Oh dear! The airwaves have recently been alive with invective concerning Natural Wines. Some columnists apparently don’t know what they’re talking about… Eek! In publishing this blog, I am there to be shot at! So on with the tin hat and here goes…
The most arresting paragraph I have read when looking at natural wine comes from Isabelle Legeron MW: “We live in a society where it is fashionable to wear farmer’s boots, and chit-chat at the local butcher’s resolves around how long your meat has been hung. Micro-breweries and espresso bars populate our urban landscapes, and yet, even against this new agro-chic backdrop, we still wash down our outdoor-reared sausages with the vinous equivalent of a battery chicken.”¹
Legeron goes on to say: “Most of the industry has become so mechanized and detached from its roots in the pursuit of intensification or textbook farming that most wine today has never seen a human hand.”²
I first became aware of natural wines in the early nineties through Kermit Lynch’s Adventures on the Wine Route – the most enjoyable wine book I’ve ever read. I had only just entered the trade then, and Lynch’s recollections of meeting Jules Chauvet didn’t really resonate. It has taken me until now… Fast learner, you might say, but actually I’m ahead of the curve if you agree with Alice Feiring’s observation on natural wine: “An overnight sensation that took about 40 years.”³
I recently read (or re-read) these fine books when looking to provide a bit of background information for some of our newer members of staff. In the end I came up with this six-point primer:
What are we talking about?
Natural wines are made from grapes that are farmed organically or biodynamically but differ from thereon, in that the grape juice is then transformed into wine without adding or removing anything during the process.
Great – so where can I find the rulebook?
There isn’t one. That’s the problem. Unlike Organic winemaking, which has strict certifications in every country of origin, no-one has codified the rules of natural winemaking.
But it does sound similar to organic winemaking, doesn’t it?
Sort of, it’s just that natural winemakers go further than organic winemakers. After all, even organic winemaking allows for up to 50 additive and processing aids (though this is still much lower than in conventional winemaking). But probably the biggest thing which underpins natural winemakers is their opposition to sulphur dioxide (SO2). Sulphur is the kiss of death for them.
So natural wine does not contain any sulphur?
Er, not quite. This is where it gets tricky. Sulphites are a natural side-effect of fermentation and are present in almost every wine. Legally, the message “contains sulphites” must appear on the label if the wine has more than 10mg/l of sulphites. So even natural wines may contain sulphites – but 10mg/l is a tiny amount.
What’s the issue with sulphur, then?
The problem isn’t with that sulphite; the problem is with the other type: sulphur dioxide (SO2). In conventional winemaking this is often added by the winemaker as an anti-oxidant or preservative, either when the grapes have just been picked, or just before bottling, and the EU rules allow for 160mg/l for red, 210 mg/l for white. Natural winemakers will tell you that the SO2 changes the character of the wine, lobotomizes it, and masks inferior quality grapes. And may also give you a headache. But just to illustrate how tricky this debate is, Isabelle Legeron allows 70mg/l for wines included in her RAW tastings (so allowing for small additions.)
Got it! So the key for natural wines is No Added Sulphur or extremely Low Sulphur?
Those are definitely the buzz phrases. But also remember that natural winemakers also love the slogan nothing added, nothing taken away. Key themes are:
- Use only natural yeast, and not purchased (or inoculated) yeast. Nursery-purchased yeast (which has only been available during the last 60 years) can affect the wine by speeding up fermentation and homogenising the wine. One of the most famous is Yeast 71B, which used to be widely used in Beaujolais and produced the famous banana flavour. Using natural yeast – which is naturally present in the grape must and has come from the vineyard and the winery environment – allows the use of the phrase “wild ferment”.
- No fining – by any of the methods, such as using isinglass, bentonite etc. But you run the risk of leaving impurities in the wine; some winemakers get round this by extra racking – and some equally argue that to use a traditional method like organic egg whites does not make their wines any less natural.
- No filtration – as this “strips” the wine of character – but it may leave the wine cloudy.
- Many naturalistas will only ferment and age in neutral containers i.e. no new oak, as that imparts its own flavour upon the wine.
Remember, this is for relative newbies to the trade.
A little history. Although some say that natural wines have been made for centuries in qvevri vessels in Georgia, the movement really began in the mid-1980s in France, partly in opposition to technology. Pesticides became widespread after World War II; commercial yeasts entered the market in the sixties. As Stephen Buranyi points out: “The modern winemaker has access to a vast armamentarium of interventions, from supercharged lab-grown yeast, to antimicrobials, antioxidants, acidity regulators and filtering gelatins, all the way up to industrial machines. Wine is regularly passed through electrical fields to prevent calcium and potassium crystals from forming, injected with various gases to aerate or protect it, or split into its constituent liquids by reverse osmosis and reconstituted with a more pleasing alcohol to juice ratio.”⁴
But while a kind of antediluvian meme promulgated the movement, it was also inspired to combat what some saw as an insidious wine fashion. Robert Parker’s 100-point wine rating of initially largely French wines affected wine sales, and, some say, incited winemakers across the world to manipulate their product to fit his full-flavoured taste. Had wine lost its way?
