Eric and Ollie on natural wine

A really good article by Eric Asimov on natural wine (and an accompanying blog post by Eric on the same topic) has got people talking. Ollie Styles, formerly of Decanter and now resident in Toro, Spain has made a response.

Ollie outlines three perceived dangers of the natural wine movement. The first is that he worries that if he dislikes some of the wines, then people will criticize him for not understanding them. The second is that that he feels the natural wine movement is a fashion or fad. The third is that the wines are expensive, and he thinks that they should be cheaper in part because the winemakers are adding less.

Personally, I think his concerns are overstated. First, no one is trying to silence dissenting voices. If he doesn’t like the wines, he’s free to say this.

But it may well be that he doesn’t understand the wines – if others feel, from his notes, that this is the case, then they should be free to say this too.

Second, natural wines are currently fashionable, but this reflects the fact that it is a dynamic movement, and many people are waking up to how good the wines actually are. This creates a flurry of interest, which is what we are seeing. Why are fashions of this nature intrinsically dangerous?

Third, natural wines are quite expensive, but this reflects the fact that they are usually made on a small scale, and are niche items that require speciality importers; dealing with large numbers of stock items in small quantities, when the products themselves are quite fragile, tends to push the price up.

And I would take one issue with Eric’s otherwise excellent definition of natural wine (fortunately a loose one; I think a rigid definition would be unhelpful), and that is with the following:

In the cellar, natural winemakers allow the juice to ferment with indigenous yeasts rather than by adding yeast formulated in laboratories

I think his conception of yeasts needs to be updated somewhat. Cultured yeasts may come from packets, but they are not formulated in laboratories. They are selected from nature and then cultured, before drying. It’s a bit like saving seeds over to plant the next year.

6 comments to Eric and Ollie on natural wine

  • Doug

    If anything it is becoming fashionable now to have a pop at natural wines by calling them weird. It is not clever to propagate this misapprehension; whilst some wines may be extreme, a vast number are delicious and drinkable, in many cases a damn sight more so than confected and over-manipulated conventional wines.

    Ollie may not understand the wines, he may not choose to make the effort to understand them. That is up to him. Each wine should be assessed on its merits rather than comprehensively lumping all such wines together. Natural wines is not a fashion or a fad – they represent the tiniest drop in the ocean of wine that is produced. However, it is a return to the way that wine was produced several generations ago before mass production dictated the methodology of wine-making. A fad or fashion is, by definition, populist; natural winemakers do not make wine for supermarkets, consumer acceptance panels, a wider audience; they make wines that they can be proud of and which gives them pleasure to drink. You don’t see natural wines submitted to wine competitions or given medals – the wine is the wine is the wine, no marketing or pr guff to create a mythology.

    I would even disagree that natural wines are expensive. Think how expensive brands would be, relatively speaking, stripped of their marketing budgets, and without the safety net of deep discounting. Natural wines are made in minuscule quantities – we are talking of a few hundred bottles as opposed to several hundred thousand. Everything is done by hand in the vineyard; it is painstakingly hard work. Like any artisan activity it culminates in something which is hand-crafted rather than a commercial product that rolls off an endless production line. Proportionately, therefore, the wines are less expensive than they should be.

  • very clever analysis on this one. it really takes knowledge when it comes to wine or else you’ll just make fun out of yourself without knowing.

  • After Doug’s comments there isn’t really much to add, apart from that these wines will never catch on with the general public as they are too honest. Honesty, in the era of extreme marketing, is very much perceived as a gimmick because people can not see what the catch is and there not being promised to live forever after they’ve drunk them.

    Also the wines rarely find a passionate journalist, like Jamie, to support them as there isn’t a mass appeal and thus not enough audience for the journalist to make a living.

    But hey, I like it this way – whoever likes them, it is for what they really are in the bottle.

  • A few points. I never said natural wines were ‘weird’. I did say beware of the lack of definition because if one person thinks crop-thinning is part of natural winemaking but the other is not a natural winemaker but crop-thins anyway, you’re comparing one man’s work ethic to another’s ideology.

    Definition itself (and I’m sure the natural wine movement is aware of this) is a problem – not just for building a practical set of rules (even the EU couldn’t agree on a definition of Organic Wine labelling this week) – but for the constraints this poses. Take biodynamics for example: to get Demeter certification, you have to be several metres away from the nearest non-biodynamic land. This, for instance, makes it practically impossible for a small Burgundian winemaker to make certified biodynamic wine. And as soon as you say ‘oh, well, you can cut a few corners’, where does it end? You’ve just got to believe in the people you meet, right?

    I’d also be very very careful about making these kind of statements:

    “…natural winemakers do not make wine for supermarkets, consumer acceptance panels, a wider audience; they make wines that they can be proud of and which gives them pleasure to drink. You don’t see natural wines submitted to wine competitions or given medals – the wine is the wine is the wine, no marketing or pr guff to create a mythology…” and “…they are too honest…”

    That sounds like marketing-speak. As I said in my blog, the best service we can do natural wines is to support them, but to also be critical where criticism needs to fall. Maybe I don’t spend enough time in Jamie’s community but the above comments sound obsequious in the extreme. I would go off on one about the changing nature of modern marketing and brand-building but I’ve said enough, I think.

