“We consider the best wine is one that can be aged without any preservative; nothing must be mixed with it which might obscure its natural taste. For the most excellent wine is one which has given pleasure by its own natural qualities.” – Columella, On Agriculture, Book 12.
It all started (this time around) with a column by Dave McIntyre in the Washington Post. It gave a quick overview of the natural wine trend, pointing out its characteristics, and its good and bad sides. He stated that “These natural wines can be compelling, perplexing, frustrating and even unpleasant, sometimes all at once. (…) Many consumers might not be willing to commit to such a relationship with a cantankerous bottle of wine. But with the better ones, the effort is worth it.”
Dave, whom I know from the Drink Local Wine initiative, also provided a selection of natural wines he liked particularly (although thanks to the Washington Post’s rather clunky web site design, that part of the selection went pretty much unnoticed by everyone at first). And he also wrote another bit reporting a long conversation with natural wine importer Jenny Lefcourt of Jenny & François. He obviously gave the matter some thought.
Personally, I was happy to see a column on the subject in a major newspaper. “Natural” wine is still largely a niche product, and giving it greater attention in a more general outlet is always good, as far as I’m concerned.
It’s important to remember that natural wines, however you define them, are a tiny drop in the ocean of wines available on the market. Most consumers have no idea what’s going on there and have probably never had the opportunity (some would say taken the opportunity) to get their hands on a bottle of natural wine. The Washington Post column must also be read in that context: it may well inform a number of readers who were totally unaware of natural wine about those great, different, singular wines. I think it’s fine to tell people that the path is unusual, somewhat unpredictable, but that the rewards are there.
A natural anger
Others weren’t so happy. A lot of the people who write a lot about natural wine were unimpressed, if not downright irate about the column and, maybe even more, its title: “Natural isn’t perfect”. The inference, from the comments I read on Twitter and other places, seems to be that perfection is an industrial concept that could not apply to the world of natural wines – which, apparently, are quirky by nature – no pun intended. (The title, by the way, wasn’t written by the author.)
“For some reason he chose to disparage”, commented Alice Feiring in the first of three posts on the subject. She was “upset”, as she said herself in the second post, notably questioning why the columnist chose to “hold natural winemakers to a higher power than conventional winemakers”.
I commented on Alice’s blog, and I don’t want to get back into that. I know that she is strongly committed to the cause of natural wine, and that her feelings had to everything to do with the cause, not with any bad blood. Her third post, including part of a direct conversation she had with Dave McIntyre, tempered many things and also pointed out some really terrific wines that people should certainly try, if they want to know what is going on behind the oenological looking glass.
Still, I’ve been mulling this over quite a bit. As someone who’s been drinking quite a bit of natural wine, often loving and sometimes hating individual cuvées, I felt I had to dig further into the subject, trying to make a little more sense of a complicated subject - and a rather vague term.
Natural wine: does the concept make sense?
The concept of natural wine is so imprecise, in fact, that one could even say that natural wine simply doesn’t exist. Wine is made from a natural product – grapes – but it’s a highly technical product, and has been from the very beginning. Greeks and Romans had all sorts of techniques for preserving wine, correcting the taste and working with or against oxydation.
Even if you only use grapes, you can’t just let them go and expect to get awesome wine “naturally”. Wine growing, harvesting, fermentation, aging… all of it is a technical process. Wine is very much a man-made product.
In a recent interview on Belgian public radio, Mathieu Lapierre, the son of natural wine standard-bearer Marcel Lapierre, pointed out that the term “vin naturel” is used out of convenience, more than anything else. That warning served as an introduction to a description of the winemaking technique, with Lapierre insisting that, if anything, vin naturel requires more skills and more work to monitor what is going on in the tanks and barrrels. The Lapierres follow fermentations closely, using microscopes to see what yeasts and bacteria are at work, because working without sulfur and additives is harder and requires extra care, to make sure everything ends up in a desirable place.
There are a number of factors that come into play, when discussing natural wine and trying to define it. As microbiologist and wine blogger Tom Mansell pointed out in a tweet, even without adding anything into the liquid, other forces are at work:
If vin naturel def. is used, then how to account for oak (and microbial terroir thereof). Is oak an “ingredient”?”
Because of those technical questions, Tom added in another tweet:
overall i would eschew the word [natural]. wine is made by humans. too many decisions made in the vineyard/winery for any wine to be so
While I still believe the term “natural wine” can still be a useful, convenient term, there are clearly limits to its validity. So how do we use it to ensure that it remains meaningful, and not just a one-size-fits-all concept that would be so vague as to render it useless – and probably more harmful than helpful?
Natural wine: an attempt at definition
Over the last week and a little more, I had a lot of discussions about this, essentially on Twitter, particularly with Alice Feiring, Tom Mansell of the seriously scientific and winegeeky Ithacork blog, David McDuff, Guilhaume Gérard of Terroir SF and the Wine Digger Blog, and Cory Cartwright of the Saignée blog.
