Natural wine: it’s complicated, naturally

“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.

Good wine first, then natural…

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…

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  1. Posted April 26, 2010 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    finally some sense into that whole discussion. Good job remy.

    • Posted April 26, 2010 at 10:21 am | Permalink

      Merci, m’sieur!

      I tried to work out useful distinctions in the whole matter. Hopefully it does make sense. I’ll get a chance to test those ideas with Lapierre and co – and Arianna Occhipinti, this week. If I’m a fool, good people to set me straight!

  2. Posted April 26, 2010 at 10:27 am | Permalink

    Excellent piece Remy. I for one am going to bow out of the conversation in total and start talking about wines and winemakers, nothing more.

    • Posted April 26, 2010 at 10:34 am | Permalink

      No tasting notes and no gross overgeneralizations? What kind of wine blogger are you? ;-)

      As Guilhaume tweeted me: Good wine first, then natural. So let’s focus on the good, first.

  3. Kevin Hamel
    Posted April 26, 2010 at 11:11 am | Permalink

    Nice piece Remy. I like the “say what you do, do what you say”. A friend and I were discussing this same subject some months ago and wether “natural” wine could be defined. I opted for “honest” wine. Have a well reasoned rationale for what you do and be prepared to talk about it.

    • Posted April 26, 2010 at 11:14 am | Permalink

      Agreed: whatever you decide to do, make sure your concepts are clear, and be upfront about it. Laying down some principles and getting your ideas in order will help the people who buy and drink your wine know what you’re about – and it probably can’t hurt the way you’re making wines, either.

  4. Kevin Hamel
    Posted April 26, 2010 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    And one more thing, Remy. After reading the following:

    “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.”

    I hope you will ask M. Lapierres what he does if he discovers undesirable yeast or bacteria at work. This is not a combative or confrontational question. I just want to know

    • Posted April 26, 2010 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

      I have the same question. The statement just begs for it. I will ask him.

  5. Posted April 26, 2010 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    “Honest wine”- Right on, Kevin.

    Natural is a term easily twisted… honest is not.

  6. Posted April 26, 2010 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

    I always enjoy the thoroughness with which you tackle your topics. Very much looking forward to reading part deux!

    • Posted April 26, 2010 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

      Part deux may well be on Palate Press. Meanwhile, I’ll try for a couple of light-hearted, quick tasting notes.

  7. Posted April 26, 2010 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    Great post Remy. You’re spot on in saying it’s all about the winemaker. I’ve been immersing myself in this stuff over here in France, and talking to lots of winemakers, and I can say for sure that they are all over the map in their use of sulfur. Here’s an article by Jean-Pierre Robinot, who I consider to be on the extreme end of the natural spectrum:

    It’s not translated though, so maybe you can help us out? This guy is the epitome of non-intervention. He’s got barrels of chenin that have been fermenting for 2 years and are still bubbling along. He even disparaged a few well known winemakers (some of whom are considered quite natural, but I promised I wouldn’t share who) as being overly chemical. He’s one of the courageous ones who doesn’t put any sulfur in the bottle at all. He swore to me up and down that if I tasted two wines that were identical, one sulfured, one not, I’d be able to tell the difference quite easily.

    But even Jean-Pierre admits to using a fractional amount of sulfur (1 gram in an entire barrel) to save a wine where he’s detected volatile acidity starting to crop up. So if this guys’s willing to do that, you can’t really say exactly how much sulfur is ok. But for me this point, how do I know a wine is natural? I taste it. When they’re natural
    they rock my world. Not always in a way I love, but most of the
    time, yes. That’s not much help for the average consumer, but it does help keep prices down!

    • Posted April 26, 2010 at 8:12 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for the link to the Robinot piece. I’ll be taking a close look. I think the example you gave about Robinot’s occasional sulfur use shows that the question of sulfur use is not that simple. I’d rather consider that option than letting a tank go to waste, personally.

