How to Think about Natural Wine
How could a concept as seemingly inoffensive as “natural wine” have generated thousands of words debating its actual merits?
Isn’t all wine natural? Farmers grow the grapes, and winemakers oversee the transformation of the grape juice into wine. What could be more natural?
The reality is that in a saturated wine marketplace, where artisanal producers compete with multinational beverage alcohol companies, “natural wine” has become a movement that seeks to set “authenticity” against “consistency.”
Natural wine as a movement began in twentieth-century Beaujolais, where winemaker Jules Chauvet strongly advocated the use of wild yeasts and minimal (if any) sulfur dioxide. His disciples later advanced the concept of “natural” to eschew filtration and the use of new oak.
Wines made as such, according to the natural wine movement, are “authentic.” Without drastic intervention by the winemaker, the wines speak to place in a way that “consistent” wines cannot.
“Consistent” wines, or those made by producers outside the “natural wine” camp, have been “manipulated” to such an extent that they taste the same every year. New oak, cultivated yeasts, sulfur dioxide and yeast nutrients are used liberally.
How, again, has this even become a debate that has lit up serious wine writers?
“Natural Wine” has no legal definition.
Much like the term “Reserve” (at least in the New World), “natural” has not been regulated, so producers may use it as they see fit.
This puts Chauvet disciples at a distinct disadvantage. For example, must a natural wine be completely free of sulfur dioxide, or may a miniscule amount be added in years when harvest occurs under damp conditions? No standard exists currently.
Natural wines can be very good. So can wines made with cultivated yeasts, new oak and filtration. Both can also be mediocre.
The wine blogosphere erupted in 2014 when Master of Wine Isabelle Legeron wrote that “only natural wine can be truly great” in her text titled Natural Wine: An Introduction to Organic and Natural Wines Made Naturally.
Such a polarizing statement may have won her publicity, but the fact remains that eschewing sulfur dioxide, for example, can (but not always) result in unstable wines, damaging brand and customer loyalty.
In December 2012 esteemed wine writer Jamie Goode wrote,
I’m a fan [of natural wines], because I like so many of the wines. They taste delicious. Of course, there are bad ones, and some exhibit flavour characteristics which can be challenging, or even faulty. But there are so many that I just want to drink. I find an elegance in many of the reds—a haunting beauty—that is rare in conventionally made wines.
Whether you are a WSET or CSW student, you must build a sensory vocabulary and critical repertoire, and this can only be accomplished by trying a variety of wines. A key exercise would be to taste a “natural” varietal wine with its conventionally made counterpart, ideally from the same region. Is the former more complex than the latter?
The natural wine movement, even if it does not boast a standard definition of its core principles, consists of an enormously passionate group of winemakers.
While this passion is to be lauded, it is also important to acknowledge that this movement is as much about marketing as it is about delivering a unique, and, as some have argued, superior, product.