To some followers of natural wines, espousing a natural wine credo is an assertion of cultural identity. Natural wine has become synonymous with caring about the environment, as well as valuing provenance and authenticity (another buzzword). By positioning itself against the corporate, the industrial and the nakedly commercial imperative, the artisan nature of the winemaking enterprise has acquired an implied political status. Then again, maybe people just like to drink delicious wine.
The case against
Those who oppose the idea (or actuality) of natural wine do so for a variety of reasons. The chief amongst them is the dislike of the word “natural”, which is viewed either a meaningless term (how can, for example, wine – a manmade product – be natural?) or an unfairly morally-loaded one (implying that all wine not deemed natural must, ipso facto, be unnatural). Some journalists and people who work in the wine industry also believe that natural wines, by their nature, are “naturally flawed”. Such generalisations are based on prejudice rather than evidence. However we define our terms or set our standards, ultimately the wines are the wines, made by individuals, and each one the result of a thousand major and minor decisions.
Each wine deserves to be drunk on its merit with an open mind as well as an open heart, not be viewed through the prism of ideology.
What is natural wine?
Natural wine is usually characterised as “low-or-no-intervention winemaking”. That is a somewhat simplistic definition given the quantity of vigneron blood, sweat and tears shed in both the vineyard and the winery. There is nothing low-intervention about making natural wine; the myriad decisions and hands-on actions demonstrate that it is the nature and quality of intervention that we ought to be discussing. To not do something (i.e., to decide not to filter or not to add sulphites) is still a choice and one that may not be taken lightly.
If one had to sum it up in a sentence, then one might say that natural wine is crafted in the vineyard and is transformed - but not denatured by - (chemical) superimpositions in the winery. Natural winemaking incorporates certain common approaches rather than one pure doctrine.
There’s a lot more to natural wine than simply choosing whether to sulphur or not to sulphur.
When we think of natural wine, we tend to think of artisan vignerons and a small-scale, highly personal approach to winemaking. This invariably involves the vigneron working diligently in the vineyard, focusing on the health of their vines. Proper dirt-under-the-fingernails farming, whether one prefers to describe it as sustainable, organic or even biodynamic, it is all about understanding the vineyard – and nature - at an intimate (organic) level and creating a healthy environment for vines to flourish without the input of chemicals. Natural wines are chiefly made in the vineyard.
The winemaking, meanwhile, is all about monitoring, tasting and deciding on a path of least intervention in order to faithfully represent the nature and quality of the grapes. Native yeast ferments are a critical part of the transformation; the outcomes, by definition, are different in every vintage. Most natural vignerons prefer not to touch the wine too much, avoiding pumping, extraction, racking, temperature control, filtering or fining, but there is no single protocol. What I feel is natural is that when I drink the wine, I don’t sense that that wine is merely the sum of its interventions. The wine must be of itself - and taste of itself.
When you taste the best naturally-made wines, you are tasting wines that seem to be alive and are full of latent energy. They are drinkable and digestible, nourishing and gastronomic.
Natural wine hotspots
One tends to find natural vignerons/producers clustered in certain regions. In Beaujolais, of course, where Marcel Lapierre and the so-called Gang of Four blazed the original trail and influenced growers throughout France in the mid-to-late 1990s; in the Loire, particularly in Anjou and Touraine where biodynamics and natural wine have gone hand-in-hand over the years; in the remote villages of the Auvergne and the Roussillon; in various parts of Spain such as Catalonia and Sierra de Gredos; on Mt Etna in Sicily with its extraordinary terroir; in the border country between Friuli & Slovenia, one of the spiritual homes of skin-contact winemaking; in Burgenland, where respect for terroir meets restless desire to experimentation; in South Africa’s Swartland and Australia’s Adelaide Hills where young growers feel that they can express themselves.
There are various explanations for these clusters. Often, it is because of the generational shift with young vignerons travelling the world and experiencing different wine cultures, as their tastes change, so does their approach to winemaking. Sometimes, it is the influence of outsiders, drawn to an exceptional terroir, that helps to kickstart a movement. Then there are groups of growers who come together to work apart from the mainstream, to follow their own wine desires, as it were.
The rise of natural wine
Natural wines have become increasingly attractive to restaurants and their customers for a variety of reasons. Firstly, there is a moral positive in supporting individuals who work the land organically and make additive-free products. Provenance is also beginning to matter a great deal to discerning consumers, especially for those who are keen to discover and connect with a grower and a specific place, rather than drink something made by a faceless oenologist in a wine factory. And, like the times, the tastes they are also a-changing – away from the meretricious and spoofy wine styles. Natural wines are not aromatically confected, nor oaky or extracted. High alcohol is not prized. They are certainly not the same every vintage – and that is as it should be. Finally, with such a wide variety of styles within the natural wine spectrum to choose from, sommeliers and wine buyers are able, more than ever, to populate their wine lists with a compelling range of gastronomic natural wines.
In 2005, the expression “natural wine” barely registered amongst wine cognoscenti, even if the wines were beginning to appear in the UK. Over the next ten to fifteen years, as the combined result of the many dozens of wine fairs around the world such as Real Wine; RAW, La Dive Bouteille, Villa Favorita & Rootstock, the rapid growth in the number of specialist importers and wine bars, and the fact that more and more producers are switching to a lo-fi style, the wine scene in many places has completely transformed.
From bar and bistro to Michelin-starred restaurant, as well as independent retailers, natural wines are now finally being selected according to their excellent merits, seamlessly integrated into the wine lists, rather than because they fit into some trendy category.
The natural wine world has never been culturally static, nor has it been about a grouping of growers making wines according to a single manifesto; it reflects a constant wild ferment of traditional approaches and fresh ideas. The wines, sui generis, resist simple categorisation. And equally the language we use when drinking the best of these wines reflects that we are dealing with a product that is not so easily nailed to the wheel, being as they are, wines that are living, moving, energetic and vital. From the grower free to express him/herself through the wine, to the drinker in the wine bar, to the sheer drinkability of the wines themselves, natural wine has become all sorts of refreshment. Having started as a reaction against standardised practice and homogenous technical and chemically-made wine, it has since evolved over the years into a diverse culture with a deep and complex root system.