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:
No added yeasts
No added acidity
No sulfur dioxide additions, except a bit at bottling if needed
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.