  8. Posted April 26, 2010 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    A very thoughtful piece, and I look forward to the next installment. I was somewhat surprised (but not really) to see such a reaction on the Twitter feeds when the WaPo article was published. The difficulty in this as you sort through the tweets, blog postings, articles, is that ‘natural’ wine can be discussed on many different levels. I engaged in some back and forth tweeting myself, with regards to ‘natural wine’ as a marketing construct, and sure enough I found myself confusing arguments for and against ‘natural wine’ based on ideas around marketing, wine making philosophy, and wine enjoyment.

    I think the point is hit upon several times (in reading Cory’s similar thoughts on the topic, it seems that this is shared amongst others as well), in that good wine is good wine – natural or not. I think like anything else, it’s hard to paint these ideas with broad strokes, and we can easily fall into traps where we place artificial value on natural wines just because. So I can appreciate the idea of focusing on the wine and winemaker first, and the rest will flow from there.

    • Posted April 26, 2010 at 8:17 pm | Permalink

      The fluidity of the term and what it relates to remains one of the main difficulties surrounding any discussion of “natural wine”. I think there is tremendous interest and energy in the natural wine movement – for lack of a better term – but it is a mistake to give natural wines a sort of handicap because they are called natural. To take a slightly different angle: a crappy organic wine may be good for the environment, but that doesn’t make it good wine.

  9. Posted April 26, 2010 at 2:52 pm | Permalink
  10. Posted April 26, 2010 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

    Remy, superb post – I think you’ve taken a measured, intelligent approach to a tricky subject

    • Posted April 26, 2010 at 8:29 pm | Permalink

      Coming from someone who has written so much great material on natural wines and wine in general, this is high praise indeed. I hope we get to share a bottle, one day: a bottle of “honest” wine, as Kevin Hamel put it in another comment.

  11. Posted April 26, 2010 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

    I’d like to look at this from a different perspective.

    The average wine consumer really has no idea how wine is made. Writers like Malcolm Gladwell and Alice Feiring have made a reputation out of exposing all of the horrors that go into the pristine, “natural” grapes that arrive from the vineyard, from herbicides to enzymes to fining agents. These diatribes against additives that, in general, end up in wine in miniscule amounts that are beyond detection further confuse consumers.

    Transparency is great, but there’s a reason not everyone does it. Consider the case of New Zealand wines, whose labels carry allergen information like: “This wine may contain traces of fish products” While it may be technically true if the wine has been fined with isinglass, the probability of an allergic reaction is extremely small given the infinitesimal amount of fining agent gets into the wine. Contrast that with the consumer who sees a wine that contains fish guts and wonders what in blazes is going on in that winery.

    To me, Jamie Goode’s “continuum of naturalness” is perfectly valid. As in most aspects of life, things are never black and white. Attempting to set an unreachable standard for a definition is not useful, as practically nothing could fit the definition. One wonders why we would create and define such terms at all. Unfortunately, most people prefer things in simple terms, so using the term out of convenience may make sense.

    Many wines do not fit into the boxes we create for them, especially if viewed in a general sense. Not all sherry is oxidized, not all wines made with hybrid grapes are foxy and unpalatable, not all “vins de terroir” are good. We just can’t be bothered to think hard enough (or taste every wine), so we rely on stereotypes.

    Natural wines appeal to this longing for simplicity. Grapes + yeast = wine. But in the end, it’s never that simple, as I alluded to in my tweet. Stainless steel? Oak? What kind of oak? Is filtering “natural”? What about leaf removal? Trellising? Irrigation (probably a no)? What about growing grapes outside of the legal definition of the appellation? Blending (are blends ok? maybe just field blends)? What about the closure (why not consider screwcaps to lower oxygen pickup in a low-sulfur wine)?

    All this talk of definitions and the meaning of what goes into the bottle reinforces how much context really comes into our enjoyment of wine, i.e., how much we bring to the wine is just as important as what the wine brings to us.

