Some thoughts on natural wine

I love natural wines. I’m also a scientist by training. Knowing what I know, I don’t understand how natural wines (here defined as wines with as little added as possible – and specifically with very low or zero additions of sulfur dioxide) are as good as they are. And how rarely they are faulty.

But the very term ‘natural wine’ seems to be polarizing. Those who don’t get it, or don’t understand it, or who simply have difficulty in distinguishing great wines from good commercial wines, seem to want to put the boot in.

I don’t think all natural wines are great, by any means. And I don’t think that wines are great because they are natural. But I frequently have a great deal of joy, pleasure and spiritual communion from bottles made by growers who work naturally.

Doug Wregg of Les Caves de Pyrene puts this beautifully in his latest newsletter:

‘Natural wine unerringly attracts all kinds of mean-spirited voodoo naysayers who attribute all sorts of crazy claims to the so-called followers of this movement. The proof of the pudding is in the tasting –  gorgeous, fresh, low sulphur wines abound that are naturally drinkable.  Where’s the problem?’

The proof is in the bottle. There’s so much we don’t understand about wine; there is so much we don’t understand about wine science. The proof in the bottle means we need to go and rethink our theories.

14 comments to Some thoughts on natural wine

  • Couldn’t agree more Jamie. And it’s reassuring to read such a post from you, a trained scientist. There’s so much evil-spirited attack on the natural wine movement by proponents of science. We are seeing a lot of this in Poland. Most often the actual taste of the good natural wines – with their unique flavours so different from ‘technological’ wines – is completely ignored. While it’s no good to be positively biased just because a wine is declared natural, the reverse is also true: science doesn’t have an answer to everything, and there’s plenty yet to discover in how wine is made.

  • Pedro Fernandes

    For me this is a great issue about wine, and will become more, and more important with time. From my experience, I know that it is perfectly possible to have a great wine made without any chemicals added, if there is enough precautions on cleanliness. However, it is true that they are not so stable, and perhaps don’t last as long in the bottle as the others. It is excelent to drink wine knowing that it is 100% natural. Just nature and “science”, without chemicals!

  • Concise, to the point, done. Cuts through all the nonsense surrounding this topic. “The proof is in the bottle”. Thank you!

  • Jamie I am also a trained scientist(biochemistry at Texas A&M and UC Davis, research guy at a couple of famous wineries, technical director at one of the wine services labs) plus I am deep into my 24th vintage as a winemaker. You might be surprised how infrequently the term “natural” comes up in discussions among professionals. We talk about what works, and what doesn’t. We respect each others’ choices, because the proof of what works is always there right in front of us – in the bottle.

    “Natural” only really seems to cause cognitive dissonance among some wine buyers, media types and consumers. I think it is a marketing thing with some and a cultish obsession with others. There are enough “mean-spirited voodoo naysayers” on both sides of the playing field.

    My own winegrowing philosophy is “don’t do anything you don’t have to.” Consequently my approach has become more minimalist with each vintage. I can get away with this because my vineyard is small enough (24 acres) that we can farm nearly vine-by-vine, and my production is low enough (2,500 cases max) that I have my own eyes and hands on every drop.

    Technology is required to scale up – technology substitutes for eyes and hands on everything, allows us to make more with the same labor. Isn’t this how economists define increased productivity? The tradeoff for increasing productivity is a loss of artisanal character.

  • As a trained scientist I have a theory that for me explains at least part of the fenomenon. Anyone without a technical mastery (in the cellar and in the vineyard) needed to make a good natural wine (free of some obvious faults at least) would not even consider making such a wine, if he/she wants to survive till the next harvest. If they want to feed their families, they choose to stay on the safe side. I think quite many people are experimenting with small batches of “natural” wines, but most of the results end down in the drains. So what natural we see on the market usually comes from the most talented and most qualified winemakers.

  • Richard G.

    John from Texas nailed the thoughts and practices of the vast majority of winemakers that I have met. They do as little as they can under the circumstances they find themselves particularly with respect to scale. And from my experience, a lot of the mean spiritness comes from the other side with claims that those who don’t adhere to some extreme version of naturalness are harming the planet and puting peoples health at risk (both of which are debatable). I’d like anyone to justify the use of Bordeaux mix for controlling mildew to me. It’s commonly used used by organic/natural winemakers. Despite its romantic name, it’s active ingredient is Copper oxychloride. Not pretty. This is one case in point which blurs the battle lines so to speak. I think all should just respect each others approaches and philosophies to winegrowing and winemaking.

  • jaf

    Science or no science, I am always curious about “natural” in a winemaking context. I had the joy of growing up with a mother who produced jams / preserved fruit etc that demonstrated an endless array of genotype and environment interactions (terroir?). These products survived for years so it always seems that natural success is “Keep it clean”. Is this this skill shown by natural wine makers?

