My friend Ian is smitten with “natural” wine. He is convinced and happy to tell the world that he knows a better way to drink.
“Imagine” he says “drinking a living, breathing wine made without chemical additions or artificial manipulations, that expresses its true sense of place, all the while knowing that the soil is nourished and enhanced in its making.”
“Great,” I say “but what does it taste like?”
That’s me, when it comes to wine I’m a bottom line kind of guy and my experience with “natural” wine has been pretty spotty. Yes, the best can be thrilling, inevitably light in body but often dazzling with wild and savory flavors and full of the life force chi. Living is a good way to describe them.
Others have been horrible: volatile, oxidized, acidic, unbalanced, visually unappealing and totally undrinkable. Dead is the only way to describe them. I have fared better with reds than whites and with the minimal sulfite crowd than the no sulfite bunch, and by a large margin. This inconsistency is to be expected. “Natural” wines are essentially defenseless against catastrophe save for the skill and luck of their maker, all in the name of honesty and integrity. It’s a mystery to me why anyone would choose such a risky path but then I wonder about hang-gliders, extreme skiers and motocross aerialists as well. Maybe that says something about me. In any case, god bless them for making the rest of us look like wimps and for challenging our sense of normal.
The radical “naturalists”, as opposed to rational “naturalists”, should be credited for taking the brunt of the vitriol and for their contributions to vinous research but, and this is a big but, I believe there’s an off-chance they may be relegated to the heap of fundamentalists with a strictly niche product to market and sell. Nothing wrong with that and there may be circumstances when I want to partake of the no sulfite stuff just as I might any other highly perishable, short shelf-life commodity. And don’t get me caught up in the sophism that all “industrial” wine is dishonestly made and morally undrinkable. Even if I agree we shouldn’t confuse boring, bland and manufactured with unmarketable. Unless the modern home suddenly sprouts a root cellar (14ºC or below) there’s a good chance even well made “natural” wine will die an ugly death before it can be consumed. Sold once, sold twice, but twice burned is unmarketable and unsalable thereafter.
One last point about marketing: we all know wine importers and wine makers who have espoused virtually all of the tenets described in the various “natural” manifestos and I’m sure they are known to the “naturalists” too and are admired as trailblazers and role models. For years they have stood against the “industrial” giants plying their artisan trade with honesty and integrity, prizing in their wines the notion of terroir above all else. I know it grates some of them to feel forced to show their papers at the border, to in effect prove that they belong to a movement without stated standards and one that, depending on the direction that it takes, may not even be viable.
OK, let me get on with the point of this piece with a quote from Sean Thackrey, the Californian responsible for the cult wine favorite Orion and a noted minimalist winemaker. He sums things up thusly:
“The best thing about natural wine is that everyone’s in favor of it. The worst thing is once past being in favor, no one agrees about what it is.”
OK, so I’ll ask, what is it? Various organizations and associations have sprung up attempting to canonize standards but there is still some disagreement about what those standards should be. What follows is an attempted rundown of what is agreed upon and what is not.
The natural wine movement, despite its impressive gains within the mainstream, still has a tough row to hoe. If we begin with its first prerequisite, organic or bio-dynamic farming, then a lot of the wine world is catching up. The latest figures indicate that a rapidly increasing percentage of the world’s vineyards are either organically or bio-dynamically farmed and a good bit beside that is on its way to certification. (FiPL paper on organic viticulture http://orgprints.org/28430/7/willer-lernoud-2015-viticulture-2013.pdf). The world is already moving along with the natural crowd in this regard because it is good PR, good business, environmentally sound and it feels good. It gets stickier from here.
It is hard to imagine otherwise, and I’m sure the numbers will support the proposition, that the next prerequisite, hand harvesting, is on the decline. The hand harvesting of grapes is another anchor tenet of “natural” wine making both as an environmental proposition and a practical one as it provides a layer of protection against the unwanted spontaneous fermentation of broken or otherwise compromised fruit by native yeasts. Its practice also has the environmental benefit of a significantly smaller carbon footprint while stressing both the vine and the soil to a lesser degree. Rigorous selection in the vineyard is still the most efficacious way for a “naturalist” to ensure healthy grapes but it is still risky to assume infallibility and of course it is very expensive. Score one for the “naturalists.” We need more hand worked vineyards not fewer.
Hand harvesting goes hand-in-hand with the next prerequisite which prescribes the use of native yeasts to the absolute exclusion of selected strains including both natural and lab-created. Again, Sean Thackrey weighs in:
“. . . some do, and some do not, think natural wine must be fermented without the addition of selected yeast, as though yeast strains simply selected from prior successful fermentations are somehow ‘unnatural.’ This rather begs the question as to why, then, is it ‘natural’ to make wine from selected grape varietals if it’s not ‘natural’ to use selected yeast? Is pinot noir really ‘natural’ in California? Can wine be made from it in California that’s ‘natural?’ If so, why can’t wine made from it using RC212 (a yeast selected in Burgundy) be ‘natural?'”
