To many people “natural wine” seems redundant. In the popular view, wine is a natural product. When most wineries promote their wines, they talk about their grapes & maybe their quality wood barrels or terracotta aging vessels. Fining & filtration techniques usually don’t get a mention (unless they don’t use them) & no one pulls out a gallon of Mega purple & talks about how it makes their wines so rich in color & depth. Over the last few decades, & particularly the last 10 years or so more people have become interested in what goes into their wines. This has led in part to a natural wine movement. What does this mean for the quality of the wine? Is this a passing trend or something that is here to stay?
Before tackling those questions, it is probably best to define natural wine. Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done. At its most basic level, wine is a natural process. If enough grapes are knocked from a vine, they will break open & yeast on the grape skins will cause the juice to ferment. I like to think that a caveman scooped up a bunch of grapes from the ground & had the first proto wine. He might not have known what it was, but those were probably the best grapes he had ever had! On the other hand, those grapes on the ground wouldn’t be what we think of as wine. Wine writer Brian Miller once said that “There is even less that’s natural about wine. Grapes in the wild do not change into Grange. They turn into new vines or sour grapes. Wine is a much-manipulated beverage and is no more “natural” than raw-milk cheese, brown sugar or Brazilian blondes.”
The French of course are trying to codify a definition of natural wine. The INAO, which regulates appellations in France has a working definition that they are wines made from certified organic grapes, handpicked & fermented with native yeast strains. No additives can be used & techniques like reverse osmosis, filtration, & flash Pasteurization are banned. Sulfur dioxide (SO2) can only be added just prior to bottling & the final wine must contain less than 30 milligrams per liter. Many have objected to this definition because they do not believe the grapes need to be certified organic as long as they are organically farmed, while others believe that growing sustainably without any certification is more than enough. Some believe that only dry farmed grapes should be considered. Still others believe that any addition of SO2 is outside the spirit of natural wine. It isn’t surprising that a group of people who wanted to go outside the generally accepted rules of modern winemaking & make wine their own way doesn’t agree on a single definition of “natural wine.” I think we can loosely look at it as low SO2, low intervention winemaking using grapes grown with minimal pesticides.
There is an appeal to natural wine. When crafted by the best wine makers the wines can show a purity of flavors that is exceptional. It can reveal the terroir of the region in a way that we don’t always see in more technical industrialized wines. For those tired of opening a $20 Cabernet Sauvignon from California & finding that it tastes almost the same as a $20 Cabernet Sauvignon from Spain or Argentina or Timbuktu, natural wines can deliver unusual flavors. The best examples of natural wine could have only come from that vineyard. Natural wine can also be attractive to smaller wineries looking to counterprogram against the big guys & to garner attention to their wines. It is impossible for a small winery to match the advertising of Gallo or the perception of quality of a Bordeaux 1st Growth. They can find a niche with those who promote natural wine & as the number of shops & wine bars that specialize in natural wines grows, it becomes possible to make good & profitable wine without those advantages.
The weakness of natural wine as a category is hard wired into the lack of definition. Tour any trade show featuring a natural wine section & you will find a huge range of quality & environmental responsibility. For every high quality wine you find made from organic noble grapes, you will find 20 virtually undrinkable wines made with conventionally farmed grapes…or grapes that are “farmed organically, unless we have to spray.” Making great wine is difficult under the best circumstances. Making great wine without the use of SO2 & without the ability to use cultivated yeast during a sluggish fermentation, or to sterile filter if you are worried about spoilage yeasts requires good circumstances & a great winemaker. Unfortunately, many of the winemakers you meet at these shows aren’t well trained. When you try a natural wine that isn’t well made, you don’t taste the purity of the varietal, you taste the multiplicity of flaws. For this reason, many natural wines taste similar even though they might be made from different grape varietals. Rather than showcasing the terroir or the grape, they highlight Brettanomyces, oxidation, volatile acidity, & mousey taint from Acetyltetrahydro-pyridines. This is the opposite of the goal of showing the fruit without covering it up through manipulation.
I believe that natural wine is here to stay. There have always been winemakers working in this fashion. It has only recently received a name & a movement, but in many ways, this is the basic form of winemaking. Now that there is an identified category & it is possible to market natural wine bars & natural wine shops, it has broken into the mainstream.
It would be nice to think that the better-quality wines would succeed & the lesser quality ones wouldn’t, but much like with more industrialized wines, quality doesn’t always win. Many promote the flawed flavors as positive aspects of natural wine rather than holding the winemakers to the same standards as conventional winemakers. It sometimes seems that natural wines are graded on a curve. The key to mainstream success is going to be holding the category to higher quality standards. If that succeeds, then the natural wine category has the potential to be a vibrant long-term category. If it doesn’t, I believe that it will remain a niche product. As the perceived newness of the category fades, wine writers & hip wine drinkers will move on to the next fad. The natural wine community has the potential to grow, but they have to demand & reward quality.