    • Posted April 26, 2010 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

      Malcom Gluck, not Malcolm Gladwell. Yikes.

      • Posted April 27, 2010 at 7:09 am | Permalink

        I am certainly late to this discussion but am always troubled by those that use language like “probability extremely small”. “miniscule amounts that are beyone detection” when deciding whether more or less information will be helpful to consumers. I am of the mind that consumers need – and want to know what is in the wine that they drink. When will the discussion turn to questions about what is actually in the industrial wines that have flooded the marketplace? Who is being served by not providing this information?

        David Page
        Shinn Estate Vineyards

        • Posted April 27, 2010 at 9:29 am | Permalink


          It’s not just the “industrial” wines. By the New Zealand law, a bottle of Château Margaux would have a label saying CONTAINS: EGG because they fine with egg whites, and have been doing so for a long time and even make note of it on their website.

          I’m not saying transparency is a bad thing. In fact, I’m all for it. What winemakers and regulators need to consider is how most consumers perceive such ingredient lists. Since “Contains sulfites” is now on virtually all wine bottles, how many consumers have blamed headaches on the sulfites in the wine as opposed to the alcohol?

          Obviously consumer education is a huge issue here. Ingredient lists like those on Randall Grahm’s wines will certainly help, though I’m sure “pectolytic enzyme,” in spite of its harmlessness, may give some pause. However, it’s easy for a well-established winery like Bonny Doon to take such lumps at the outset.

          I disagree about evaluting risk vs. reward in terms of probability, and I’m sorry my way of thinking “troubles” you. Wine regulators test for harmful components in wine and establish legal limits based on scientific studies.

          Looking beyond consumer harm, it’s hard to justify, say, legislation declaring that wineries must list all ingredients. If they want to come out and list things to curry favor with knowledgeable consumers, then that’s their prerogative. In time, those consumers that care will reward those efforts, and perhaps more wineries will start embracing the ingredient list.

          I might add that an inherent assumption in many cases is that “natural” *anything* is always “better”. It’s so often abused in the marketing of other consumer products (Natural 7-up, anyone?). I have yet to be convinced of that.

    • Posted April 26, 2010 at 8:27 pm | Permalink

      Great comment, Tom. Good point about the downsides of transparency – it’s never simple, is it? I agree that the continuum of naturalness makes sense, but stretching the idea of “natural wine” too far down that continuum can’t help characterize anything. As your last series of questions shows, variables are almost infinite, so creating some kind of subsets with precise definitions isn’t a bad way to try to make sense out of this, and provide some kind of measuring scale. Clearly, though, whatever the subset or category, it doesn’t guarantee that you’ll get a good wine…

      Time for me to get myself a drink. A good one.

  12. Posted April 26, 2010 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the excellent thoughts. Of course, Guilhaume is most correct in his short and to-the-point “definition”. And Kevin, too. Honest.
    A most enjoyable read after a long work day.

    • Posted April 26, 2010 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

      You certainly have one of the most interesting approaches to winemaking I’ve seen. I hope I get a chance to visit La Clarine and get a chance to learn more about where it’s leading you – by tasting the wines, first and foremost!

  13. Posted April 26, 2010 at 8:16 pm | Permalink

    Remy -
    Nice discussion – I chafe at the ambiguity of the term “natural wine” too, as well as its polemical undertone. (My wine is natural, yours isn’t.) But I also remember that we didn’t have a clear definition of “organic” and attempts to impose one totally botched it.

    I like the continuum reference. The pendulum swung too far towards industrial winemaking with chemicals in the vineyard and additives and ‘manipulations’ or what have you in the winery. In recent years, it has swung back, with increasing emphasis on vineyard management and reducing use of chemicals, if not eliminating them altogether. I sometimes wonder if with “natural wine” the pendulum isn’t swinging too far in the other direction, and we may be rejecting some winemaking techniques that are helpful.

