I’ve been asked by sundry, if not all, to come up with a simple definition of natural wine. Simple definitions are usually simplistic ones and for every so-called rule, there are countless exceptions.
Natural winemaking is where the vigneron seeks to use non-invasive farming methods and non-interventionist vinification in order to achieve the truest expression of the grape, the terroir* and the vintage.
A swift digression. Do I think that the term “natural wine” is appropriate? On balance, yes. There are disadvantages when using it, and I just don’t mean that grammarians and pedants will automatically jump down my throat for having the chutzpah to annex a word that appears shrouded (or loaded) with vague moral righteousness. As a descriptor it is, however, already in common parlance, and most people, be they wine-insiders or absolute novices, recognise what one means by natural with respect to particular farming and winemaking methods. It could be argued that only a statutory definition would eventually validate the term. I don’t agree, because I don’t think charters or codes in themselves help us to truly understand what makes one wine more natural than another.
Many people might think that wine is a natural product. Although it depends on your definition of natural it is clear the most wine is just a formulaic, denatured product, the sum total of myriad interventions, its purpose to be instantly recognisable and utterly consistent. Natural wine is the opposite. It is natural for wine (if commercially counter-intuitive) to be inconsistent, mutable and flawed – as variable as nature itself. The role of the natural winemaker reflects this, embracing uncertainty and individuality at every step, whilst the conventional winemaker seeks to eliminate all the selfsame variables that would make his wine inconsistent.
Desirable vineyard practice
The objective is to attain a healthy vineyard where the vines develop their resistance to disease. Chemicals are eschewed, every effort is made to ensure that the soil is alive with nutrients and mineral content encouraging deep root systems and stronger indigenous yeast populations.
Natural solutions should always be primarily sought to combat natural problems.The vine is part of a polyculture – the land and the countryside around must be respected also. Consideration should be given to the impact of the vineyard on erosion and the water table. Biodiversity should be encouraged at every opportunity and habitats for insects, bugs, birdlife and flowers be allowed to flourish.Dynamic remedies may be used to nurture and bring the vineyard to optimum health such as natural manures, homeopathic remedies and biodynamic treatments.
Other positive vineyard practices might include:
Travail du sol
Promotion and protection (where possible) of indigenous grape varieties
Hand harvest and selection of fruit
Respect for variability of vintages
Seeking maturity and balance
Desirable winery practice
To carry out fermentation with the fewest possible additions or subtractions
Healthy grapes sorted before vinification
Wild yeast ferment *
No added enzymes
No additions or subtractions (addition of acids, sugar, tannins, dealcoholisation – “reverse osmosis”)
No spinning cones, no rotorfermenters, thermovinification…
No added colouring
No added flavourings (oak chips, flavoured yeasts etc)No chaptalisation
No stabilising agents
No grape concentrate, gum
No or very light filtration
No or very light fining
Minimal sulphur used**
*Pied de cuve may be used if vintage requires
**And we can argue what this entails until the cows come home
These are guidelines rather than commandments. (Hence “desirable”). Natural wine is an aspiration to make the purest possible wine in a given situation out of the best possible grapes. The natural winemaker arbitrates over dozens of decisions, partners the wine throughout the process, but is always seeking to minimise the need for intervention.
The natural wine journey always begins in the vineyard where growers endeavour to work in harmony with their environment in order to get the best out of their vineyard. Some vineyards are born natural, some achieve naturalness quickly and some need to have nature thrust upon them. Respecting what nature gives us, not taking more than it will allow, is, however, the principle tenet of natural wine.
Only after the last tree has been cut down,
only after the last river has been poisoned,
only after the last fish has been caught,
only then will you realize that money cannot be eaten.
–The Cree People
Natural wine begins with an ethical imperative; to protect the environment, to put back what is taken out and not to pollute or destroy with chemicals. A huge amount of hard work goes into making healthy vines.
The grapes, of course have to be made into wine, and here the natural winemakers want to be holistically consistent. For why farm organically if you are going to smother the raw ingredient with additives, in effect, denaturing what you have so striven so assiduously to produce? Putting chemicals in the ground and additives in the wine is a comparatively recent phenomenon in the history of wine.
The rules of engagement
In every discourse I have read about natural wine (and this applies also to biodynamic viticulture) I have felt that the bad science argument has been overcooked. Scientists, of course, demand verifiable proof that specific courses of action work. So if, for example, you’d converted your vineyard from conventional to organic viticulture you would have to clearly demonstrate that such a conversion benefited the soil and the wine. The proof of the former is to do with the quality of the grapes and the subsequent material you have to work with; the latter presupposes that one can assess an improvement in the taste of the wine but, even then, the correlation is uncertain because great farming practice does not, by definition, beget great winemaking.
You can make the scientific argument for organic viticulture; you cannot do the same for natural winemaking. Because it is the personal decision of the winemaker to make wine in a particular fashion. Unless the wines are ruined by faults, it becomes a question of whose taste is right.