The “naturalist” might argue that selected yeast defeats terroir and that RC212 has nothing to do with pinot noir as adapted in California. True, but then what does American rootstock have to do with the “naturalist’s” vineyard in the Languedoc, for example, and its claim to proprietary terroir. Argumentum ad absurdum rears its ugly head. For every argument there is an equally compelling counter argument, ad infinitum. Suffice it to say that all natural wine adherents agree that native yeast is a must and that any fermentation without it presents a false expression of terroir. Just be aware, you are going to get an argument from a lot of very fine winemakers about this one. Let’s call this a draw.
This brings us face-to-face with topic of sulfite additions. Here there are notable differences among the adherents. All would argue against added sulfites at harvest since that would kill off the native yeasts required for the full and truthful expression of terroir. Champagne gets a pass allowing for selected yeasts during the secondary fermentation in bottle. At no other point in the fermentation or elevage processes are added sulfites allowed. The main differences of opinion among the adherents occur at bottling.
The RAW Charter allows for the inclusion of sulfites at bottling as long as the finished wine is below 70 mg/L regardless of style or color; a fairly liberal standard as we shall see. (RAW is a collective of 150 wine members dedicated to natural wine and the transparency of information given to consumers. Rawfair.com).
The S.A.I.N.S. Charter (Sans Aucun Intrant Ni Sulfite) expressly forbids the use of sulfur at any time and insists their members, in effect, go commando. Pretty radical. Most of my “natural” wine duds emanated from within this group. (vins-sains.org).
Motherorganic founder Pierre Jancou is well known in natural wine circles as the proprietor of several natural wine bars and restaurants in Paris. His organization suggests an outline for natural wine production including an allowance for small sulfite additions resulting in no more than 25 mg/L for whites and 10 mg/L for reds in the finished wines. These standards are almost as draconian as the S.A.I.N.S. standard in that one might expect to find 10 mg/L naturally occurring sulfites in a finished wine even without sulfite additions. Interestingly, his rigid standards allow for the spraying of copper compounds to prevent powdery mildew in the vineyards, the only body to permit such a practice. Go figure. (motherorganic.com).
La Renaissance des Appellations led by Nicolas Joly of Coulée de Serrant fame focuses primarily on bio-dynamic principles, ethics and personal integrity as the ultimate safeguards. The organization permits the use of sulfites as necessary but states a preference for volcanic sulfur. There is no stated threshold but minimal and necessary use is implied. (renaissance-des-appellations.com).
The AVN or Association des Vins Naturels takes the middle ground allowing a maximum of 40 mg/L for whites and 30 mg/L for reds in the finished wines. (lesvinsnaturels.org)
As one can see there is still quite a range of values but all are significantly below current EU standards. I’m convinced that many quality-driven, conscientious winemakers meet the sulfite standards of the RAW Charter right now and have for years. I don’t believe that 70 mg/L is too burdensome but 40 might be and 10 is surely so. I would think a hybrid of the La Renaissance and RAW Charters with a upper cap on sulfites and a pledge of integrity coupled with inspection and label disclosure would make for the perfect model. From this point the radical “naturalists” can knock themselves out.
Now we are down to the small details of production: the related questions of malolactic fermentation and filtration. The “naturalists” do not necessarily hold the high ground here. My own preference for “malo” wines aside, most serious winemakers, especially those who eschew filtration, opt for and desire “malo” to finish. The question for the “naturalist” then becomes does it happen in the course of things or is helped along with inoculations? I get it. At this point in the process it seems to me that patience is advisable and that wine should be allowed to make itself. The rush to bottle a wine before it is finished is like sticking a pin in the eyeball of a “naturalist.” I’ve heard winemakers say they want “malo” finished by Christmas so they can go skiing. My advice to them is to play golf in the spring instead when natural “malo” is finished. The “naturalists” win here.
Not to give short shrift to filtration but a well made wine that is fully fermented and finished with “malo” is in no need of filtration except for cosmetic reasons. I’ve got to give this one to the “naturalists.” Give me everything you’ve got, cloudy be damned! As for whirling cones, reverse plasmosis, artificial oak sawdust flavoring, breast augmentation and the like there is no argument from here: not allowed!
It’s hard to argue with the proposition that the “natural” way is a better way. We all want a greener planet and our choices in areas as diverse as food, travel, work, life-style and other arenas reflect that consciousness. Our requirements of the wine we drink should be no different. My friend Ian’s comment is apropos of the entire discussion. I believe it is our right to be treated to unadulterated, healthful food and drink and that the people who give it to us should be able to make a decent living from their labor. This is what sustains and enriches community. We should encourage our farmers and winemakers to do their best and to bring us the best they have to offer and to do so in a sustainable way with respect given to the land and their workers. I believe the natural wine movement is all about this but it too must find a way to respect those who came before and to move forward together in service to the craft and its constituency. As Isabelle Legeron MW, founder of RAW Fair says:
“. . . my aim is to promote transparency in the wine world in order to support the art of authentic wine production. I want to help people think about what they drink. It is not about condemning practices; it is about raising awareness so that people can decide what they drink. At the moment, they can’t.”
Informed choice is always an admirable goal and soon perhaps, with wine, we will get it.
Next up will be a report on the “natural” wine movement as it stands in Switzerland. Stay tuned.