  • I think both yours and Doug’s statements are very broad and sweeping, at least to describe my position on natural wine (perhaps they accurately describe the position and attitude of others). Wines made with a ‘natural’ ethos can be stunning; some of the greatest white wines I have tasted this year have been Anjou Blancs made with little intervention. In particular the statement in your second paragraph is very provocative; do you mean to suggest that anybody who speaks up with criticism of the natural wine movement, or of individual natural wines, “don’t get it, or don’t understand it, or who simply have difficulty in distinguishing great wines from good commercial wines”. It’s not just that they have an opinion that differs to yours?

    Doug’s in the trade, selling the stuff, so we have to allow him his hyperbole, but his snappy closing statement of “where’s the problem?” would be very easy to answer with the help of a few wines from the annual Renaissance tasting in Angers lined up to illustrate the point. There are a lot of rubbish wines made under the ‘natural’ banner. Doug and his team no doubt act as a very substantial buffer between those wines and his clients, and no doubt between those wines and the UK press too, but that doesn’t mean those wines don’t exist.

    As an analogy, take cork taint. The vast majority of wines bottled under cork are fine, but to say “so where’s the problem?” as an enthusiastic eulogy to the closure is to brush under the carpet all the rotten corked wines that exist. There are both great and horrible wines under cork, and the latter group include wines that are horrible *because* of the cork. The same with natural wine. There are great wines made under the banner (Richard Leroy, Franz Saumon, Marc Angeli, Pithon-Paillé, Eddy Oosterlinck, Guy Bossard, Jo Landron – you can see I have my Loire hat on – all make superb wines I adore) but there are horrible, oxidised, cidery mutant-wines too, wines that might have been fine if the winemaker had focused more on the finished product, and less on the technique – which has ruined a potentially lovely wine just as effectively as a mould-ridden cork.

  • For me, I think I find the notion of ‘natural wines’ confusing. I’m not sure I understand it but I am not adverse to the idea that a wine made in a more natural way is the kind of wine I want to drink.

    The issue however it seems to me, is that people bandy around the term ‘Natural Wine’ to infer that the wine has some sort of quality. When as Jamie says, a wine is not good because it is natural, nor are all natural wines good.

    A wine is good because it is well made from high quality grapes. If that is done naturally then that is a positive attribute that will encourage me to buy it.

    However to say that some people don’t understand or get natural wine, or cannot distinguish commercial wine from great wines I think is a little bit wide of the mark.

    I don’t understand what a natural wine is, perhaps the ‘movement’ needs to educate me. I hope I can tell great wines from good commercial ones – but for me there are plenty of great wines that are not natural – which you post does seems to infer (although that may be my mis-interpretation)

    Great wines is made from great grapes and by a great wine maker who allows the grapes and the wine to be sensitively made.

  • Well done, Jamie! It’s a point I’ve been trying to make for years. Just drink the thing and see if you enjoy or not.

    What I’ve discovered that usually anyone who’s ever tried them tend to stick to drinking natural wines and some even report that they can’t get the same pleasure from the other wines as they used to.

    Sometime science just have to accept the final result without the scietific explanation. The same goes for biodynamic viticulture. There is no explanation but it works!

  • Thanks all for your illuminating comments.

  • My late 2 cents worth on this interesting topic:
    – Yes, the term ‘natural’ raises hackles because of the connotations of the work; ie it implies that other wines are somehow UN-natural, or generally worse or inferior (and not necessarily just from a technical or tasting point of view). I used to be a bit reticent to use the word natural to describe/promote my wines (ie so as not to antagonize ‘conventional’ winemakers/winedrinkers) and was always on the lookout for a more neutral term. But I don’t think it exists (see Alice Feiring’s recent post on ‘plain wine’). Now I have no qualms about using ‘natural’, because I’ve come to realize that deep down I really do believe that natural wines are ‘better’!!! Better for expressing the terroir, better for producing a quality wine with no uneccessary additions/adulterations, better for the environment and better for consumer’s health. Assuming, it is understood, that the winemaker makes a good, quality wine! There are of course lots of bad natural wines out there!

  • ‘Natural’ wines are a great idea in principle, but the problem is that they need better regulation – in particular, some defined status in law. Otherwise it’s just going to become another idea that leads to products being sold as being ‘green’, with no real right to that claim. Of course, legal definition in itself is no guarantee of any particular positive practices (if you view them as such), such as support for smaller, independent farmers, decreased reliance on potentially harmful chemicals, etc. Just look at a lot of the problem with ‘organic’ classification. However, a good enough campaign to secure a well-crafted legal definition could make natural wines a really positive addition to the industry in future years.
    Of course, in the end there’s no substitute for just researching your wines well before you purchase them.

    Check out our blog on Argentina and its wines: The Real Argentina.

  • We could of course all gauge more easily a wine was, at least in terms of wine making manipulations, if any additives used, tannins, acid, base, copper etc. had to be listed on the label. Then the consumer would be informed and could start to come to their own conclusions rather than rely on a word which is in danger of becoming a meaningless marketing tool.

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