The Godfather of this ‘80s natural winemaking movement (although he would never have described himself as such) was Jules Chauvet, a Beaujolais producer (see Kermit Lynch above), who joined forces with another legendary figure, Marcel Lapierre, to make wines sans soufre. They were thought to be a bit bonkers; making wine without adding sulphur, the wine world’s equivalent of penicillin?
But during the 1990s, as word of their research spread, a number of wine bars sprung up in Paris specialising in these natural wines. They gained wider fame due to the writings of Alice Feiring and Isabelle Legeron, whose first RAW tasting took place in 2012. “What had once been the passion of a hard core group of eccentric winemakers in eastern France had, somehow, become cool.” (Stephen Buranyi)
And where was I? When modal challenged trad? When modernists dissed the enlightenment? Where was I during wine’s version of Derrida’s deconstruction? Well, I was working for a wine retailer, getting married, working for a wine importer, washing the dishes, moving house, becoming a wine buyer, going to the dentist, going to this funeral and that christening, selling wine to the supermarkets, moving house again, watching England get knocked out on penalties, selling wine to the sommeliers, reading about Basra and Helmand, Turkey Twizzlers and E numbers, cheering same sex marriage, talking about margins and marginal gains, taking two weeks in the Med, discussing screwcap against cork, heavy glass/light glass, watching us score nul points in Eurovision (why can’t we leave that instead?), marketing wine and drooling over data, always, always, always vaguely aware of this natural wine thingummy behaving like an irritating cousin, and yet avoiding it (or doing the responsible thing, depending on your point of view), until one morning I drew back the curtains expecting to see J.M.W. Turner and instead saw Banksy and thought: Oh.
Where was I? Not paying enough attention, perhaps? Guilty, M’Lud. Bang to rights.
This counterculture crusade, the equivalent of Rough Trade taking on EMI, accelerated in tandem with the likes of Slow Food, the Greens, Think Globally – Act Locally, Carbon Zero, Fridays for Future, Craft Beer, Artisanal Gin and the Occupy movement, along with an indie penchant for dissident or whacky labels. We might be getting ahead of ourselves here, but Legeron is keen to promote the principles of the movement. “There is so much more collaboration and communication amongst natural winemakers both in the same country and around the world, as it is still at such an early stage and everyone can learn from each other.” She reports a large and growing consumer base, with 80% of the audience at her Raw Wine fairs around the world being aged between 25 and 44. “We’re gaining critical mass, it’s not a fashion anymore. There’s a huge opportunity. Also by championing natural wine, we can have an impact on the environment.”⁵
But in the marketplace, the lack of definition is worrying. Time and again our sales teams tell me that the lack of “rules” is a real issue for them. And I know what they are taking about. Recently I visited some acheingly trendy London wine bars, all of them shouting their natural wine credentials, all of them reactionary by nature (excuse the pun). When questioned, each one of them had a different definition of natural, ranging from the fanatical “I won’t drink anything with more than 20g/l of sulphur” to the casual: “Oh I know the winemaker and he’s really careful so I call his wines natural.”
But Eric Asimov of The New York Times once countered: “This lack of definition, repeated in many other ways, seems to profoundly disturb the critics, yet perhaps it is one of the greatest strengths of the natural partisans. In the same way that the Occupy Wall Street insurgency resists enumerating goals or anointing official representatives, natural-wine partisans refuse to be pinned down in a manner that subjects them to lawyerly argument. That frustrates those who fear they will become targets if they do not subscribe to what they see as natural-wine dogma; hence the shrillness of their criticism.”⁶
Such as from Robert Parker: “We all know the type – saving the world from drinking good wine in the name of “vinofreakism.”⁷
Does he have a point? Well, there are some who will simply never get it (“Bless ‘em all, bless ‘em all, the long and the short and the tall…”) In our tasting room we taste countless natural wines. First up, some of them are simply horrid. Acidic, foul-smelling, fizzy, the split second that you hold them in your mouth is a split second too long. Sometimes the nose is so awful that we simply throw them down the sink – and then apologise to the sink. Sorry, sink. One particular sample was so bad that the collective groans of the three of us brought people running to the room to see if we were okay. It is difficult to know what to make of these. Most are from potential new producers, and you have to wonder whether these are simply poor winemakers who are jumping on the bandwagon and using natural as their angle. We are also always mindful that some of these are tank samples (not that that should make as big a difference in a natural wine) and they may have been stored for a couple of weeks. And of course there are many conventional wines that make us equally wince, too. But still!
(And yet I still wonder whether an evangelist would say: “Ah, but this is terroir! This is exactly how it should be!”)
Others are simply a bit weird. Some seem to lack acidity, some a bit of depth (that may be the absence of oak) and some seem a bit one-dimensional. All of them without exception smell differently to their conventional equivalents. But hold on: what is an equivalent? And are they really weird? Or is it us? Or are we subconsciously thinking of the price point – which is usually higher than for conventional wines? Perhaps worried about storage? And what is conventional?
