In epic sagas such as The Lord of the Rings, when the power of evil is eventually vanquished after a massive cathartic battle, you breathe a sigh of relief as, after trials and tribulations, the story has reached its just conclusion. Evil was never so easily and utterly banished, however, and always lived on in men’s hearts and minds. In much the same way, I felt that after years of breast-beating and name-calling, the straw man armies of natural wine naysayers had retired to their fields of origin to scare other crows. Histrionic public (social and other media) airing of grievance and mock horror had been shelved and those who felt strongly about the subject could continue chuntering to themselves in isolation. Drink what you like, think what you like, the world was big enough to accommodate friendly disagreement. So one would have thought. One did not have to defend natural wines, because they had achieved due recognition and had become an integral part of quotidian wine culture.
I felt that after years of breast-beating and name-calling, the straw man armies of natural wine naysayers had retired to their fields of origin to scare other crows.
Recently, I have been aware of a few folk (once again) having a nark, sark and a snark about natty wines. So, I thought it might be opportune to hit the refresh button, dust off, and wheel out the old arguments. Firstly, regarding nomenclature and the meaning of natural: where I admit that I am less exercised about precise definitions than some. I do understand that the word “natural” juxtaposed with “wine” is a linguistic bridge too far for some who believe that these terms should never be yoked together. For others, the mere concept of natural wine connotes to them lazy-faire winemaking and bacterial oblivion.
“When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said once in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’ There is no need for contrarianism or interminable sophistry. We can pick nits until the cows come home or we can surely agree that natural wine is a happily imprecise term. One that most people get. That wines that might be termed natural are made without chemicals, and in a low-intervention fashion. That within the category there is a spectrum of physical interventions and manipulations. That natural wine does not revolve purely around a zealous adherence to zero sulphites, but the reasoned use (or non-use) of them.
Those that inveigh against natural wines tend to caricature the motivation behind the producers, the importers, the wine buyers and the drinkers enjoying those very wines and the culture surrounding them. The main accusation levelled at hawkers of natty is that of hoodwinking the public and bamboozling unwary drinkers by virtue of annexing a word freighted with positive connotations and using that to leverage sales.
The legitimacy of using the word natural without an official definition of the term also generates critical wash back. There are natural wine associations with their specific manifestos and guidelines, however, so this argument holds no water. Although I am against setting things in stone, I concede that accreditation from various natural wine organisations gives the growers and their wines greater authoritative status in the court of trade (and public) opinion.
The second argument relates to commercial wine standards. Winemaking is about process. Process requires implementing controls. Consistency of outcome in commercial terms is seen as not only desirable, but essential. Thus, the wisdom is that it is impossible to achieve the consistency required for marketable wine without technological safety nets and a wide array of interventions. One of these – the addition of sulphites – is critical in ensuring that wines are free of faults. By extension (the argument continues), wines that have not been treated with sulphites will either necessarily be faulty or be highly susceptible to spoilage.
Although I am against setting things in stone, I concede that accreditation from various natural wine organisations gives the growers and their wines greater authoritative status in the court of trade (and public) opinion.
I think the argument that posits that the only commercially saleable wine is technically correct wine, is itself incorrect. Quality is not determined in an analytics laboratory, nor even by the assessments of standards panels. The reasons why aficionados love the taste of natural wine are so many and varied, but chief amongst them (I suspect) is that the wines tend to be tasty, alive and singularly energetic. Not safe (for safety’s sake) and certainly not homogenous. They are what they are and how they came to be is less important than how people respond to them. Consumers may enjoy the concept of drinking low/no intervention wine, but there is no evidence that they will make an extra allowance if a wine is demonstrably faulty. Preferring one wine over another is always a personal choice and a matter of taste, rather than a philosophical position. If you like drinking natural wines, then it is highly likely that you will seek out other wines made in a similar vein. The proposition that consumers are blind to faults in wines that they enjoy is a classic straw man fallacy.
No discussion of natural wine would be complete without mention of conventional wines. Conventional farming is farming with chemicals, conventional winemaking is a spectrum of interventions which range from denaturing grape juice and rendering it a chemical product to a more reasoned approach which may be not so far removed from natural winemaking. Just as a natural vigneron should not desire to make vinegar, so a conventional vigneron might wish to avoid some of the uglier tropes of manipulative winemaking. When I am invited to attend wine tastings these days, I am shocked by the parole given to clumsily made conventional wines. What may be technically correct or varietally true is often scalped by yeasting, strip filtering, or high sulphur addition. The wines in question often taste “tinned.” The faults of conventional winemaking are given a free pass because obnoxious flavours that derive from chemical additions are perceived not as faults in themselves, but rather necessary evils to keep the wine clean.
Every wine goes on (or is accompanied on) its own journey from grape to bottle. Every stage in that process affects the final composition of the wine itself. Sometimes there is a lot of handholding, sometimes hardly any.
Back to the hecklers hooting on the sidelines. When discussing wine, these folk might wish to admit that the truth of the matter is never pure, nor simple. Wines, after all, may be called (or even classified) by certain opinion formers as “natural” or “conventional” and those terms will conjure a host of associations, either positive or negative depending on one’s point of view. In the end, the wine is the wine, and decrying hundreds and thousands of wines made by different people with different agendas in different regions of different countries from different grapes grown in different soils, is ridiculously narrow-minded.
Finally this thought. Every wine goes on (or is accompanied on) its own journey from grape to bottle. Every stage in that process affects the final composition of the wine itself. Sometimes there is a lot of handholding, sometimes hardly any. Also this. When a wine is truly free, it speaks to the drinker in its own language. The wine, like nature – and by its very nature – may be mutable, temperamental, flawed. Living with such uncertainty is not such a bad thing. While you get the mean and moody, you also receive the occasionally magnificent. Natural wines are here to stay. The wines, like the growers themselves, will evolve. Therefore, we should always resist generalisation and simplistic categorisation, for each wine represents itself, not a wider movement.