    Don’t get me wrong, I want the natural wine movement to be a portent of things to come (yesterday I heard of a winery that used five different types of enzyme in the winemaking process – sounds pretty bad to me although I’m sure Jamie is better qualified to pass comment on that one – it shows you how far things have gone in the ‘non-natural’ sphere) I just think we have to be very wary too.


  • Doug

    You can be organic and biodynamic without being natural, but you can’t be natural without being organic, at least, or biodynamic at best. It is what happens in the winery that determines whether the wine is natural. And then, of course, it is matter of degree. Some vignerons use zero sulphur, others just a touch at bottling, virtually none of them fine, but some do a very light filtration. Unlike the various organic bodies which try to codify by stipulating what can and can’t be done, natural winemakers are not seeking commercial accreditation and work to guidelines rather than strict charters – a large number of their products, incidentally, are vin de table wines with quirky (probably illegal) labels.

    On Oliver’s various points. It is not so difficult to get biodynamic accreditation. You just have to look at the numbers of growers in Alsace who have converted or are in conversion. Burgundy is also changing. But I think we are too hung up on definitions and labelling. We’ve seen how the appellation system can stifle creativity by setting artificial (and occasionally anomalous) constraints. When I buy a unpasteurised cheese in a farmer’s market I’m taking a certain amount on trust and use my knowledge of the maker – and my senses – to make an informed buying decision. I am not buying a label or a movement but a cheese, after all. In the same spirit natural wines are wines made by bunch of growers who happen to feel the same way about wine. They know what they mean individually what it means to work naturally, but don’t feel it is appropriate to have a binding definition to take account of all the nuances and niceties.

    I don’t quite understand Oliver’s objections to the paragraph that he quoted in extenso. It is the converse of marketing speak! It is, of course, perfectly correct that natural winemakers are not targeting supermarkets, high street stores, competitions or international tastings. As I discovered a lot of growers prefer to sell directly to wine bars rather than wine merchants and, in Paris, you see them in those wine bars pouring their own products. That’s what I call getting close to the consumer.

    Plamen is right. Natural wine is not a mass movement nor is it a visibly marketed one. It is simply that an expanding group of (mostly young) growers is making wine with minimal interventions and there is a small core of devotees who love the way the wines taste. I think we all need to learn to be less concerned about labels and more interesting in what’s in the bottle.

  • David Harvey

    Re Asimov’s phrase ‘In the cellar, natural winemakers allow the juice to ferment with indigenous yeasts rather than by adding yeast formulated in laboratories’. Non-GMO yeast are selected, not formulated from nature, as Jamie says, but in laboratory condition micro-ferment trials as Eric says, in high SO2 environment (necessary to kill the ambient yeast) at varying low temperatures in order to find optimum conditions for the strain’s desired flavour/texture/reliability/speed etc. characteristics. So selected yeast ferment is predisposed to high SO2 winemaking, temperature control (giving low temperature flavours) and therefore stainless steel tanks, the easiest to control albeit with high electricity bill, but the among the worst for flavour impact on wine. Having been selected for its characteristics, a strain will be bred in an industrial facility (ie big laboratory) on non-grape derived substance before being dried and packeted. So select yeast, single strain yeast, packet yeast (unless broad-strain), industrial yeast, laboratory yeast, are all suggestive of the same thing: artifical ferment, non-ambient/spontaneous ferment, un-natural wine, commodity wine, branded wine. Has anyone made a great wine because of selected yeast? I think not, but if so, despite it and not because of it. But a lot of very fruity cheap modern easy contemporary wine results explicitly from select yeast AND the necessary conditions.
    By the way, a yeast test in a naturally farmed vineyard/winery shows many strains of yeast, including spores from neighbours who use selected yeast. The difference however is that in the spontaneous/natural ferment many strains take part in the fermentation (including our now-wild, previously selected yeast) giving flavour compound complexity to the young, wine-y wine, a precursor to wines that can develop, mature in flavour with time. Yes there are more risks, and the ferment is slower, but the resultant qualities of the wine are so much greater than with selected yeast. And this is how all the great wines of history were made, let us not forget.
    Today, the issues in serious/natural winemaking are creating quality natural pied de cuve if you want them, creating cellar conditions where natural ferment is happy, working out what (you are prepared) to do in the event of problematic fermentation, and what is one’s take on craftsmanship versus intervention, as zero intervention often results in bad wine…
    To add to Mr.Dressner’s fourteen point rule: systematic/select yeasting is indicative of a lack of intent to make real/natural/BD/serious/ageworthy wine – whether in GCC Bordeaux, Napa Valley, Soings-en-Sologne or St.Lambert du Lattay.
    It’s the GMO yeast which are formulated in laboratories and this should simply be banned, and/or forced onto the label, no question.

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