One of the hot topics of the wine world is the concept of ‘Natural Wine.’
Travel to Paris, and you will find lots of bars that specialize in vins natruels. It’s a hipster movement, and it’s beginning to catch on elsewhere. London has at least four natural wine bars at present, and this year there were two consumer wine fairs in the UK showcasing some of the leading natural wine producers, following on from the first in 2011.
What is natural wine? There is no legal or official definition, and this is one of the reasons it is so controversial.
It’s more of a countercultural movement. Increasingly, the scale of production, distribution and retailing of wine has grown. Many of the big brands that have become such a feature of modern wine retail are made in factory-like wineries in huge quantities—and almost to a recipe, in terms of their flavour profile. Their taste is carefully shaped by focus group to match the average palate, and they have little connection with ‘place’—the specific vineyard sites the grapes were grown in.
However, to be fair to commercial wine, it is still pretty much natural. While many processing aids are used in its production, these are not flavourants. For example, you can’t add fruit flavours to wine and still call it wine (it would be a wine-based beverage; these exist, and they can be quite nasty). Winemakers can manipulate the wine, technologically and chemically, but only up to a point. For example, they can remove alcohol by reverse osmosis or spinning cone technologies, or they can filter the wine, or they can stabilize it (by cooling it or adding proteins or bentonite), or they can add grape juice concentrate to sweeten it, but all these manipulations are governed by wine laws. And commercial wine has never been better, largely because of the increased understanding of wine science and the application of technology. A quality wine is one that is fit for purpose, and many people just want something cheap and tasty to drink. This is what the big brands, on the whole, deliver. Reliability.
To a wine lover like me, however, commercial wine is quite depressing. The insidious thing is that even more expensive wine has begun to taste manipulated and standardized, shaped more by the hand of the winemaker than the vineyard expressing itself through the wine.
This is what has led to the emergence of the natural wine movement. It is a loose alignment of like-minded producers, largely from France and Italy, but increasingly a more global group. They are chums. They get together to show their wines at fairs, usually involving a lot of eating and drinking. Specialist ‘natural’ importers will typically have a portfolio dominated by natural wine producers. There is no definition of natural wine precisely because this is an informal alliance of people determined to add as little as possible to their wines, because they believe that wines that are unmanipulated taste more interesting and reflect their vineyard origins better.
So what sets apart natural wines? The focus has largely been on what takes place in the winery, because it’s almost a given that anyone wanting to make wine more naturally will care about their soils. Whether the vineyards are managed organically, biodynamically or sustainably, the emphasis is on creating a healthy agroecosystem in the vineyard where the soil microfauna and flora are respected and chemical input is minimized.
A natural winegrower (they prefer this term to ‘winemaker’) will aim to harvest grapes that are as healthy as possible, and which, while ripe, will have retained enough acidity that correction (with tartaric acid) is not needed in the winery. And if the grapes are healthy enough, then there is no need to add sulfur dioxide (SO2) to them before fermentation.
SO2 is a big deal for natural wine guys. Of all wine additives, this is the most widely used, and hardest to do without. It is almost universally added to wine for two reasons. First, it acts as a microbicide, killing bacteria or rogue yeasts that might spoil the wine. Second, it prevents oxidation of the wine, by mopping up the otherwise damaging reactive oxygen species created by the interaction of wine with oxygen.
For natural winegrowers to avoid using SO2, they need to be skilled and vigilant, otherwise their wine is at risk of spoilage or oxidation. That’s why they need to start with clean grapes. Most natural wines are made with no SO2 during the winemaking process, but a little is added at bottling to protect the wine. Some are made with none added at all. Fermentation by yeasts produces just a little SO2, so no natural wine is totally free of it.
For natural wines, fermentation is carried out by yeasts naturally present in the must. These may have come from the vineyard; they may also have come from the winery environment. Wild ferments can often produce wines that are more complex and interesting, if a little less predictable. This is because several different species of yeasts are involved at different times. For red wines, and some whites, a second fermentation takes place called the malolactic fermentation. This is a bacterial fermentation, and for most wines—even conventional ones—it happens spontaneously.
