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Natural Wine: Is It a Friend, Foe or Fabrication?

Editorial Note: Fabio Bartolomei from Vinos Ambiz is not only a self-proclaimed natural winemaker in Spain, but he’s also a friend. Having recently attended the Natural Wine Fair in Barcelona (wrap-up article here) a few weeks ago, getting into a rather lively debate about the true definition of natural wine, we asked Fabio if he wouldn’t mind sharing his views on this highly contentious topic. What follows is a very well structured argument by Fabio surrounding the truths and fabrications of the natural wine movement.

Many posts, articles and comments I’ve read about ‘Natural Wine’ tend to cover an overly vast range of topics or mention key points in passing that should be expanded upon. This is frustrating in that an interesting debate is not possible, as each person has their own area of interest (bee in their bonnet!) and so on the same post, there are many people commenting on different issues.

The following (somewhat spontaneous) post is the result of a very brief conversation (and subsequent email exchanges) with Ryan Opaz during the Natural Wine Fair held recently in Barcelona (and on which I’ve already written a post here on my own blog).

So, totally NOT practicing what I’ve just preached above, this post will deal with two topics instead of focusing on one! Even worse, the second topic (‘Wine Fault or Wine Style’) is so wide-open and unfocussed that my fears of an unfocussed debate will almost certainly come true.

But hey, I’m an anarchistic natural wine-maker, so I’m not allowed to follow any rules or suggestions, not even my own, right?

Fringe/Mainstream

I think ‘natural’ wines will always be fringe, in the sense that it would be physically impossible to supply billions of bottles to the world-wide wine-drinking public using the methods and techniques, and maintaining the high quality levels of the raw materials (grapes) used to make ‘natural wine’.

At the moment this fringe is growing in popularity and has not yet reached its equilibrium, or natural, size. I believe that this phenomenon is related to the gradual general increase in awareness of environmental issues, ecology, pollution, health issues, etc, that has been happening for decades. Natural wine, having been popular in the USA for several years, is only now becoming big in the UK (1st Natural Wine Fair in London in May) and no doubt will grow in Europe over the next few years. I believe that it’s more than just a passing fad, like say the popularity of some grape variety or some regional food.

Some people in the natural wine world are even worried that the ‘marketeers’ will hijack the concept and that soon we’ll be seeing natural wines in supermarkets all over the planet! I’m not so paranoid. I see it like any other ‘organic’ product; ie some people will buy it for health reasons, some for environmental reasons, and yet other people will buy it because they genuinely like the taste. And, of course, perhaps there are people who fall into all three categories.

The Natural Wine World is very anarchistic and individualistic. There is no legal definition. There is no council or authority or “Grand Pooh-bah”, just certain ‘respected’ or ‘listened to’ people, consisting of writers, winemakers or both. The French seem to be more organized, in that they have an association of Natural Wine Producers with a considerable number of members. There’s an association of Natural Wine Producers in Spain too, and has measly 8 or so members, even though there are about 100 natural wine producers in Spain!

What unites these anarchists is the concept of ‘minimum intervention in the winery’ (and the use of quality grapes). The sulphite issue receives the most publicity and distorts the picture, but for me,  it’s not that important – it’s just another intervention or manipulation in the winery. Basically, as with any intervention, the idea is: if it’s ‘necessary’, then do it; if it isn’t ‘necessary’, then don’t do it!

I think that these are two very different worlds or markets out there (ie, the ‘natural/organic/ecological/biodynamic/macrobiotic/whatever’ wine market as opposed to ‘conventional/industrial/chemical/mass-produced/supermarket wine market), and there will always be room for both. I think it’s like for any other product: ie utility cars / sports cars, or any everyday bog-standard product / quality special product. C’est la vie! We live in an urban civilization where the majority of the population are city-dwellers and the only way to supply billions of people with food and wine is via industrial mass-production. Artisan, hand-made, quality products can only ever be for a minority.

The quality of any product is inevitably lower if it’s mass-produced, as opposed to its being individually hand-made, and this is especially true for wine. This point is worthy of an exclusive post too, and I believe that ‘industry’ has even co-opted the very meaning of the word ‘quality’. When ‘industry’ uses the word ‘quality’ what they really mean is ‘compliance with the law and with technical and commercial specifications’ (and then sticking a silly sticker on the product!). Thus, industrial products tend to be very similar and homogenous in terms of size, colour, shape, and contents of their ingredients, and this applies to wine too. If a wine has a brand name, the producer is obliged to churn out this product year after year no matter how the climate and weather was or the state of the grapes. They have to manipulate and adulterate and modify their raw materials in order to turn out the exact same product year after year that their clients expect. That’s what a brand is!