    I was recently in France with an importer friend and asked each winemaker if he/she was making vin naturel. Most were using indigenous yeast and organic or sustainable viticulture. But invariably they frowned and said “non” and went into a lengthy discussion of sulfur and the risks of avoiding it altogether. For them, vin naturel clearly meant the extreme no-sulfur version. Yet I wonder if their wines might be considered “natural” by Alice and others who champion that label?

    Finally, I agree with you that many vins naturels tend to taste alike, no matter where they’re from or what grapes.


    • Posted April 26, 2010 at 8:36 pm | Permalink

      Good point on organic, a definition that is indeed excessively restrictive and has probably created more problems than anything else. Your story about winemaker reactions to the term natural points to something I’ve seen regularly too: a refusal by vignerons to get pinned down in a particularly category. The most creative, talented people rarely like to be pigeonholed.

    • Posted April 27, 2010 at 12:22 am | Permalink

      I’ve been asking lots of winemakers here in France if their wine is natural, and I always get a similar response to what you’re saying. And this is always at natural wine tastings! I think they tend to resist these pigeonholing terms. But French natural winemakers are an eccentric bunch.

      I also notice when I ask them about how they use sulfur, I get two basic types of response, but both of them come in hushed voices. The first group talks quietly because they use some sulfur here and there and are maybe a bit embarrassed that they don’t use less. And the second group talks quietly because they don’t use any at all, ever, and are worried the first group will think they’re trying to one-up them. Kind of funny really. I think the key thing going on here is that these guys like to be free to make whatever they want and that includes stepping outside the AOC system. So taking on a term like vin naturel chafes at their sensibilities.

  14. Posted April 26, 2010 at 8:40 pm | Permalink

    Remy, as a humble producer here, let me say I read your post and the attached comments with very nearly a tear in my eye. It is fabulous to me that everyone here so far seems to have weighed the merits, and come down on the side of good wine first, and the way it got there, second. If anyone wants to define “natural” as determined by the source of the grapes, that is fine. But when it comes to the winemaking, PLEASE let’s just agree that if the intent is “artisanal” the result is worthy of consideration.

  15. Posted April 26, 2010 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, Remy, for your thoughtful, reasoned piece about this subject that many of us care so much about. I also learned a lot from the ensuing comments. I appreciate that there is such good information and dialogue out there to refer to when thinking about wine — natural or not. I’ll keep tuning in for more!

    • Posted April 26, 2010 at 9:07 pm | Permalink

      Thanks, Anthony. The quality of the comments and dialogue generated by this post is heartwarming – and informative. It’s making me feel all that much better about wine blogging and wine writing in general.

  16. Posted April 27, 2010 at 6:36 am | Permalink

    This post and the comments that followed are inspiring to me. I hope to one day soon plant my own vineyard here in Southeastern Massachusetts. Going “natural” in vinifera wine growing here is ill-advised for obvious reasons (and as every local vineyard grower as told me), but I can’t help but to be intrigued by the possibility. I look forward to learning more before planting my first vine. With that said… I would like to understand where everyone here stands in regards to certain vineyards practices that occur before the grapes even make it to the winery, such as… a) cover crops b) trelesing c) crop thinning d) leaf pulling…. all vineyard practices that certainly involve a certain degree of human intervention with direct impact in the final wine. Are these vineyard practices acceptable for a wine that would eventually be perceived as “natural”?

    • Posted April 27, 2010 at 7:09 am | Permalink

      Physical and botanical intervention in the vineyard is generally accepted in natural winemaking – although Hank Beckmeyer, from La Clarine, has a different, minimalist take on that. The concern, in the vineyard, is much more with synthetic, chemical interventions.

      As for the difficulty of going natural in Massachusetts, I don’t think it could be that much harder than in New York State, Ontario or Quebec. I know several vineyards who essentially or entirely work organically or biodynamically in those regions. If they managed to keep away from chemical sprays through the miserable summers we had in 2008 and 2009, then it must be feasible in Mass. I’m not saying it’s easy, but it is feasible.