Typically, natural winegrowers will not use new oak barrels for ageing their wines. These are thought to be too interventionist, because they introduce flavours from the oak. They will also resist fining their wines (adding protein products to remove excess tannins, or bentonite to help remove proteins that might make white wines hazy), and they don’t like to filter their wines.
It’s interesting that one of the father figures of the natural wine movement is the late Jules Chauvet, a respected wine scientist as well as a winemaker from the Beaujolais region. Chauvet, ahead of his time, championed the flavour of wine made with wild yeasts, and looked to move away from using SO2. ‘I think one can do without SO2 in a certain measure, if one has hygeine,’ he stated. ‘SO2 is a poison. It poisons both the yeast (the yeast resists, but it gives better products when it is not poisoned by SO2) and bacteria.’ Chauvet pointed out that winemakers were really caught between two stools: if they used too high levels of SO2, then malolactic doesn’t occur easily, but lower doses are no good against oxidasic breakdown (enzymatic oxidation from enzymes present in any rotten grapes), in which case it would be better not to treat at all, but allow the carbon dioxide present in the fermenting wine to provide a measure of protection. Where a harvest is sound, Chauvet advocated not using any SO2 during the fermentation process. ‘I think one must go towards an ever higher purity,’ said Chauvet. ‘You must come to the wine as a “reflection of its soil”, with a minimum of chemicals both in the soil as well as in the wine—the older I grow, the more one wants to find truly natural wines, well made wines.’
Enough of all this technical talk. Why is the natural wine movement so interesting, and so controversial?
I’m a fan, because I like so many of the wines. They taste delicious. Of course, there are bad ones, and some exhibit flavour characteristics which can be challenging, or even faulty. But there are so many that I just want to drink. I find an elegance in many of the reds—a haunting beauty—that is rare in conventionally made wines.
I also like the fact that so many natural wines come from lesser known wine regions. These are often areas with brilliant soils and interesting grape varieties, but which for largely historical reasons have never become famous. Often, the results are compelling, and because the wine regions are lesser known, you don’t pay a premium for the reputation, although natural wines do tend to be reasonably expensive because they are made by hand in small quantities.
Why are they so controversial? In part, it is because of the adversarial approach taken by many of the natural wine guys, who brief against conventionally made wines. This is a mistake, because there are many, many great conventionally made wines, and an awful lot of the good ones are made with very little manipulation at all. Many of them could happily be labelled ‘natural’.
Then there’s the lack of a strict or legal definition: if you want to call your wines ‘natural’, then no one can stop you. There is relatively little abuse of the term, though, because there is no financial gain to be made by advertising your wines this way. If you tried to join the unofficial natural wine club, and show your wines at fairs, but you were working conventionally in the cellar, you would soon be found out.
There’s little point in creating a strict definition for natural wine with a certifying body. It runs against the spirit of this counterculture movement. Certification also costs money, and how effective is it anyway? Putting it another way, what is wrong with the way things are? Natural is a niche, and consumers buying these wines know what they are letting themselves in for. You and I both know the sorts of wines we’ll encounter in a natural wine bar. It’s a vibrant, dynamic movement, and the wines are giving people a lot of pleasure. In addition, the natural wine scene is helping conventional growers think more about the direction they are taking. Working more naturally can help wines express their sense of place. Of course, working too naturally, with too little care, can cause any sense of place to be lost. Bad natural wines tend to taste similar, wherever they are from.
Critics moan about how many natural wines frequently show wine faults. My response? First, a wine fault is in the eye of the drinker. So, you as an expert wine critic might find wine ‘A’ unbearably bretty (containing products from the activity of a rogue yeast, Brettanomyces), and wine ‘B’ oxidised. Why are you so outraged that people are enjoying these wines? Aren’t most wine faults context dependent, anyway? And only last week you were enjoying a 1982 first growth Bordeaux costing many hundreds of pounds a bottle, that had discernible Brettanomyces! Second, even if I come across the odd spoiled bottle—and because of the lower levels of SO2 natural wines are probably more likely to spoil than conventional wines—I wouldn’t trade the highs I get plus the occasional disappointments, for greater consistency without the peaks. Putting it the other way, I’ll tolerate the odd failure for the moments of joy that natural wines bring me and many others.