Challenging the status quo – natural wine rockin’ all over the world

I have done innumerable natural wine master-classes/seminars – call them what you will – over the last twelve months. It feels odd to be cast as a pontifical spokesman for a non-existent movement; and although I have written extensively about and argued passionately for the wines I love to drink and the growers I admire, I still feel like a dilettante. I wonder parenthetically whether the more subtle role of the speaker here is not to explain natural wine but rather to cast doubt on dearly-held assumptions. Students, for example, are meant to test propositions to destruction and challenge received wisdom. If you can pull one brick from the edifice, then cherished certainty collapses. Natural wines take your palate to places it has never explored. They resist easy definition. By their integrity they make us examine notions of right and wrong; The wines themselves are catalysts for many discussions, explorations of the philosophical origins of taste, Socratic disputations about whether certain faults are indeed absolute faults that make a wine unconscionable, or rather flaws that make it that much more individual. I believe that most wine professionals bring an agenda to tasting – be it political or personal, opinions which usually forged in the certainties of received wisdom, the textbook view of wine.

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Natural wine, as a rough and unready concept, challenges orthodoxy or ortho-dozy, as I sometimes call it. The movement combines, on the one hand, the forensic standards of Jules Chauvet, and, at the other extreme, a jazz-punk irreverent sensibility and a nose-thumbing attitude to bureaucratic authority. Not for nothing are the ferments called wild yeast! The sense of freedom and lack of control is liberating in a world that expects conformity. It is easy to understand why people are attracted to the bohemian mixture of seriousness-and-faux-seriousness. Ironically, many of them are trying to rediscover or revive dying traditions; whether it is planting in a particular way, or using old-fashioned farm tools, or working according to biodynamic calendars. They want to become closer to the process; it has never been a question of nature versus man, but to what extent can man understand the natural processes and work effectively to their rhythms.

Natural wine is sometimes perceived as akin to a new artistic quasi-political movement, a pot of paint thrown in the face of those who believe in precious hierarchies. If the conventional hierarchy purports to represent reason, then natural wine might be said to be a critique of that reason. Think of it as an uncouth reaction against being lectured what to do and how to think. When I studied English literature at school I was inculcated to believe in a great (and inevitable) English tradition, enshrined in a lineage of writers whose work could be aesthetically linked across the generations. Such historical certainties! The world turns, perspectives alter and rationales are flipped. I soon discovered textual analysis, structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstructionism, Marxism and various other valid critical approaches, and my views on art and literature consequently began to change. I began to question whether received wisdom was actually wisdom or the unthinking acceptance of a norm. So many of the heroes of natural wine similarly went to oenology school or worked in conventional wineries, but weren’t simply content to tow the establishment line for the sake of it. They were intellectually curious,  asked the difficult questions, challenged the status quo, feeling that the wines they were being told to make, were not the wines they wanted to drink.

les caves de pyrene“If you can’t count on history what can you count on?” Fleishmann – Northern Exposure

Any seminar about natural wine will initially spark around niggling definitions. Tempting as it may be define natural wine as an unified movement it does not serve any useful purpose. Such movements always comprise individuals who develop their own ideas and express their own creative will. Much as we may conveniently label them as impressionists, fauvists, modernists, constructivists etc, no two artists from any of these respective movements painted in an identical fashion. You would never confuse a Dufy with a Matisse, or a Kandinsky with a Klee. Their personalities are the signatures on the paintings. The so-called romantic poets, for example, were a completely amorphous bunch; even those who were the closest buddies and co-authored aesthetic manifestoes such as Wordsworth and Coleridge wrote very differently. What binds people in artistic endeavour are common aspirations and energies, the intrinsic desire for change or the need to push personal boundaries.

La Dive embodies something else – the  spirit of natural wine. You might search in vain for a manifesto of golden rules amongst the growers present. It has been suggested by some critics that the natural wine movement has spawned “Manichean street preachers”, a group of sommeliers and writers who implicitly believe that all non-natural wines are abhorrent. I don’t recognise this stereotype of the frothy hear-no-evil-taste-no-evil natural wine junkie. Wines, as we know, belong to a spectrum from the highly manipulated to the moderately manipulated through to the less interventionist and finally the zero-interventionist. Just because you prefer a certain style of wines does not mean you automatically suspend all critical faculties. Champions of natural wines are not Panglossian dupes; they like what they like, they do not unreservedly love all natural wines as a matter of principle.

The natural wine is further complicated by the fact that winemakers, by definition, move back and forth along the spectrum of intervention. Some natural winemakers may aspire to see themselves like the artist refining him/herself out of existence (“The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.”) leaving only the purest expression of fruit and/or terroir, yet for all the desire to be absent from the final creation or to make wine with the heart rather than the head, common sense is always at the back of winemaking. Intuition and experience are the main tools in the natural winemaker’s kit box; if the wine is working well the winemaker can leave well alone, if not it is the nature and extent of the interventions that distinguish him or her from the conventional winemaker.

les caves de pyreneOne might justifiably ask that if naturalness is relative whether there is any point in using it as a valid description. Yes, because I believe that a very large number of winemakers are now in the process of trying to understand how to make distinctive wines and are thus minimising the use of additives and chemical interventions. This is the unseen revolution; conventional certainties constantly questioned and challenged – even by conventional winemakers. Revolutions begin with small steps; perceptions change over the course of time, and the better natural wines that are made, the more other winemakers may be convinced that this is the logical course to pursue.

