The fault is in the finder
Winemaking, natural or otherwise, is a series of individual choices and always will be. In the name of hating oxidation the contras would surely condemn oloroso sherry, vin jaune, Marsala, port, Banyuls, old-fashioned Châteauneuf and Priorat – and if they would not condemn these wines because these are universally acknowledged as traditional styles, then, by any scrap of logic, they should equally allow for deliberate oxidative winemaking in other wines and regions. But, for some reason, oxidation must be false if it is to be found in a Loire Chenin or an Alsace Riesling, notwithstanding that here are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in the narrow textbook of winemaking commandments. Logical consistency is evidently not one of them.
To reduce natural wine to an analysis of perceived wine faults is to quibble about what is normal rather than what is legitimate. These wine were never intended to populate supermarket shelves nor appeal to the common denominator of critical taste. The beauty of natural winemaking is the desire to experiment and push the boundaries beyond what is expected or considered possible. Would the world be a better place without the wines of Julien Meyer, Emmanuel Houillon, Manuel Valenzuela or Jean-Francois Chêne? Love ‘em or loathe ‘em these are thrills and spills wines, which transport the taste buds out of their comfort zone. Without experimenting, kicking against the orthodoxies, artists, composers, chefs even would never take their art to a different level or achieve the diversity that many of us seek in this humdrum, homogenous world. For all that winemaking is a science, it is also a craft, and the freedom of the winemaker to express the best of what he feels that nature has given him. Some winemaking decisions may be forced by circumstance, others are the result of choice – this is what makes wines so thrillingly different.
Another of those generalisations, that doesn’t withstand scrutiny, that the contras use to underpin their natural-wine-is-inherently-inferior argument, is to claim that the wines cannot, and will not, age. Some wines are certainly designed to age, others to be smashed in their infancy. Isn’t this like wine in general? I have drunk some older examples of Lapierre and Foillard, wines in superb condition and revealing the quality of terroir and the vintage and I have drunk wines from the same growers that are best enjoyed in their youth.
One has to look at these wines as a recent phenomenon – we don’t have many examples of no sulphur wine to evaluate. I have tried some ancient Jura wines with minimal sulphur which were in cracking nick, an exceptional red Macon from Clos des Vignes du Maynes with 18 years bottle age and some fabulous additive-free Chinon with thirty years under its belt and several more in reserve. It would be interesting to go back to wines made pre-war and discover to what extent they were natural (by the standards of modern winemaking).
The contras love to hold up examples of very famous wines and attribute their longevity and overall excellence to the very fact that they are not naturally made. It’s a daft argument – a wine would be something else if it was made in a different way; it might be less good or it might be better. And things will mutate; new winemakers will come in, people will alter their ideas. Styles of wines, after all, have changed radically across the decades. I have tasted an Australian Shiraz from the 50s that was as delicate and fresh as a Saint-Joseph. In the 80s the vogue for porty monsters came in – Aussie Shiraz had to be like Denis Lillee screaming in our face after hitting us in the midriff with a bouncer. Now I’m tasting delicious wines from Heathcote and Yarra that hearken back to the good old days. And for Australia, read South Africa, Bordeaux, Burgundy and Piedmont – trends, revolutions and counter-revolutions keep the wine world in a perpetual ferment. Truth-in-wine? It’s an illusion. A great bottle of wine that stands the test of time is a great bottle of wine; this is not a function of whether it is made with sulphur or without, but the nature of the wine itself.
Times they are a-changing
I could come up with a hundred examples (at least) of where natural wines are impacting (or integrating, if you prefer) into the mainstream wine culture.
Example one: The influence of Rolland on Chilean wines in the past couple of decades has been profound. A new generation of growers and oenologists are questioning the wines that they are making and moving away from the Rolland formula in an attempt to make more terroir-driven, food-friendly, fresher and dare one say more natural wines.
