undrinkable cider. Perhaps it is the inevitable backlash against the growth and popularity of natural wine, but it is very small minded. I wish everyone, on both sides of the natural wine debate, would be as open minded in their approach as you.

  • Hi Jamie, great piece and I agree on many levels. My only issue with ‘natural’ wines, and I hate to use the inverted commas but we have to as no clear definition, is one that David Gleave MW drew attention to in a previous article and that is that they can often taste similar regardless of they origin. With this in mind, I sometimes (important to note not always) find that ‘natural’ wines lack a sense of place and regional character, which I find hard to ignore. It makes it harder to put the wines into the right context. I also think it is important to educate consumers to the stylistic differences between ‘natural’ wines and organic/bio wines. We work with a lot of organic/bio wines, not just because we are trying to be part of the eco massive but primarily because it is a method of wine making that results in wines that are pure, super clean, luscious and have a real generosity/boldness in terms of character and flavour…all resulting in just good tasting wine. For me, ‘natural’ wines can be a little tough, ungenerous and raw – all another side to wine that I enjoy exploring but I think its important for drinkers to understand that just because a wine is organic/bio does not mean it is automatically ‘natural’; despite the fact that the other way round is often true. Clearly very much a talking point at the moment and nice to see a balanced opinion from your side JG.

  • Iain Cameron

    Probably the most common sense piece on natural wine I have read for a long time.

Leave a Reply

 

 

 

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

*