Outwith the mainstream, however, spins a curious alternate universe where pointy-headed wine grammarians are permanently plugged into google alert for that unholy juxtaposition of natural… and… wine (oh-oh, I’ve done it again), so that they can raise their hackles and their danders to ebullient effect, denouncing the apostates/zealots/evangelists – delete where appropriate – (and yes, I have been called all of those in my time!) for peddling snake oil and for harbouring unshakeably extreme views.
The only swivel-eyed extremism (ahem) I’ve encountered is that of the people who have created the bogeyman, straw-ogre of natural wine and spend an unnatural amount of their time inveighing against it. Much as I admire and respect some of them I don’t recognise or accept this stereotyping of a certain natural winemaker who creates, either by strange accident or dunderheaded design, an oxidative pig’s ear out of the silk purse of terroir. There are after all good and bad winemakers in all walks of viticultural life and I have tasted – for my sins – more rebarbative, clunkily-made, industrial wines than I care to remember, but that still doesn’t prove that all “high-intervention” wines, for want of a better word, are inherently rotten. Sometimes imperfections are beyond the pale. Sometimes they are to be cherished.
What some might refer to as a fundamentalist perversion is a chimera of their own making (and that of much of the establishment). Who exactly are the “doctrinaire bunglers” alluded to and what proportion of what we might term “natural winemakers” do they comprise? Is this percentage higher or lower than what might be termed “conventional winemakers”? And upon whose authority should we take this to be gospel? It is all a trifle glib as are all arguments that are founded on rhetoric rather than fact.
Others refer to the schisms appearing in natural wine as if tectonic plates of belief are cracking at the seams. As Jonathan Swift reminds us repeatedly schisms are more to do with vanity than ideology (which is an extension of ego). The natural wine growers are (with exceptions) a relatively humble bunch, seekers after viticultural truth rather than firebrand preachers. Many of them want nothing more than to communicate a sense of place and time and would deprecate the notion that they were making something profound or monumental. And most of them, to quote one of my favourite Aussies, are simply seekers after lovely grog. The only schism is between those who broadly accept the legitimacy of the wines and judge empirically on a grower-by-grower, cuvée-by-cuvée basis, and those who intellectually reject the wines without having tried them.
One of the hoariest clichés is to imply there is a mythical go-to school of natural wine. This is the dogma that did not bark in the night, a concocted notion of a co-ordinated movement slavishly obeying some vague doctrine of naturalness.
Those who intervene minimally are not using willy-nilly the whole menu of additives to correct and modify their wines. Working the vineyard diligently, without chemicals, tends to produce superbly healthy grapes that can be transmuted with minimum faff into delicious wine. Some pedantic winemakers don’t understand this correlation and prefer to deal in absolute certainties, following the chemical winemaking recipe regardless of the vintage or the need of the wine. Winemaking should be governed by common sense; the natural winemaker works by observation and by taste rather than by rote; in a similar sense biodynamic farmers believe that the health of the wine is determined by the health of the vine, (just as the health of the individual human being is largely influenced by diet and lifestyle). Truly targeted health care revolves around assessing and treating the individual, and so it is with farming vineyards and making wine. The natural approach is holistic in the best sense. Nothing extreme about this.
Just because you are (broadly) non-interventionist, however, doesn’t mean that everyone else is fully interventionist. Growers may move from one end of the spectrum to the other; their journey becomes a kind of self-expression. Demarcation is simplistic; it is the contras who paint natural winemakers, followers and drinkers into a single charmed wicca circle. This suggests that the world of wine is monochromatic (as well as pretty monolithic). Of course, winemaking is relative to the winemaking individual. We ascribe the quality of being natural to those who search for non-chemical ways of making wine; some are semi (natural), others… hemi; others… demi. If you want a precise definition you can create charters and boundaries; it would make some people happy to have a scientific definition of natural wine to sink their fangs into. I’ve examined the pros and cons of this elsewhere and why I am not in favour of finical definitions.
