The term ‘natural wine’ means so much to a few, and absolutely nothing to many, and no matter your feelings (usually love or hate) about the phrase, and the wines themselves, everyone can agree it’s a hot topic in the wine world and one that needs ever more explanation and exploration.
But hold on, aren’t all wines natural? In as much as they come from nature – are made from grapes ripened by the sun and grown on vines nourished by the soil – yes, they are. However, the term ‘natural wines’ has been chosen to represent a specific set of methods for producing wine using as little human intervention, both in the vineyard and the cellar, as possible, and therefore is the cause of much confusion for the majority of wine drinkers. Adding to this confusion is the fact that there are many wines made with minimal interference during the winemaking process by conscientious producers, and yet these wines are not labeled, nor considered to be, ‘natural’, but this does not make them ‘unnatural’ by default. It all sounds rather nonsenical, but we’ll delve deeper and get some answers. The main take-a-way is there is no such thing as a ‘non-natural wine’.
To get started, let’s look at the definition of ‘natural wine’ – oh wait, there isn’t one! Well, not a legally recognized and accepted one anyway. But generally speaking, natural wines are those made with organically grown grapes from low-yielding vineyards that are hand-harvested, are free of additives like sugar and oak flavourings, are usually neither fined nor filtered and have only a tiny amount of sulphur to preserve the wine, if any at all.
The perception of natural wines by consumers across the US and Europe is little to none (especially in Spain where these wines are in an embryonic state of development), however, when it comes to misconceptions, those are much more prevalent. Some of the biggest and best? That all natural wines are (insert any of the following words here) faulty, cloudy, stinky, ‘funky’, are made by weird wine wackos, and just plain taste bad. Luckily for those wine lovers amongst us, this doesn’t (ever!) have to be the case because there are many winemakers producing high-quality, non-faulty, thoroughly delicious, natural wines.
Natural wines are the same as any other wine, in as much as they can (and should) look, smell and taste ‘normal’ – the best ones in fact, are completely indistinguishable as anything strange, scary or different to any other glass of industrialized wine. Where they differ of course, is by foregoing the use of chemical treatments in the vineyard and commercial yeasts to spur fermentation, and the lack of up to 200 additives legally permitted by the FDA to go into wine – things like carboxymethyl cellulose (used to prevent tartrates, bonus points if you can pronounce it), granular cork (to smooth the wine) and milk products (to remove ‘off’ flavours).
However, the differences between the techniques used by producers of natural wine may vary from one to the next since there is no authorized body to control or legislate the methods of production. France, Italy and Spain are among several countries that have ‘associations’ dedicated to the proliferation of natural wines, (unfortunately the Spanish one has been inactive for several years due to a power struggle amongst the members), but there is no single all-powerful organization with the final say of what can and cannot be considered ‘natural’.
According to Luisa Chova, this may not be a bad thing. Luisa, who founded Spain’s only distributor of natural wines, Vinos Auténticos, in 2007, would prefer never to have an authorized body overseeing the limits of natural wine. She fears the term will become tarnished in a way similar to the phrase ‘organic wine’. “Nowadays, you can find industrialized wines, full of additives, labeled as organic – this is a fraud,” she says “If the same happens to natural wine, it will be a disaster!”
And indeed it’s not such a far-fetched idea that something similar could occur. Do companies exist that would take advantage of the latest trend in the wine world and use it to their financial advantage regardless of any possible exploitation of that product? Hmm, what do you think? If using the as-yet-undefined term ‘natural wine’ on a wine label has the likelihood of increasing sales of said wine, then you bet you’ll start seeing more of the phrase. Whether or not the principles of natural wine have been adhered to matters little to them at that point.
One might think that the possibility of the corruption of the natural wine process coupled with the seeming disinterest and lack of knowledge of the average consumer on the genuine wines, would discourage winemakers from venturing down the natural path, but for many, there is no other way. Not only is their desire so great to create a product that allows the location, the vines and the grapes to speak their natural wisdom and honest beauty in every glass, but it’s also their steadfast aspiration to change, and improve the current state of humdrum, commercial wines.
Fabio Bartolomei, maker of Vinos Ambiz natural wines in Spain, encapsulates this feeling saying, “I think we’ve been living in ‘Parkerworld’ for the last few decades, and many consumers are fed up with homogenized supermarket wines, and now need a bit of singularity, uniqueness and authenticity, not to mention some real quality.” He goes on to say, “Despite the false diversity of yards and yards of shelf space, and hundreds of different labels, basically all the supermarket wines taste the same and cannot be differentiated from each other (except in terms of label and price). So natural wines fill a need for authenticity, for a singular product that was made by a real person, and that tastes unique, and that expresses the terroir of where it came from.”
I often say that winemakers are some of the most passionate people you’ll ever meet and winemakers of natural wines are even more so, simply because of how deeply they believe in delivering a product that is authentic and pure. But this isn’t to say that winemakers of ‘non-natural wine’ are doing things wrong and their wines should be shunned – not at all. Making wine is like directing a movie, how the director chooses to angle the shots, frame the scene and portray the characters determines the look and feel of the final film. Similar decisions are made by the winemaker in the vineyard and in the cellar and just because some wines are inoculated with industrial yeast or made with certain additives and topped of with sulphur, does not make these decisions wrong and the wines bad.
