No concept is generating more discussion, misuse, vitriol or hype in the wine world right now than "natural" wine. If you've been spared the hubbub to this point, this should offer a gentle and balanced introduction.
What is a natural wine? Well, the very term is a primary cause of the friction that the concept has generated: The existence of "natural" wine implies that all others aren't
natural or are artificial in some way. This alone seems enough to irk, annoy or outrage many of the critics to the extent that civilized discussion is impossible.
Aida Toromanovic, Wikimedia Commons
Natural or not? The debate is fierce.
Next, the term is relatively new in general use, with no agreed-upon definition. Producers are lumped into the natural camp despite occupying a relatively broad spectrum of winemaking practices. This lack of predictability damages both the concept and the debate, which has become somewhat furious, as reporting from the always-excellent Bertrand Celce on his must-read blog Wine Terroirs
How best to define natural wines? (I'll set aside my preference for another, less-polarizing term altogether.) One concept bandied about is that the techniques should be traditional. This is a non-starter in my book, a concept even less workable than "natural." Many of the world's wine regions go back a millennium and have seen vast variations in techniques and technologies. Frankly, most probably made what we'd consider crap wine for much of their existence.
Alice Feiring, a long-time proponent of many of the wines now being called natural, offers a very workable starting point for a definition on her blog
: Grapes, maybe a splash of sulfur dioxide. Nothing gets added to the wine, and nothing gets extracted. This captures one of the critical elements of natural wines -- letting the fruit speak with as little human intervention as possible. I don't think this is the only way to make good wine, but I do see it as a very worthwhile intellectual exercise, and I understand its attraction. I also get the concern of "purists" who want to keep those who interfere with the wine too much from jumping on the natural-wine bandwagon as a marketing tool.
Honestly, I share Alice's enthusiasm for a lot of these wines and drink more than my fair share. What attracts me is their purity, which in theory should allow the differences brought about by terroir to be more apparent, a phenomenon that I find intellectually very appealing
. However, I'm perfectly able to enjoy wines that don't fall into the natural camp, though I will admit to some lingering "what ifs" when I drink them.
Here is a brief primer on some of the human influences commonly at issue in the debate over natural wine. Know that many of these are complex and often poorly understood (in a scientific sense) processes worthy of in-depth treatment. If you'd like to read more on the debate, Vinography posted a transcript of a lively, and less mean-spirited debate
: This is one of the most hotly debated topics. Natural wines are generally fermented spontaneously with the yeast resident on the grapes as they come in from the vineyard or with those inhabiting the atmosphere of the winery. Many other wines are inoculated with commercial preparations of cultivated yeasts. Others are a joint effort, with the indigenous yeasts allowed to begin the process; commercial yeast is added later as insurance.
The prime benefits of commercial yeast are vitality, purity and, as a result of those two factors, predictability. In contrast, wild yeasts are frequently a mixture of strains, which can result in greater complexity -- but also greater potential for unpleasant aromas and tastes as well as incomplete fermentations.
: There are a remarkable number of enzymes that can be added during the wine-making process to accomplish all sorts of effects: extracting extra color from the grapes; breaking down material that would cause cloudiness; enhancing certain aromas; simulating more complex wine-making processes such as skin maceration; and many more. These are a no-no to the natural wine folks for obvious reasons.Adjustments
: Winemakers often adjust three of the most critical components of unfermented wine: water, sugar and acid. In warm climates, acid can be added to give liveliness to otherwise flabby grapes, while water can be used to "rehydrate" grapes that would otherwise yield wine too high in alcohol. In cool climates, sugar can be added to increase the alcohol of the finished wine where the grapes do not create enough natural sugars.
Even more taboo to natural wine are mechanical adjustments, such as reverse osmosis and spinning cone
, that can be used to remove excessive levels of alcohol or volatile acidity. However, for the winemaker faced with the decision between losing a batch of wine or employing one of these technological solutions, I certainly understand those who make that choice.Chemical Fertilizers/Herbicides/Fungicides/Pesticides
: Natural wines tend to be the product of grapes grown via organic -- or its more rigorous cousin, biodynamic -- principles. Generally, viticulture tends to be moving in this direction as we learn more about the complex interactions between the microorganisms in soil and sustainable agriculture. However, this topic is also quite complex
, and there are still plenty of producers who continue to employ "conventional" agricultural methods.Sulfites
: This is a topic already covered in this column in some depth
, but natural wine producers attempt to minimize the amount of sulfites used in the production process, to the extent that some add none at all. The primary risks are resumption of fermentation activity in the bottle by yeast or bacteria and oxidation. Most quality-minded producers, whether natural or not, have cut back on sulfite additions such that they add only enough to eliminate the risks they are unwilling to take.
The issue of natural wines is certainly one worth discussing. However, the petty bickering and judgmental attitudes taken by many in the argument do little to further what could be a fascinating learning process.
Instead, we need to move forward in a spirit of exploration to try to determine what decisions and techniques really impact the finished wine and how. Using that knowledge, winemakers can make informed decisions to produce wines true to their terroir or not, rather than defending ideological positions based on ego, assumption and personal tastes.Dave Nelson is the author of the blog Beer, Wine and Whisky. He writes about wine every Tuesday.