But here’s the rub. Certain critics of natural wine presume to know better than the thousands of consumers who drink these wines with evident pleasure. According to these naysayers consumers are being hoodwinked, suspending their sense of taste (if they had any in the first place) and buying into some bizarre cult of naturalness. When I present these wines at tastings and dinners (in my cowled druidical robes) I never insist that people respond in any way other than to simply respect the wine for what it is. I am always gratified by the sheer positive feedback and how many customers are excited by the purity and originality of the wines. To those who don’t get on with the flavours of the wines I respect your taste.
Other points made by the anti-naturalists (The Flat Wine Society) include that wine would be vinegar if it wasn’t for the kindly guiding hand of man and that consequently natural wine is a contradiction in terms – QED. Really? No way? And I thought natural wine was the result of the grapes spontaneously leaping off the wild vine to ferment chaotically in all directions and for the resultant wild juice to flow – by gravity, natch, into a bottle moulded solely by time and weather, and sealed with nothing more than a wing and prayer. As I have said previously growers don’t court appellatives, they make wine – wine of nature, naked wine, raw wine, real wine, whatever you wish to call it – wines that adhere to certain fundamentals of low or zero chemical interventions in the vineyard and winery. Most would never claim to be absolute or 100% consistent in their interventions, although they may be rigorous in their ultimate desire to make natural wines, which suggests that the following observation is somewhat saturated in hyperbole (can you guess who wrote it?):
The apostles of natural wine are, precisely, the Cathar ‘Perfects’ of the wine world, renouncing every intervention for reasons more moral than hedonistic, and pitching their perfection in dualistic opposition to the satanic practices of those who are more pragmatically flexible.
Really? Or is the boot on the other foot, for have not the critics of natural wines created this very Manichean dualism, by constantly denouncing the practices of independent-thinking vignerons as totally insupportable and ethically unsound.
And by the same melodramatic logic in this scenario are the apostles of anti-Naturalist movement the Albigensians? The Inquisition and the crusade is being led by whom in this fanciful analogy? The natural wine guys (whoever they may be) are surely the heretics and the wine establishment is the humourless Catholic church whose express mission is to eliminate free-thinking. Hold on a mo. The established church… persecution… everyone to pay their dues… Olivier Cousin!
Let’s put aside the usual sophomoric arguments about the word “natural”. Rock and Gravel, the two cavemen in the Boulder machine in Wacky Races, may cudgel themselves on the head with giant wooden clubs to make their vehicle go faster, but no argument is advanced by bombinating offensively about growers, their wines and a so-called movement. Equally not all critics should be brushed with the same tar. There are a number of intelligent writers who taste on merit and try to avoid sweeping generalisations. It’s not that difficult to be generous and measured.
It always comes back to the wine. As the saying goes, life is too short to drink bad wine. A rose is always a rose is a rose and crap is crap is crap. For every bad wine that is made without (and because of lack of) intervention I could produce ten that are ruined by heavy-handed winemaking. This is not a competition, however, to eviscerate crappier-than-crap wine across the planet, but to understand why the wines are the way they are and to celebrate individuality and diversity in a world of remorseless homogeneity and global-common-denominatorism. The wines in all their beauty or ugliness are not made purely as a philosophical, political or fashion statement although the vigneron may be a philosopher, poet, painter or musician; wines themselves are always subject to the laws of molecular biology and chemistry, but the methodology combined with the terroir and the personality of the winemaker himself or herself, determines the final outcome and creates a unique product.
Natural wine is thus wine without the overlay, without the innumerable modifications and mediations that may prevent us from intimately sensing the terroir and the grower. It is a return to working instinctively and presciently, it demands that you work hardest of all in the vineyard and it may equally demand – if you are serious about making wine without additives – that you apply yourself totally in the winery. There are many risks associated with this approach, but vignerons are learning more about the process and how to guide the wine from vine to bottle as simply as possible.
It’s a cracking aesthetic and a positive message. The best grapes are always sweet and unadulterated, not sour.