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It’s Not Unnatural to be Wine – A Skeptic’s View

Television viewers in the UK will have recently been treated to an advertisement for Dolmio Ragu sauce in which a family of towel-textured, round-faced puppets make lasagne while a voice-over tells us Dolmio tomato sauce is made from ‘100% natural.

Which is nice if you want to be reassured that what gets mashed into your bowl of Penne hasn’t been developed in a laboratory. Indeed, it’s always reassuring to know that your food hasn’t been put together by a group of escaped Nazi scientists bent on producing a swastika-shaped black tomato without seeds and grown in a Petri dish. We probably wouldn’t buy something like that. Something ‘natural’: yes.

The point is, of course, that, whether you believe it or not, what goes into Dolmio is natural. A tomato is natural. So is garlic. And onions. It’s rare to find an unnatural foodstuff (margarine, perhaps?). Even crude oil is natural.

However, I am not going to pretend that Dolmio is a truly ‘natural’ sauce – there’s nothing very natural about a factory and, as UK comedian Frankie Boyle points out, were you to serve Ragu sauce to a real Italian and he’d punch you in the face. But what I am getting at is our notion of what ‘natural’ actually is, and how it’s presented to us.

For Natural Winemakers, ‘natural’ can mean many things. Natural Wines are generally defined (and in many cases this definition differs) as being wines that have received no unnatural additives (like sulphur or acid) throughout the process of making the wine. Nominally, this means that Chaptalisation (the addition of sugar to the grape juice – or must – before it is fermented) is not allowed in Natural Winemaking. But there is a school within Natural Wines that believe Chaptalisation should be allowed. I won’t delve into the detail of this argument, nor will I attempt to explain the weavings of logic used to propose such obvious cool-climate snobbery (marginal climate winemakers will often use Chaptalisation if their grapes don’t get ripe whereas hot climate winemakers will often add acid when their grapes do). Let us just admit that Natural Wines are made with a philosophy of little-to-no manipulation and that within this dogma there is certain (if not widespread) disagreement as to its application.

But all winemaking – like cooking – is manipulation. It isn’t natural to prune or de-bud or green harvest (all processes used by viticulturalists in the vineyard). It’s easy to point the finger at techniques like irrigation or fertilisation (indeed, it would be interesting to see how the Natural Wine fraternity views fertilisers) but it becomes harder when we try to set the parameters of the debate: is oak an addition? Why should we accord an oak barrel ‘Natural’ status because of tradition? Indeed, is a glass bottle ‘natural’? Where does it all end?

It is perhaps easy to focus on winemaking techniques because they are easier to see as ‘wrong’: sulphur additions, acid additions, sugar additions and so on. As far as I am concerned, winemaking starts being unnatural when you plant vines in a row and train them on wires or cut back leaves.

But it is this notion of right vs. wrong that causes a lot of trouble. Calling wine ‘Natural’ sets up a wholly false dichotomy: are all other wines therefore unnatural? I would argue not – how could you argue such a thing? We are so used to being sold things that are inherently good (Natural Wine is, of course, ‘good’), are we therefore to believe that everything else is bad? Not everything that isn’t Natural Wine is ‘bad’ or undesirable. Yes, I love unnatural wines.

I even doubt most Natural Winemakers think that their opposite numbers using Tartaric Acid or Potassium Metabisulphate are essentially evil creatures trying to pervert the natural course of things. Nor do I think Feran Adria or Heston Blumenthal are demonic whiz-kids sullying the craft of cookery because they use science, dry ice and iPods when they serve you a bizarre concoction of food.

To add to this false dichotomy of natural vs. unnatural or good vs. bad, I think proponents of Natural Wines create a big problem in the minds of other wine drinkers (and this time, it’s not their fault). It happens like this: I already know I love certain wines; I’m told Natural wines are great; I realise the majority of the wines I love are not Natural; therefore I am determined not to give too much credence to Natural wines because in doing so, I disavow my own preferences.

If – and I think a lot of people fall into this – I hear more about Natural Wines than I actually taste Natural Wines, the more my mind is made up against them.

And now we get onto another problem: taste. Natural wines are, in a very general sense, difficult to taste. This makes them every marketing guru’s dream. These wines are generally cloudy, funky, dirty or just downright bizarre, we (the taster) immediately expect someone to guide us through the winemaking and viticultural ideology of each and every producer. Handing a Natural Wine to a taster is almost like saying ‘empathise or be disgusted’. As such, Natural Wines probably (perhaps unrightfully) claim more of a taster’s attention than other wines. How much time would you give an unnatural wine with Brettanomyces (a horsey-smelling bacteria) vs, a Natural Wine with Brettanomyces? Yes, the Natural Wine is forgiven every time – and partly because the person serving you gets to give you the ‘story’ behind it. Clever, eh?

Another aspect of Natural Wines that annoys me beyond words is this endless interplay between dogma and friendship. ‘We are against corporate winemaking with its sulphur additions and chemicals,’ they shout, while at the same time telling you they don’t hold it against you for liking Jacob’s Creek and that they’re ‘cool’ with that. It’s as if they’re permanently caught between fighting the corporate beast but not implicating you, the wine drinker, in having bought wines from the selfsame monster. Pointing the finger at your audience is a dangerous ploy but, to my mind, it would be disingenuous of Natural Winemakers not to attack us (the wine-buying public) in the same breath as it attacks the corporate giants. After all, we’re the ones who keep the monster alive.

So where does ideology end and marketing gimmick begin? How long before Gallo or Torres or Jacob’s Creek make a Natural Wine range? And most importantly, who, in the Natural Wine world, would welcome it?

I am immensely wary of Natural Wines. That doesn’t mean I don’t think great Natural Wines exist (they do) nor does it mean I don’t think their ideology is well-founded (it is, albeit with massive issues). My problem is that I can’t see the line between marketing and dogma, just as I don’t quite know how to respond to a mass-market commercial sauce telling me it’s ‘natural’.

So I’ll allow this concession to Natural Wines: by all means allow people to taste Natural Wines, just don’t tell anyone that’s what they are.

Oliver Styles


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