The second main argument usually concerns typicity in wine. We are told that typicity can only be achieved if the wine is clean, implying that typicity is all about correctness.  This is the equivalent of stating “this wine is right and, contrariwise, this wine is wrong.” This is like saying that received pronunciation is the way we should all talk or that English spelling is inherently superior to American. I submit that what we currently accept as the flavour norm in wine may be far removed from the original perception of typicity. Over the decades wines have changed because of modern (often industrial) farming techniques and also radically altered by vinification methods designed to “clean up” the wine. Espousing this methodology isn’t progress; it is just one of many approaches to winemaking. I normally cite Sauvignon as a grape that has been diluted by poor farming practice (chemical viticulture with grapes picked too early and with very high yields) and highly interventionist vinification (cultured – and flavoured – yeasts, temperature control, high sulphur regime, stopped malos) – no wonder it is difficult to discover examples that truly convey the sense of terroir and no wonder it is not perceived as a noble grape variety.

The taste of the wine can be understood in the history of farming and winemaking practice in a particular region. What we taste is one chapter in a continuing story; the Sancerre of tart gooseberries and grass cuttings is a snapshot of the way the wine is made now, not the way the wine was, and not the way the wine could be. It takes the daring and dedication of a Sebastien Riffault, an Alexandre Bain or a Thierry Puzelat to rediscover the originality of the grape variety.

Renaissance des Appellations and Slow Food have laid down charters to revise and revitalise the notion of typicity (or return to terroir as it is sometimes known). Only by finding the truest expression of the soil and that can only be achieved by best practice farming methods, only by eliminating the multiple additions and subtractions that take place will we once again discover the essence of what the appellation system was meant to protect (and signally failed to).

The issue of flaws/faults always excites the strongest exchanges. If one man’s drink is another man’s poison then it may be affirmed that there are the faults qua faults, and there are flaws which are comparative faults, as well as some flaws which can be manipulated to give the ultimate wine different and subtle nuances (one thinks of oxidation or reduction). By faults we’re not discussing whether wines are corked or have become nothing more than vinegar but those aromas and tastes that are regular by-products of fermentations.

I think the discussion about faults has to be less precious. It is a highly contentious point whether VA is good, bad or somewhere in-between. Some growers (Alessandro Dettori) allow it to be part of the wine; their wines are highly successful so I assume they know what they are doing. Critics may or may not enjoy the wines – they are certainly not above them – and saying that something is a fault doesn’t make it so – either to the winemaker or the consumer. There are countless examples (Cheval Blanc 1947 springs to mind) of wines with very high levels of VA that have garnered unequivocal critical acclaim. Winemaking presents different and extraordinary challenges; some of the most interesting wines I have ever tasted have been forged out of trying circumstance and are greater than the sum of their flaws.

Unless something is very obviously wrong I am wary of dismissing certain wines out of hand. Wine is a living, mutating liquid – it alters in the bottle and has an arc of drinkability. We have seen numerous examples of where the VA becomes absorbed into the personality of the wine (Chateau Musar, Chateau Rayas, Bordeaux from certain vintages) and the wine gains complexity or attains a remarkable peculiar identity.. Whether this is intentional is irrelevant; we are judging the wine not the winemaker. It is similar to aleatory music in a way – “determined (structured) in one way but depending on chance in detail”. (Werner Meyer-Eppler)

les caves de pyreneScience Mission Creep

This is the future perfect world where nothing is left to chance. In terms of winemaking corrective or cosmetic surgery becomes an end in itself, whilst in terms of wine appreciation the question that is always asked is: “Is it good?” not “Is it true?” People who live in the future perfect world want everything to be quantifiable. This passion to understand and compartmentalise disconnects us from the mystery of things. Our imagination, as Bunuel remarks, is a crucial privilege; it gives us our freedom – we should, therefore, cherish the unexpected.

There are, of course thousands of people who drink and enjoy low sulphur wines every week in restaurants and wine bars around the world. Arbiters of taste might propose that this is self-deception on a grand scale and that all of the people are wrong all of the time. The trouble is if you use the emperor’s new clothes argument here you open yourself up to having your own sense of taste analysed. A great palate is not inevitably the result of making the grade in exams or a given by virtue of having been on the wine scene for a long period, but stems from an ability to understand flavours from many different points of view. Imagine a film critic who would only see movies in English or a restaurant reviewer who would only eat and comment on French food.

There is a comfort zone around the activity of tasting. Wines are no respecters of reputation and the taster is only as good as his or her response to a given wine. The five second snapshot judgement is useful and dangerous at the same time. One’s instincts are a fair guide. However, if one’s palate is conditioned to expect (and appreciate) certain flavours in wine then aromas and flavours that exists outside that spectrum will inevitably strike a discordant note and engender a negative reaction. Even the most experienced tasters need to confront their prejudices in order to recalibrate their palates. Not to like a wine is one thing, to dismiss it as faulty because you don’t like it, is intellectually unsound, whilst to dismiss a whole group of wines on this basis smacks of bovarism.