Example two: The rebirth of Beaujolais as a region making world class wines. Instigated by Jules Chauvet, Marcel Lapierre and his gang. What do Jean-Claude Lapalu, Georges Descombes, Julien Sunier, Karim Vionnet, Jean Foillard, Yvon Metras et al have in common? All the top growers work with little or no sulphur.
Example three: The number of leading winemakers who are exploring the possibilities of making natural wine because they want to know how it works (or doesn’t work) – eg Peter Sisseck in Ribera del Duero will be making a natural wine cuvée this year. Intellectual curiosity is healthy.
Example four: the attempt to commercialise low sulphur wine – eg Gerard Bertrand’s no added sulphur Naturae Chardonnay & Cabernet Sauvignon made for Marks & Spencer.
Natural wine has shaken up wine-making practice, precisely because it challenges winemakers to question long-held certainties and tempts others to explore new avenues. One winemaker explained to me that he was instructed at oenology school that there was only a right way of making wine (with chemicals) and that even in farming he should rely on chemical solutions because organics was “so much nonsense”. He actually put it more bluntly. When its exponents have a primitive understanding of what constitutes practical winemaking knowledge then the very notion of winemaking as a science is short-changed, which comes back to my contention (see part 1) that the actual priests in this scenario are part of the establishment wine church because they have faith that the systems in place are right, whilst the natural winemakers and biodynamic growers constitute a progressive renaissance. If I were an optimist I would say that such tension is creative, by definition, but what I see and read smacks of unvarnished intolerance and a wilful refusal to engage with the real arguments. Natural wine exists on its own energetic terms; the idea of it shouldn’t need to be defended against obsessive abuse. It has become emblematic of the democratic expression of the right to like the wine we like to drink and is as a form of vernacular in a world where a self-appointed academy (of taste) dictates what is right, what we should drink and what we should like.
It is fashionable to predict that the natural wine debate will fizzle out when people wake up to the glaring reality that the winemakers are only using the natural tag to palm badly-made product off on unwary consumers. Ce sont des balivernes! They wish!
You cannot prove everything upon a point, or measure beauty in a laboratory. There is a view that aesthetic hierarchies in wine can be established on verifiable certainties and that consequently certain wines are innately better than others – because it is necessary, for whatever reason, to create a meritocracy. Thus begat Bordeaux classifications, thus begat Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator and points and competitions and en primeur offers and the whole pricing rigmarole. This has everything to do with money and very little with merit. Not that the club won’t admit new expensively-dressed members – for when a periodic judgement of Paris occurs or a hitherto unfancied Loire Cab Franc or a Madiran or a Chilean Cab Sauv beats a bunch of first growths in a blind tasting, then greatness may be patronisingly conferred upon those wines. Where would we be without our pyramid of quality?
The idea that a single person may work on a tiny piece of land without using chemicals (perhaps using ancient farming methods) and then make a wine without additives that will be never be reviewed, hyped, advertised or sent into competition for critical approval, yet will sell out in wine bars and specialist retailers in Japan, New York, Paris, Sydney and London, undermines the notion that wine is a controlled, marketable product. Yes, winemakers are making wines for themselves and people are drinking without critical permission – it is contrary to every commercial law. So what? Forget the nonsense promulgated by certain contras that winemakers are using the natural tag (im)purely as a marketing tool to peddle their suspect wares – the majority of growers don’t even use that term, or recognise it, and many would reject it outright as they do not want to be pigeon-holed into a movement. The growth of natural wine is organic and sustainable (if I can use those words in an alternative context) because it is about a community of drinkers enjoying themselves. Growers too. Why shouldn’t wine be fun?
What is this all but wrangling about the putative ownership of certain words: natural, real, terroir, typicity. No-one owns the copyright of words, unless they are Humpty-Dumpty, and people have the right to use them if they believe that they express the essence of what they are trying to convey. The scientific community would have us prove everything, but words are allowed to embody ideas and ideals. Natural, if nothing else, has become a notably successful, if evidently controversial, descriptive term, because, in a short period, it has become completely hard-wired into the brains of the wine community and the google alerts of those bloggers who so enjoy being “frighted with false fire”. So we all know what we are talking about – except when we haven’t got the slightest idea. Still, if that’s the shape of the ball we might as well play with it.
