Simon Woolf’s piece on natural wine in Meininger caused another minor kerfuffle in a carafe in the oenosphere.
These articles are always timely in that even though they are written with diligence and fair-handedness, the reactions they subsequently evoke provide an indication about the commentariat’s (lack of) knowledge, understanding and experience of natural wines.
Defenders of natural wine are accused of fundamentalism because one or two occasionally pipe up to admit to liking a certain style of wines. As if personal enjoyment would be motivated by ideological fervour.
The contras often cite opinions as if they were incontrovertible facts, generalising about wines that they have never tasted and having no concrete evidence to back their assertions. To make salient judgements you need really to have visited the vineyards, met and talked to the farmers and vignerons, and also to have to hand the physical data (analyses) of the wines. Critics of natural wine seem to rely on hearsay, or generalise from the experience of a few wines tasted (imagine if everyone did that), but, most of all, appear to be intellectually predisposed to dislike the whole concept of natural wine, wherein they view such wines as inevitably faulty. The fact that a vast spectrum of wines exists, many of which are wonderful, some of which are nail varnish, some of which are highly complex, others simple and fruity, and so on, suggests that every wine ought to be visited and treated on its merits and evaluated accordingly rather than placed in the dualistic natural = good/evil box.
Of course, natural is a relative term – we are speaking about wines that undergo minimal or zero chemical processing or manipulation but are also the complex result of many processes and winemaking choices rather than fixed ideological positions. Occasionally, when one has the opportunity to taste the same wines made with and without the addition of SO2, for example, one sees how even a small addition makes a considerable difference to the way the wine tastes, but this is not to say that one course of action is more correct than the other. You could also argue that the preservation or conservation of a potentially unstable wine is the more natural (certainly rational) course of action, and this pragmatic approach is followed certainly by the vast majority of natural vignerons who will make the appropriate adjustments. But wine is never so simple: I’ve dismissed certain natural wines on first tasting as irredeemable only to have to eat (drink) my words as they have blossomed in the glass. Conversely, I have been initially enchanted by more classic conventional wines before witnessing how they lose their lustre. A more nuanced position would be to get to know the wine, see it evolve, sense whether its energy derives from the pure quality of the juice or whether it presents a glossy façade without the wherewithal to back it up.
There are many reasons why naturally-made wines, and the associated culture, appeals:
The wines themselves are shorn of pretention and winemaking tropes. They have to be made with pretty stunning quality grapes. They express a purity of fruit – transparency is the key. They possess a quality called energy (you recognise it if you taste it). The best examples articulate their terroir. For various reasons they tend to be lower in alcohol, less extractive, less jammy and less oaky. They are fun to drink. They are often challenging. They are living, mutating things. The wine fairs and wine bars are celebrations of a dynamic wine culture and the people who pour the wines in restaurants love what they are doing. Culturally, it is about sharing – loving a wine on Instagram, FB or Twitter gives instant word-of-mouth recognition to the wines. They don’t have to receive the imprimatur of the journalist, the wine writer or the judge. They don’t have to live up to an artificial score or a tasting note. None of this is subversive; it is a natural progression in that we can make our own discoveries, we become active “consumers” rather than sponges – we are free to love or to loathe any wine on its merits. Or, maybe, that is subversive in that hierarchical certainties of taste are being constantly challenged.