In his recent essay entitled Are We Entering the Post-Natural Wine Era?, author Jamie Goode attempts to answer one question by asking another:
“Where does natural wine finish and conventional wine start?”
The implication is that the two sides are now so close in their practices that to distinguish between them is nearly meaningless.
There is no doubt, as Goode says, that conventional winemaking owes something to the natural wine movement. We can agree on that. Whether it’s what happens in the vineyard — methods of farming and chemical use — or in the winery — native yeasts, low S02 regimes, skin contact for whites — or during élévage — oak, clay, concrete — the differences between the two philosophies are increasingly blurred. So much so, that Goode suggests we can dispense with the dichotomy.
“Any sensible definition of natural wine — no additions except a bit of sulfur dioxide before bottling, using wild yeasts, organically farmed grapes — would actually apply to quite a lot of fine wines, many made by winegrowers who’d never claim to be making natural wine.”
I guess I’m not sensible.
I would argue that natural wine has moved closer to conventional wine in one crucial regard. Natural wine has ceded ground by accepting the one thing that distinguishes it, and will always distinguish it, from conventional production: the use sulfur dioxide.
Instead of arguing whether a bit of sulfur dioxide should be allowed in natural wine production, some certifying bodies have already incorporated the practice into their cahiers des charges. The French Vin Méthode Nature organization allows up 30 mg/L added sulfur dioxide — with appropriate notice on its labels — as do various other natural wine organizations and natural wine fairs.
Interestingly, the Association Suisse Vin Nature does not.
Which is more “natural”, one might ask.
And are we to believe, as Goode implies, that anyone eschewing sulfur dioxide is not sensible? As natural winemaker and wine writer Oliver Styles once said to me, “Everyone wants to wear the cool leather jacket without joining the club.” He means, of course, that some winemakers want to be considered natural without paying the price.
For what it’s worth, I prefer the use of sulfur dioxide in low doses at the proper time, for a lot of reasons, mostly involving wine hygiene. But I also appreciate natural wine purists and the contributions made by natural winemakers in expanding the flavor profile of wine. The push to be more natural obviously resonates with some consumers and with many conventional winemakers who adapted because they have an affinity for the movement.
If we take Jamie’s argument to its conclusion, then at some point natural wine and conventional wine will morph into a single category. In my view, this should never happen. The slogan, sans aucun intrant ni sulfite, is a battle cry. It’s precisely because of the high-wire act performed without a net by skilled winemaking aerialists that natural wine is as “dangerous” to drink as it is to make. Some people want that, and they should have it. Please don’t confuse the two.
If done properly, as the wine gods intended, then natural and conventional wine should never meet.