A lot of the discussions had to do with what should be allowed in natural winemaking – not in winemaking in general, but in terms of what can be defined as “natural wine”. I tend to stick to a very strict definition, meaning wine that is made exclusively from grape juice. That is the definition that the Association des vins naturels points to. On its web site, it refers to the French Wikipedia article “Vin naturel”, whose first line reads “Un vin naturel est fabriqué exclusivement à partir de jus de raisin.”
Contrast that with the English Wikipedia definition:
Natural wine is wine made with as little chemical and technological intervention as possible, either in the way the grapes are grown or the way they are made into wine.
That’s exactly what makes the whole concept vague and the whole idea of natural wine rather dicey. Because, really, what do you mean by “as little as possible”? Where do you stop? What do you allow and what don’t you allow?
Again, to me, the definition should be: 100% grape juice. With perhaps a second tier: 100% grape juice, with sulfur added at bottling.
What strikes me, in this debate about natural wine, is that some people who are totally unforgiving about the “sustainable winemaking” programs – which they see as too loosely defined and essentially, as greenwashing – are quick to forgive “natural” winemakers when they step outside of the basic definition of natural wine. To me, it’s illogical to blame one approach to winegrowing and winemaking as being too vague, and then allow natural winemakers to take liberties with the process because “sometimes one does what one needs to do“. Why would it be a crime if one careful winegrower used a synthetic fungicide once, in a very wet and miserable vintage where black rot and sour rot were fighting it out all over his grapes, while a “natural” winemaker would be given a pass for using a certain type of enzymes to avoid malolactic fermentation, while still calling his wine “natural”?
Because of the multiple variables at play, including the role of marketing in the age of “green”, it is very difficult to draw a unique path for everyone to follow. Which doesn’t mean, to me at least, that there shouldn’t be some clear signposts along the way.
Faced with that great range of possibilities, some choose to throw in the towel and avoid any effort at definition. Jamie Goode, in a blog post on Wine Anorak, called attempts at definition “retrograde”:
In one sense, all wines are natural. Yet there is also a continuum of naturalness, ranging from the most industrial of wines towards the most extreme of natural wines. (…) There’s life in the natural wine movement. Attempts to codify, define and legislate could choke the life out of it.
Jamie Goode first dropped this idea about the “continuum” of natural to unnatural on Twitter, and caused me to react immediately:
I agree that wine can run the whole gamut. But calling other stuff “natural wine” is like saying you’re a little pregnant.
To be meaningful, as far as I’m concerned, the term natural wine should be used sparingly, in as strict a sense as possible. It should be a beacon, a goal, a term that defines something precise, difficult to attain, but clear and desirable. Like Guilhaume Gérard, in his “natural wine dogma“, I think it’s worth asking: “are we talking about good (natural) wine or just any wine?”
The point isn’t that all wines should be made in the strict definition of “natural wine”. But since the term is already flawed, we should be careful in using it. Letting anything and everything be called natural has more chance of killing it, in the long run, than a more rigorous definition that excludes other good stuff.
That being said, that whole continuum of winegrowing and winemaking exists: industrial, chemically-fueled grapes and wines; certified organic and biodynamic grapes treated in a highly technological manner in the cellar; non-certified organic grapes treated as naturally as possible in the cellar; fully-certified biodynamic grapes treated 100% naturally, without sulfur. And all the variations in between.
For a variety of reasons or choices, making wine exclusively from grape juice, without any additives at all, may not be possible or desirable for some vignerons or winemakers. Certain grapes may be less suitable for the sulfur-free approach, for instance, because they are more sensitive to oxydation: grenache often seems to sink fast in no-sulfur versions, and whether or not it’s because of oxydation, I’ve never had a cabernet sauvignon “nature” that I found halfway pleasant.
Vintage conditions, a mishap in the cellar, an unexpected event somewhere along the way could well lead a vigneron to take another root. Some winemakers also strongly argue in favor of sulfur earlier in the process, in order to clean up the pressed juice and help favor the right kind of yeasts and microorganisms. Indigenous yeast fermentations can start quite well in sulfured juice or must, as I’ve seen myself.
I have immense admiration for vignerons who go all the way in the natural, no-sulfur route, and accept that they will have to dump a tank because things have gone awry. Financially, though, not everyone can take that chance. If it was my money, my livelihood, food for the table for my family, I’m not sure I’d be willing to go all-natural all the time.
There is also the matter of transportation. Many winemakers who are strictly natural in their winemaking, using strictly indigenous yeasts and not the least bit of any additive in the tanks or barrels, add small amounts of sulfur at bottling, because they feel it is practically impossible, otherwise, to ensure that the wine that gets to the market will be the same as the wine that was made in the cellar.
Finally, I think it’s easy to state the doctrine in theory, but much harder to work it in practice. Mathieu Lapierre, in the RTBF interview, says that if they went bigger than 14 hectares, it would become difficult, if not impossible for them to take a 100% natural, no-sulfur approach.