“Natural wine” has perversely been corrupted to mean unnatural. If one looks through the lens of a supermarket buyer this means unsellable (and that is unnatural in a supermarket environment). But this ain’t necessarily so to a consumer who loves drinking natural wine. We are more than happy to brew our beer at home and drink it, we’re positively itching to buy fruit and veg from farmer’s markets and don’t care whether it is misshapen or blotchy. As for game or cheese, the process of decay is part of their “charm.” Before standardisation and subsequent homogenisation we would drink unpasteurised milk without question, eat butter (not margarine) and drink wines that had not been cleansed of personality.
We now appreciate that natural cloudy apple juice has all the goodness left in, that unpasteurised smelly cheese has more flavour (and we know it is different from year to year), that food can look relatively unappealing, smell and taste unusual and not only does not this not invalidate it, but indicates that it has not been denatured by endless interventions. We insist, however, on a correctness for wine that is fundamentally artificial; that wine should not nakedly taste of wine, but instead be a chemical product, stripped, fined and filtered.
We are also overly exercised by the notion of bacterial spoilage. Butter left out in a room grows mould, margarine doesn’t. Does that make margarine better? Or isn’t it that there is nothing for the bacteria to feed on? “Natural wine is recalibrating how we think about wine,” says Max Allen. “It’s not just a commodity you can buy on a supermarket shelf and leave there for three years until somebody comes along and buys it. It’s much more like an artisan cheese or a beautiful fresh homemade apple pie. You can’t leave it lying around. You’ve got to look after and be a bit gentle with it.”
Don’t find fault with what you don’t understand –French proverb
And so to tackle the nature, as it were, of faults. The fact that natural wines are made the way they are leaves them open to the accusation that they will be inevitably be faulty. Yet the fact that many (if not most) natural wines are not faulty suggests that faults are not inevitable. Are we predicting faults on the basis of likelihood or assessing the quality of wine by actually tasting it? As I’ve said on numerous occasions we must always go by what is in the glass rather than assume that orthodoxies are correct.
If then it is a matter of taste then surely it is a matter of taste. As it were. Critics are quick to judge and consequently write off an entire genre of wine (as if wine could be poured into such neat categories) on the basis of a few examples tasted but mostly because of what they’ve read or what they’ve heard. Wine education is skewed because it gives the impression that taste can be scientifically calibrated and that good wine is almost no more than a series of (bio)chemical and microbiological reactions and expert manipulations. We have to recognise that wines are, or rather can be, very much living products, subtle, mutating and individual.
I recently asked an MW who professed scepticism about natural wines whether he didn’t think there was too much sulphur in wines. If one admits that the allowable levels are high under EU law, and that any trained palate might easily detect the presence of sulphur in moderate amounts in a wine, then surely you would admit to the necessity of reducing said levels of sulphur. Instead of engaging with this point he gave me an auto-response with a blizzard of scientific verisimilitude relating to reduction and molecular chains of oxygen, hydrogen and sulphur… I forget. Given, in any case, that reduction and added sulphur are different matters it made me think that traditionalists have a tribal affinity towards standard winemaking that verges on a voodoo belief in cod-science. I would question anyone who dismisses something that he or she does not fully understand, but also implicitly believes in something that they do not fully understand.
The use of sulphur in wine is more a matter of degree than one of principle. I have written how some of the no-sulphur brigade are extremely cautious about recommending this approach willy-nilly to other winemakers. For them it is always a matter of judgement as in the past it has been one of trial and error. This sounds like a rational approach. It may be that small amounts of sulphur may be beneficial in stabilising the wine without materially altering the flavour; or it may be that a wine contains the wherewithal that adding sulphur is unnecessary; it may that in certain years some sulphur is required – but not in others. The good natural winemaker works on necessity not according to axiom.
Individuals make individual wines
Genius is the result of hard work, observation, imagination and intuition and something which cannot always be defined. You don’t need to be a scientist to be a poet, painter or musician. You don’t need to be a scientist to be a great chef or a great winemaker. You don’t need to understand why things work at the atomic level to make beautiful things. We often say “he has an ability that can’t be taught”. On the other hand, a lot of natural winemakers have studied oenology, served apprenticeships in conventional wineries and have come to the intellectual position that wine should be made with the fewest number of interventions and that less does indeed mean more in terms of flavour and authenticity.
We are dealing with people who are making individual wines, true originals; they are artisan-artists and not manufacturers. The way they speak about wine is different, it is more personal, whether they are speaking of terroir or their intimate understanding of the vine or the quirks of the fermentation or their desire to rediscover the way wine tasted many generations ago. And the wine is almost never made the same way twice. “Anarchism has but one infallible, unchangeable motto, ‘Freedom.’ Freedom to discover any truth, freedom to develop, to live naturally and fully.” This could be the motto of the natural wine movement. If it were an organised movement. Which it isn’t.