But this has nothing to with the real meaning of ‘quality’. In the case of natural wine, this means that the grapes used have to be healthy and harvested at the correct point in time. Industry can’t so that! Industry has to harvest millions of tons, either mechanically or with immigrant (slave) labour, neither of which can ensure that only healthy and perfectly ripe grapes are picked. Secondly, the land on which the vines grow also has to be healthy and living and full of micro-life and macro-life, creating a living, complex, structured soil and biodiversity. Industry doesn’t do that; it does the opposite; it creates a chemical wasteland, a dead lifeless soil; it becomes unstructured and eventually gets eroded; the chemicals used are dangerous to workers, kills micro-organisms and wildlife, and pollutes the groundwater. Vines living under these conditions are not healthy, and the must produced by their grapes is unbalanced and distorted (even if it complies with legal and commercial criteria).

No legislation exists that covers real quality; the only form of so-called ‘quality’ control refers exclusively to commercial aspects, such as planting density, permitted number of clusters per vine, etc.

Wine Fault or Wine Style?

The typical no-brainer comment – that contributes absolutely nothing to what could be an interesting debate – goes along the lines of:

“I tasted a natural wine once, and it was [insert pejorative adjective or witty phrase here]

Examples: ‘really funky’, ‘like a grade school biology experiment’, ‘like vinegar’, ‘like an acid bath’, ‘there were things floating in it’, ‘opaque’, ‘diesel fuel’, ‘compost heap’, etc

Firstly, this is just silly. It’s like saying “I tasted a wine from Chile / Portugal / Navarra / France / insert region or country here and I didn’t like because (insert reason here). Of course there are bad natural wines out there, just like there are bad Burgandies or Chiantis etc.

Basically, what’s happening is that the characteristics of some natural wines (not all) fall out with the conventionally accepted range of acceptability. There is a grey area where a characteristic becomes a fault and even conventional tasters may disagree among themselves as to where the exact point is. I believe that this range is very narrow in the conventional wine world; too narrow; and that it’s been forced to be narrow by commercial and marketing considerations. Examples could be the general global increase in alcohol level over the years/decades; the general global obsession with oaking (or over-oaking) in small 225 l barriques. In natural wines, the range of acceptability is wider.

Most conventional wine-tasters (especially younger ones) are limited in their expectations and experiences as they have only ever tasted very similar styles of wines, ie mass-produced in factories, where the must and wine is over-manipulated, and the resulting wines tend to be indistinguishable (globalization of tastes or parkerization).

Conventional wine-tasters are also accustomed to tasting wines with a lot of added sulphur (up to the legal limit) and so are thrown by the natural sulphur-less aromas and tastes of natural.

Of course there are also some conventional wine tasters who get to taste small, ‘quality’ estate-made and -bottled wines, as opposed to factory mass-produced stuff, but even they may be limited in their experience – especially regarding sulphur.

Also, some descriptors have acquired negative connotations, such as grass or vegetable, perhaps. Natural wines display a greater number and variety of attributes that just can’t be found in factory-produced wines or in conventional ‘quality’ wines that have been over-manipulated in the winery. These natural aromas and flavours that are present in natural wines have been eliminated or masked by the substances added to conventional wines and the manipulations undergone by conventional wines in the factory (eg, addition of sulphur, acid, sugar, tannins, enzymes, special yeast strains that impart flavours, oak chips; heating, cooling, filtering, clarifying, centrifuging, micro-oxygenization, etc).

Same applies with volatile acidity, which is considered a fault in conventional wine, some natural wines are actually made that way on purpose to cater to people who like that style. Personally, I’m ‘conventional’ in taste with regard to volatile acidity and don’t particularly enjoy the flavor.

Same with ‘Orange Wines’. From a conventional wine-taster’s point of view, all ‘Orange’ wines can be considered faulty because they’re oxidized!! Maybe they don’t realize that it was made that way on purpose. There’s a growing market for it, especially in the USA.

I personally compare orange wines to ‘blue’ ‘stinky’ cheeses, which I’ve hated ever since I was a child, though over the decades I’ve forced myself to try them whenever they were put in front of me, and so am slowly but surely acquiring a taste for them. To me, these cheeses are ‘faulty’, ie they have mold in them and smell like unwashed socks. But I understand that there are people out there who like said cheeses and appreciate and enjoy their aromas and tastes. I tasted orange wine for the first time about two years ago at an informal gathering of natural wine-makers and drinkers. Luckily for me, I kept my mouth shut, as I was just about to say something like “Oh oh, you’re wine’s gone off!”) and I couldn’t believe my ears when everyone started commenting on it as if it were a normal wine!!!! (Personally, I’m starting to like orange wines a bit more now.)

Filtering/clarifying. Is a wine faulty if it’s cloudy? Why?  Filtering/clarifying is done solely for commercial reasons, not for quality or taste reasons. Your average Joe Winedrinker thinks that a clear transparent wine is ‘better’ than a cloudy one, so the wineries make it clear and transparent for them to increase sales. It also makes it ‘safer’ to transport and store in sub-optimal conditions. If any quality reasons can be given for filtering/clarifying, they are fortuitous and are just a posterior justification of a commercial decision already taken. Filtering/clarifying eliminates tastes and aromas (and reduces quality!)