Going 100% without sulfur is extremely difficult, and quite frankly, a number of vignerons that go this route could use a bit of sulfur. When a white wine turns orange within two hours of opening, and starts tasting like dill pickles within three, I can’t help but thinking that a touch of sulfur could have been useful. Sans soufre is supposed to help you taste the true nature of wine, but in a case like that, it clearly fails. (In other cases, mind you, like Julien Courtois’ 100%, from the Loire, I am amazed at the way it remains stable for days after opening. So it’s case by case.)
Also, there is the question of terroir. When I taste Roussillon carignan “nature” that tastes almost exactly the same as a “nature” Loire pinot or as a gamay from Beaujolais, I have to question the way the wine is made. If the result of the natural winemaking wipes out the terroir that much, how is it better, in that regard, than the overtreated, overripe, cultured-yeast, heavy-filtered wines denounced by proponents of natural wine?
Don’t get this criticism wrong: there are true natural wines that express terroir beautifully: Lapierre morgons, Loire wines from Domaine Le Briseau, Lassaigne champagne… I could go on for a long time. What I’m saying is that terroir expression in no-sulfur wine is not a given, despite the fact that it is often touted that the two go hand in hand.
The whole thing isn’t cut-and-dry. Even in places held as strongholds of natural wines. Like the cellar of Pierre Overnoy, in Jura.
Overnoy wines, as Cory Cartwright wrote in a recent blog post, are sometimes chaptalized, something that will probably come as a surprise to many people who saw this particular vignoble as one of the references in natural wine. Adding a bag of white sugar to a tank of fermenting grapes doesn’t quite seem like the most natural thing to do, does it? But frankly, I’ll bet Overnoy and Emmanuel Houillon, who now takes care of the vinification process, know better than I do how to make a balanced wine with the grapes they have, in good and bad vintages.
In a post showcasing a 2000 Overnoy Arbois-Pupillin, David McDuff reflected on the whole matter in a very thoughtful way. Taking sides in favor of chaptalization “in small amounts, only when truly necessary to find balance in an unfriendly vintage”, he asked the following question:
Is it most important to make wines in a totally unadulterated manner, or to make the best wine you can from what nature has given you? There are so many ways to interpret the above question that its answers are near endless.
Indeed, that infinite number of variations on the theme is what makes the matter so complicated.
Say what you do and do what you say
So, here I am saying that the term “natural wine” should be strictly defined, yet arguing that variations on the process, in the vineyard and in the cellar, shouldn’t be condemned. Even better (worse?), I’m even saying that stepping out of the strict observance would be highly recommended, in certain cases, as it would make for better wine.
Contradiction? Not really.
While being highly favorable to the most natural approach possible (Good ol’ Columella, he had it right), I think it’s clearly impossible to find a definition that can cover all the bases of that loose assemblage of wines and vignerons called “natural”. We must look elsewhere for a satisfactory solution.
Simply stated, that solution is: say what you do and do what you say. Transparency and clarity, in other words.
Let’s face it: back labels and technical sheets are generally a collection of clichés and good intentions. “We made this wine from quality grapes, picked at perfect ripeness from the carefully-tended Le Best vineyard, and gently treated in the cellar to express varietal character and the unique qualities of the terroir.” There, I’ve just written 90% of the back labels in this world. Total marketing BS.
I think greater precision would be a great thing in helping wine lovers, from the geekiest to the most distracted drinkers, get an idea of what’s going on. Synthetic or all-natural products in the vineyard? Natural or cultured yeast? Enzymes or none? Sulfur or not? Let us know.
Sure, the average buyer won’t have a precise idea of what that all means, but he or she will get a sense of how “natural” or “technological” the making of that wine has been. And he or she may well become more curious abou the whole process, find out more and make more enlightened decisions as time goes by. Honesty is definitely the best policy.
Randall Grahm, the president-for-life of Bonny Doon Vineyards, has pointed the way in this matter with great resolve. The fact sheets and back labels for his wine precisely state what was used in making the wine.
For instance, the fact sheet for Ca’ del Solo 2005 Nebbiolo clearly states that the winemaking process resorted to: “cultured yeast, yeast nutrients, malolactic culture, pectolytic enzyme, untoasted oak chips and French oak barrels.” Personally, I’d be happier if the biodynamically-farmed grapes were treated more naturally in the cellar, but I know what I’m getting into – and actually, I enjoyed this wine quite a bit. Then again, if it bothers me too much, I can go for his albarino, which only used “indigenous yeast, organic yeast nutrients and bentonite”.
Of course, there are limits to what transparency – even legally-enforced information sharing – can do. I mean, Red Bicyclette pinot noir, anyone? If a company the size of Gallo winds up selling pinot that itsn’t even pinot – voluntarily or not – it’s not obvious that average consumers can be 100% sure of what they’re getting.
As Cory Cartwright stated in a post about the recent natural-wine debate, knowing the winemakers can help a lot – if not directly, at least through trusted sources. This whole thing may be, indeed, more about the vignerons and the individual wines than about a philosophy or a doctrine – whether in natural or “conventional” wine.
Speaking of vignerons, I’m supposed to meet with Marcel Lapierre, Jean Foillard and other Beaujolais vignerons, tomorrow. I’ll see if I still think the same thing about les vins naturels after I talk to them.
To be continued…