All things are relative in the world of wine from farming and winemaking methods to taste and judgement. We should be content with uncertainty. As I have said, those that fulminate against natural wine would have you believe that the proponents of natural wine (who ‘they?’) seek to claim the moral high ground and only deal in absolutes and extremes.
Blessed are the meek because their arguments are tempered by reason, whilst the contras doth protest too much:
for in the very torrent, tempest,
and, as I may say, whirlwind of your passion, you must
acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness.
O, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious
periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags,
to split the ears of the groundlings…
They need to look in the mirror when they make such po-faced assertions. Natural winemaking is based on excellent and ethical farming practice and predicated on the additional notion that less intervention gives you more wine (and a wine that you want to drink). It is a refreshingly honest, unpretentious approach that we admire, yet, as lovers of natural wines, we are not blind to their imperfections and faults, and will call bad examples when we taste them. This is because we love good wine as well as natural wine. The contras are the Manicheans in this scenario because they have created this extraordinary (and unnecessary) dualism with many, alas, refusing to listen to reasoned argument or even allow for nuanced debate; the mere word “natural” inducing minor apoplexy amongst some (I’ve actually seen an MW spluttering with irritation when I mentioned the term ‘natural wine’ en passant in a conversation). And some have anointed themselves as defenders of the faith; they will investigate any juxtaposition of the words natural and wine, and spread their contumely like a thick layer of orc jam.
Cutting off the Cheshire cat’s head
The contras claim that natural wine apologists foster (and cash in on) misconceptions. For them ‘natural’ is essentially a form of naked fraud. Are consumers so ignorant that they would be hoodwinked by a word? What nostrums are we meant to be peddling? Perhaps this is all occurring in some alternate universe that we are unaware of where wizard wines are being defended by the Wargs of Wilderland.
The major flaw in the anti-natural wine argument is the ascription of a philosophy that does not exist to a movement that does not exist, attributing motives of gain and moral superciliousness to this self-same non-existent movement and constructing an elaborate fiction that there is one style of natural wine (to rule them all) worshipped by myriad unquestioning myrmidons (who don’t exist).
As demonstrated above there are so many different approaches to making wine that it is tendentious to talk about wines in such a narrow way. One winemaker may judge that a number of interventions are necessary to create a stable, sellable wine. Another winemaker may resolve that he would prefer not to intervene chemically at any stage. This may, or may not, be better for the wine – let the drinker decide – but the latter approach is undoubtedly less interventionist and leaves the wine more naked. “Conventional wine”, by the way, is not pejorative rather an indication of classic or modern winemaking. Natural wine is (currently) unconventional wine by that logic.
The contras who, though they don’t subscribe to natural wine, subscribe the idea of the cult of natural wine, have ironically created the very thing they profess to dislike – a sense of a movement or a counterculture. Their endless criticisms are the oxygen that nourishes the culture, much as they seek to switch the debate to science versus art, or right versus wrong, or any other diametrically opposed views or stances. Surely, truth forever resides in tasting and increasing one’s knowledge of wines and winemaking, and, most important of all, preserving an open mind. And, of course, letting others make up their own minds. The more people experience naturally-made wines and engage with the growers the greater their understanding of the wines will be. Liking or not liking each wine is a matter for individual taste – as it always has been. Getting away from the good/bad dichotomy, improving the quality, knowledge and diversity of tasting panels so that natural wines are given a fair hearing, accepting naturally-made wines for what they are and not what you might think they should be, is the enlightened approach. A little humility works wonders when talking about matters of personal taste for then we express the limits of our knowledge.
“Well, art is art, isn’t it? Still, on the other hand, water is water! And east is east and west is west and if you take cranberries and stew them like applesauce they taste much more like prunes than rhubarb does. Now, uh… Now you tell me what you know.” ~ Groucho Marx