Then there are wines from our current producers which may or may not be natural. I always prefer to call them minimal intervention wines so as not to offend anyone. The likes of Larry Cherubino, Ocean Eight (Australia); Riccitelli, Zorzal (Argentina); Antoine Olivier, Naigeon, Gouffier (France); Ancilla Lugana, Roccolo Grassi (Italy); Lismore Estate (South Africa); Bodegas Viñátigo, Xosé Lois Sebio (Spain). We have many more. All of them share a philosophy based around allowing the vines to do their natural thing. But it may be that one of their vineyards is not biodynamic, that although they practice organic growing they are not yet certified, and that they may add in a touch of sulphur if they are shipping to the other side of the world. Or it may be that they simply do not want us to label their wines as natural (or organic) for fear of ending up in the Weird section. As Antoine Olivier said to us on our last visit to his cave in Santenay: “My father is a Christian, my mother is Jewish, so I cannot stand dogma. I adhere to organic rules but I don’t want to be certified. If I have mildew I want the ability to protect my vines.”
A bit of a plea for less extremism, perhaps? After all, not all conventional wines are bad, and, as Tim Atkin said (some time ago): “Blossom Hill and Château Lafite are both conventionally produced wines, but they don’t have a lot in common.”⁸
To the right of me I have a bottle of 2018 Château de Grand Pré Morgon, made by a true natural zealot, Romain Zordan. We sampled the new vintage in our tasting room in beautiful downtown Luton three days ago. I brought the half-full bottle home and have had a glass with dinner over the last three nights. It tastes as good now as it did when first opened (not uncommon in natural wines.) I taste it again. It has a fresh nose of damson and raspberries. Young fruit, ripped straight off the bush. It has a kind of purity and vivacity; how can this be after three days? There is no trace of the banana yeast. In the mouth it has a simply amazing palate of crushed fruit, but running through it is a kind of steeliness that refreshes. Again and again.
This may be the freshest and most fruit-driven where did that come from? wine I have tasted in the last six months.
It is cloudy.
And that is what will put some people off. Oh, it’s a natural wine.
But I am steadfast.
You see, to the left of me I have an award-winning Australian Shiraz. Conventionally made. Traditionally made. Call it what you like. Great producer. Full and rich in the mouth. Voluptuous and velvety. A touch of delicious sweetness on the finish. God this is good! When I first came into the trade, oak was everything. I judged a wine by that surge of sweetness, by that coating of toast, by that sweeping, Turandot-like roundness. Great with cheese ‘n onion crisps. A bottle for the first half and one for the second, with maybe another for extra time.
But that was then and this is now. And you know what, this Shiraz, while being gobsmackingly good, is not the one I want to drink. It seems to lack nerve, it seems to lack verve, it seems to lack steel. It satisfies but does not intrigue. It doesn’t haunt me. It doesn’t stop me in my tracks. When Brian Jones first took Keith Richards to his crash pad and put on some music, Richards said: “Crikey, who’s that?” “Robert Johnson,” said Jones. “Yeah, but who’s the other guy playing with him?” A stupefied Richards took some convincing that Johnson was doing it all by himself. Is this my Robert Johnson/Keith Richards What the… moment?
But here’s the thing. I now sometimes tire of Robert Johnson. He was my God not long ago. But I find myself agreeing with Roger Daltrey, who said in his recent biography (I’m paraphrasing here) that while the blues are great, after a while they can be a bit samey.⁹ Will I find these natural wines a bit samey? Will I tire of this steeliness, the haunting melody? Will I crave a sweetness fix as I kick off the top bend into the finishing straight? Or will my taste buds accept natural as being…natural. Will my tastes integrate or mature? (Though how mature do you want?)
Where do we go from here? In common with a lot of environmentally-inspired movements, the natural wine movement will continue to grow and may, I suppose, at some point be codified. Would that presage its decline? Would it no longer be seen as cutting edge, but mainstream? Johnny Rotten turning into Perry Como? Is it at a crossroads now, with the fashionistas in danger of over-running the evangelists? Actually, it’s almost certainly gone beyond that now, thank goodness. And in any case, the big gain for me is that natural winemakers appear to be influencing conventional winemakers, who may not be able to abandon all their methods, but who are slowly moving the needle along in that direction.
My Crossroads moment.
¹ Isabelle Legeron MW, Natural Wine, e-version, p13
² Isabelle Legeron MW, Natural Wine e-version, p18
³ Alice Feiring, Natural Wine for the People, e-version, p12
⁴ Stephen Buranyi, The Guardian, 15/5/2018
⁵ Richard Siddle, The Buyer, 10/7/2019
⁶ Eric Asimov, The New York Times, 24/1/2012
⁷ Alice Feiring, Naked Wine, e-version, p25
⁸ Tim Atkin website, 19/2/2011
⁹ Roger Daltrey, Thanks a lot Mr Kibblewhite
Kermit Lynch, Adventures on the Wine Route