Except for some very extreme cases when prolific amounts of low-cost cheap wine (the word ‘wine’ even becomes questionable at this level) are being made, there are always reasons for any additions utilized, and most winemakers have a genuine interest in making the very best wines they can, they just each have their own methods for achieving their vision of what is ‘best’.
Even when all the intentions are in the right place, nature doesn’t always make it easy for the organic, biodynamic and natural wine makers. Alfred Tesseron, owner of Bordeaux fifth growth Pontet-Canet relates the story of their 2007 vintage. It was their third year of practicing biodynamic farming, when a mildew epidemic spread through the vineyards and in a moment of panic at the thought of losing the entire crop, he made the decision to spray with the necessary chemicals, thereby saving the vines. In many cases it’s less about the ardent desire to adhere to a certain set of standards and more about doing what’s necessary for the end wines in any given situation.
The trend towards making wines ‘naturally’ may be an extension of the shift in a consumer’s desire to be more aware of the food and drink they put in their bodies. Organic fruits and vegetables have long been fashionable as the lack of pesticide is appealing to a population increasingly interested in and focused on living a healthy lifestyle fueled by unadulterated, energy-providing foods – not to mention the appeal of the environmentally friendly aspect of organic farming. Organic wine soon appeared once organic food become popular, although it did take over 20 years in the EU to pass a legislation defining and covering the scope of “organic wine”. Now it seems natural wine is taking wine purity to the next level. “I think natural wines have to be seen in the context of the overall, long-term increase in the public’s awareness of health and environmental issues,” says Fabio, “and is closely related to the ever-growing popularity of organic products in general.
Although it may seem as if the concept of natural wine came from the consumers’ appreciation of untainted produce, the non-interventionist methods used to make natural wine, are in fact thousands of years old. It wasn’t until the industrial revolution in the mid-18th century, followed swiftly by the Phylloxera epidemic throughout most of the world’s vineyards, that wine began to be ‘manipulated’ – until that point, it had, for the previous 9000 years, always been made ‘naturally’.
Then if making natural wine is a return to simpler days and uncomplicated ways of producing our much loved vino, why do so many of the wines appear faulty? Putting aside for the moment that the ancient Georgians would not have been bothered by a cloudy, sedimentary elixir and that we, having only known the era of fining and filtering, very much are, the simple answer is some producers are making bad wines. Consumers have a hard enough time determining a corked wine let alone being able to differentiate a good natural wine versus a shoddy one.
For those consumers interested (and adventurous) enough to seek out natural wines, they will need to take it upon themselves to do their homework before diving in, if they want the best experience with this segment of the wine shelf. Thanks to dedicated web sites and various vociferous, well-informed advocates, sussing out trusted and respected producers, is the easy bit. Then, as with finding any wines to match your preferred taste, it’s just a matter of pulling cork after cork and making your own conclusions.
It would be a lot easier to do this experimentation if the wines were more easily accessible. Luisa is forging ahead with the ongoing struggle of introducing these wines to a country still rather uninterested and/or unaware, but she does see a gradual increase in interest in her restaurant and bar customers. She tells me the first natural wines in Spain were sold by Benoît Valée in Barcelona in 2006 at L’ànima del Vi, then a shop, which has subsequently moved to the Born area and reopened earlier this year as a wine bar. Another spot Spaniards can avail themselves of a wide array of natural wines is Le Petit Bistrot, a bar, restaurant and shop, opened in Madrid by a Frenchman with a Spanish name, Carlos Campillo. There are a few other places around the country where the owners or sommeliers are welcoming this ‘new style’ of wine, but nothing like you’d find in London or New York.
There is no doubt that ‘natural wines’ are, and will continue to be, a ‘niche’ market. Some consumers will immediately jump on the bandwagon, rally support and change their buying and drinking behaviour to adhere to their new found dedication. Others will proceed with caution, give natural wines a try and remain on the fence, while still others will quite happily remain drinking and enjoying the ‘non-natural’ wines they always have – and there’s no reason they shouldn’t. The world (and shop shelves) is full of elegant, expressive, prestigious ‘non-natural’ wines from dedicated, talented winemakers.
It’s the same with the introduction of anything fresh and different in the ‘non-essential, nice-to-have’ category – the latest collection of clothes from a favourite designer or the newest version of our beloved smartphone. But just because there is something new and shiny available, doesn’t mean last season’s clothes can’t be worn or that your phone can no longer make calls – and there’s nothing wrong with the wine you’ve been drinking your whole life either.
So is the interest, awareness and enjoyment of artisan well-made wines likely to increase among conscious wine lovers in Spain and elsewhere? Well, naturally! But each to their own, and as long as we are seeking a level of excellence in the wines we choose that express character, depth and soul, then let’s all just drink wine and get along.