Spent a good portion of today at the Real Wine tasting convened by UK importer (of mainly natural wines) Les Caves de Pyrene. Rarely have I spent a day tasting such thrilling, diverse, intellectually challenging and soul-seducing bottles.
But what exactly are natural wines?
There’s no strict definition, and I’m not sure we should introduce one, or assent to have one imposed on us. You just know one when you see one. It’s as much about producer intent as anything.
Natural wines tend to be made by growers who farm their vineyards as sympathetically to nature as possible. Many are biodynamic or organic, but not all. In the winery, they work as naturally as possible, adding as little and doing as few physical manipulations as are consistent with preserving the qualities that their terroirs have given them.
Some use no sulfur dioxide at all, and thus add nothing to the wine. Others use none until bottling. Many will use indigenous fermentations, but this is a complex subject (after all, cultured yeasts are isolated from nature). Do you want to capture your terroir’s qualities? If so, then sometimes intervention in the winery is needed. That’s why I think a strict definition of natural wine is a retrograde step.
In one sense, all wines are natural. Yet there is also a continuum of naturalness, ranging from the most industrial of wines towards the most extreme of natural wines. Generally, the world’s most interesting wines are made by winegrowers looking to work more naturally.
That’s a personal opinion, of course, but natural wines move, entice, seduce and inspire me in ways that winemaker wines, for all their hedonic qualities, power and excess simply don’t.
There’s life in the natural wine movement. Attempts to codify, define and legislate could choke the life out of it. We need to live with the tension and uncertainty that not having definitions brings. You just know a natural wine when you see one, and usually the sorts of people making them are aligned together.