Sommeliers and restaurant wine buyers are at the chalk face of selling and some aver that natural wines are rather expensive. To me the quality of the bottle is how much I want to drink of it. Wine has a function. And that is to be delicious. A spoofy £300 icon wine may exhaust my palate and patience after a single glass. Where’s the value in that – although I may dine off my chronic iconic disappointment for years to come? The value of the wine is not the label, nor the Parker points, nor the money that has been spent on marketing the estate, but rather the love, care and attention that has been poured into the wine from tending the vines to nurturing the wine carefully through its fermentation. Natural wines are often made in micro-quantities; a barrel here a barrel there – these are the true originals, sometimes produced once and never again. Given that demand for natural wines is so high and quantities are so minuscule, given the sheer craftsmanship and bloody hard work that goes into these wines, it is a wonder that they are not more expensive. Making wines with little or no safety net is a dangerously uncommercial activity. So, expensive? Not at all!

les caves de pyreneCertain sommeliers use the perceived reluctance (and ignorance) of their customers as an excuse for being conservative with their wine choices. As a former sommelier myself I don’t accept that there are no-go areas and that customers are not open to suggestion. If the wines won’t sell off the list they need to be hand-sold, and isn’t that, after all, the role of the sommelier? It is surely more rewarding to sell something artisan than a label that people recognise and gravitate towards as their default choice. If the sommelier is the conductor, the wine list is the musical score and natural wines are the challenging musical piece; the best conductors will always want to challenge themselves and excite their audience…

To return to my original premise a master-class is meant to make people think and to challenge cherished beliefs. The sheer diversity of styles (albeit all within the natural, low-intervention idiom) demonstrate that there is something for everyone in natural wine. If the wilder extremes of zero sulphur wine are not your bag of funk, there are plenty of beautifully eloquent and pure examples of fruit and terroir-expression to enjoy. I have said previously that wine is liquid pride (the pride of the land and of the vine, the pride of the grower, the pride of the winemaker) and this should always come before the prejudice of the taster. Every wine, particularly natural wine, needs to be tasted and evaluated on the basis of what it is, not what we think it should be. To do that you need an open mind, a degree of empathy, and a fine imagination.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. arnold waldstein

    I really enjoyed your post.

    Such a simple topic and yet one so difficult to explain crisply. I believe strongly it’s just that, the lack of definition that is key to its value to the consumer.

    Written with smarts and concern, this is one of the best pieces I’ve read and certainly more acute than any of the many that I’ve written on the topic.

    Loved this line:

    “I think the discussion about faults has to be less precious.”

    You might enjoy the last piece I wrote on this.

    “Natural Wine…an idea in tune with the times” via

    A very different view point than yours but I think we could easily spend some time over a few bottles of natural wine, have an enjoyable tasting and chat. It brought in some real virulent (and intelligent) ire from wine blogger friends so if you want to wade through the some 40 comments, there is some interest.

    And please do leave your comment if you’d like.


  2. Excellent post, covering a huge amount of ground 🙂
    I’d just like to say that I especially identified with this bit: ” … common sense is always at the back of winemaking. Intuition and experience are the main tools in the natural winemaker’s kit box; …” because in my case, it’s absolutely true! ie, not having any scientific, or eonological studies, if something goes wrong and I run out of intuition and experience, then I would have to grab my mobile and call the cavalry 🙂

  3. Doug

    Hi Arnold, Hi Fabio!

    Thank you both for your kind comments.

    I read your last blog piece on natural wines, Arnold, and I certainly agree that it is an exciting time to be either making, selling and drinking these wines. Not only are the stories behind the wines so interesting, and the expression of terroir and culture beautifully captured in liquid, but I love the idea of the winemaker challenging received wisdom and pushing the wine to achieve this sense of naturalness. People understand this; they’re not confused by the notion of naturally made wine and are certainly less than interested by the quasi-semantic debate that wine professionals delight in participating in.

    If I am slightly encouraged I think the tenor of the debate is changing. If you wrote an article extolling the virtues of natural wines a couple of years ago, there would critics queueing to be specifically (or vaguely) abusive. I don’t think that the arguments have become any more sophisticated but the tone is more measured; as if there is new understanding that blanket condemnation and woolly generalisation does not advance the sum of human knowledge.

    And it’s reality that can’t be ignored. People make the wines, people sell the wines, people drink the wines and people enjoy the wines. The evidence transcends the often humdrum nature of the debate.

    Fabio – you’re right. Ultimately, you want to make wine and for people to drink it. The idea that natural winemakers are swivel-eyed ideologues, who put zero-intervention ahead of drinkability is bogus. Yes, there are bad examples and yes it doesn’t always work, but that’s life, or in this case, wine.

    Seasonal greetings to both of you and very best wishes for 2013 and I hope I can meet you in London next year.


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