Natural wine is a divisive subject.
It needn’t be.
I enjoy many natural wines. I like to drink them. So do many others. They bring me great pleasure.
I don’t really mind that there is no strict definition for ‘natural wine’. If someone wants to call their wine natural then that’s fine. It is a useful banner under which like-minded wine growers choose to gather. When we visit a natural wine bar, we all know what sort of wines will be served there.
Much of the controversy comes from the way that supporters and producers of natural wine have briefed against ‘conventional’ wine growers. This is a shame. Natural wines can stand on their own feet, and don’t need to justify themselves in opposition to more conventional or commercial wines.
Some of the aggravation, though, has come from members of the wine establishment, who have been offended by what they consider to be faulty wines. They display insecurity: they need to be able to label and compartmentalize wine, and it blows their fuse when they encounter something a bit different.
The wine establishment seems threatened by the way that ordinary people have embraced natural wine and enjoy the experience. Wine educators feel undermined by this success, because the sometimes rigid dogma of wine education leaves no room for natural wines.
I think it would be a mistake for ‘natural wine’ to be defined. The natural wine movement is counter-culture; it’s revolutionary. To nail down a definition would be to strip it of some of its soul. A vague set of guidelines (not rules) are in order though. Natural wines will usually be made with no additions, save for some sulfur dioxide (usually just a little at bottling). Some strict naturalistas advocate working with no sulfur dioxide at all, and surprisingly many get away with it. Most will not filter or fine their wine. Most will avoid new oak, and many will avoid small oak barrels. In the vineyard many are working biodynamically or organically. But there are some who work sustainably, but not organically. There is quite a bit of overlap between natural winegrowers and the more enlightened conventional winegrowers. In fact, there are many wines which aren’t considered ‘natural’, but could in fact fit happily into this category. That’s OK.
One valid criticism of the natural wine movement is that it can be process focused, rather than concentrating on results. It is obsessed with how the wine is made, not how good it is. I see working more naturally as a way of achieving greater terroir expression in a wine, but there is a point at which the wine can end up tasting more of the process than it does of the place.
Of course, not all wines have to express terroir. For example, orange wines (skin-contact whites) can be quite delicious, but not necessarily show a sense of place. Sherry and Madeira are fantastic, but is that terroir you are tasting? It’s a very complicated argument. What does terroir taste like? What is ‘sense of place’ in terms of flavour compounds?
I think that there’s a place for cheap, natural quaffing reds that taste ‘natural’ more than they do of a specific vineyard site. These can be truly joyful, and quite elegant. But if the vineyard has a strong personality, then the winegrower will seek to express this in the wine. Being too natural might cause this vineyard personality to be lost.
Overall, though, we should relax. The natural wine category, undefined as it is, is doing fine. Lots of people are having fun with some interesting wines. The flavour space of wine has developed. The traditional fine wine market shouldn’t feel insecure. There’s room for all manner of approaches in the world of wine. Let’s celebrate the good and tell people about the wines we enjoy. Bad wine will always be with us, and we shouldn’t let this become our focus.