Commercial wines have become denaturalized and commoditized. They are ‘products’ and their characteristics are artificially created in response to marketing studies, organoleptoscopic surveys, etc and are sales and profit-driven. Nothing much wrong with that in itself, but the huge impact on quality has to be borne in mind. The wine-drinking public is generally unaware of this issue because: 1) wineries are exempt from listing the ingredients contained in their products and 2) because of the romantic, semantic, cultural connotations attached to ‘wine’ and ‘wineries’.

Conclusion

My advice to any wine-lover who has heard about ‘natural wines’ and would like to try them and learn about them is the following: try a lot of them! From different producers, from different regions, from different grape varieties, from different climates, and be open-minded, forget anything you may have learned or heard from ‘experts’; be as a child and use your own palate, nose and brain without any preconceptions. Natural wines are vastly different among themselves and there will be some that you like and some that you don’t like, and you have to discover this yourself – there is no-one in the natural wine world to tell you what you have to like.

And a final word of warning: once you do discover the natural wines you like, you’ll be hooked!! You’ll never be able to enjoy a conventional wine in the same way again!! You’ll be aware of that fundamental difference between a quality product and a mass-produced and/or an over-manipulated one; and not only in theory, because of the environmental and health benefits, but also actually noticeable in the aromas, taste and experience as you drink. Enjoy and ‘caveat emptor’!

Cheers,

Fabio Bartolomei

 

  • Victor de la Serna

    Well, I’m sorry to say ( :-) ) that I can’t voice much disagreement with Fabio. I’d just like to stress that he’s only making a comparison between ‘natural wine’ producers and huge industrial producers – seemingly forgetting the many small, artisanal producers who only adhere partially to some of the tenets of the ‘natural wine’ movement. And it’s between these two groups of small producers that, I believe, the most interesting part of the discussion should really take place.

  • Victor de la Serna

    Well, I’m sorry to say ( :-) ) that I can’t voice much disagreement with Fabio. I’d just like to stress that he’s only making a comparison between ‘natural wine’ producers and huge industrial producers – seemingly forgetting the many small, artisanal producers who only adhere partially to some of the tenets of the ‘natural wine’ movement. And it’s between these two groups of small producers that, I believe, the most interesting part of the discussion should really take place.

  • http://vinosambiz.blogspot.com Fabio (Vinos Ambiz)

    @Victor, I’m also sorry that you can’t voice much disagreement ;) I was looking forward to some scathing comments from you! ;)
    And I’m afraid I can’t disagree with you either about the small artisal producers who only adhere partially. Who am I (or you, or anyone) to say where the line between ‘natural’ and not is drawn? I’m sure there is a grey area where many natural wine producers are in, while very very few will be 100% utterly natural. What to call a producer who is say 95% natural or 75% or whatever? Or if he’s completely natural except for this one thing that he does?

  • http://www.facebook.com/laureano.serres Laureano Serres

    “Basically, as with any intervention, the idea is: if it’s ‘necessary’, then do it; if it isn’t ‘necessary’, then don’t do it!”…I think that NEVER IS NECESSARY put sulfur or filter, or doing anything that makes the wine worst than he is.

    • Fabio (Vinos Ambiz)

      Laureano, that’s great. Each natural winemaker has their own ideas and opinions. Just for the record, I don’t add sulphur either, but if I have to choose between adding sulphur or pouring a lot of wine down the drain, then I’ll add a bit of sulphur!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Red-Wine/100001979741169 Red Wine

    “Natural wines are vastly different among themselves and there will be some that you like and some that you don’t like, and you have to discover this yourself – there is no-one in the natural wine world to tell you what you have to like.”

    I strongly agree about this. Don’t just believe of what others say, taste it for yourself. Experience and your own taste buds will tell you a lot.

    • Fabio (Vinos Ambiz)

      Absolutely! Life is too short! Why limit yourself to conventional bog-standard boring products every day, when there are interesting different things out there to try? (You may or may not like them first time, but at least you’ve expanded your horizons and had an interesting experience, no?)

  • Jon Hesford

    I totally agree with what Victor has said. While I am very positive about anything that encourages consumers to move outside the comfort zone of consistent industrial brands, I have a problem with the “I’m more natural than you” attitude or the people who draw the lines to say which wines/producers are in the club and which are not.

    The other little problem with Natural wine as a movement is the large number of producers who are making clearly faulty, unpleasant wines and trying to pursuade the public to part with relatively large sums of money in the name of Naturalness.

    The Volatile Acidity thing is a key example. Anyone can make their wine a little more vinegary. There is no skill or “naturalness” involved, just negligence.