      • Posted April 27, 2010 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

        We even have English vineyards working organically – so it must be possible anywhere! :)

  17. Posted April 27, 2010 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    This is a very well written and interesting article. I’ve always had a thorne in my side over the term ‘natural’
    since, as you point out, it makes no philosophical or even logical sense. Why we have the desire to pin concepts down, however, is another issue. I’m not sure that it’s something worth doing in this case – concepts, just as wine, are ever changing and, dare I suggest, dialectical.

    That said, while I appreciate the spirit of good wine first, natural second, is this not also a pinning down philosophy? It focuses entirely on end-product in a consequentialist kind of way, and I’m not sure that’s what we are all looking for here. I think the problem is that those into ‘natural’ wine are trying to choose a single moral paradigm to express a concern with wine that is actually a combination of different moral positions (I already read consequentialist, deontological and virtue ethics approaches in the dialogue) and different (and mostly unarticulated) stances on how the sensual links to the moral.

    I write all of this really as background to agreeing with Cory’s idea of focusing on winemakers and specific wines rather than starting with abstract ideals. It is through the particular that we can not only bring the abstract and conceptual into focus, but more importantly give them expression in the first place.

    Anyhow, I’ve thought about this issue before in a series I wrote on ‘honesty’ in wine, which you can read here – – if you are so inclined. Somehow I think honesty, in its most robust sense, is more what we are thinking about here than ‘natural’.

    • Posted April 27, 2010 at 9:49 pm | Permalink

      The point of saying “good wine first, natural second” was not so much a consequentialist statement, but rather a way of saying that dogmatic adherence to a particular winemaking philosophy is not the best guarantee of quality in the wines. And this is stated in the context of the no-sulfur wine philosophy specifically – which may be a laudable goal but is not always attainable. I don’t think the idea of Guilhaume or anyone else taking that stance is to say that the end justifies the means, at any costs, but more that winemaking is not just black and white.

      This being said, you’re right to point out the moral component in the whole debate surrounding natural wine. It colours the discussion considerably, at times – whereas the vignerons themselves rather rarely discuss the practices as a moral thing. The impetus is to make the wines taste better, for most of them. A rather down-to-earth reasoning.

      I will take a look at the series. Sounds very interesting.

      • Posted April 27, 2010 at 9:55 pm | Permalink

        That clarification makes sense and seems a reasonable position. I’d love to see more reflection generally on the moral component, since it seems to be the heart of the matter.

  18. Posted April 27, 2010 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

    Enthusiastic agreement on a number of points: 1 – wherever debate heightens awareness, action is likely to follow & this can only be a good thing. 2 – consumers deserve transparency &, in my experience, will choose to buy differently once that transparency is granted (as if it were a luxury!). 3 – “natural wine” as a phrase, helps no one when used as a form of judgement or exclusivity. 4 – knowing something of the grape growers & wine makers is an important part of transparency, and something we emphasise with our customers a lot at artisan & vine ( )

    I can’t think of many instances in life where being overly dogmatic about something that is meant to be a pleasure has ever enhanced the experience.

    • Posted April 27, 2010 at 9:51 pm | Permalink

      Dogma is rarely correlated with pleasure, indeed. Thanks very much for the comment.

  19. Posted April 28, 2010 at 1:47 am | Permalink

    I do agree that dogma can get us into trouble, but it’s not like the natural people are the only ones being dogmatic. It seems to me that what has happened is you have the established order of wines on one side, and the newer natural wines on the other. The established order says the first growths of bordeaux and the grand crus of burgundy are the best wines in the world, for example. I can’t remember how many times I’ve read statements alluding to that in all my wine text books and encyclopedias. To someone who likes natural wines, that’s offensive, so I think it’s only natural that a certain amount of dogmatism has cropped up as a reaction. I feel like a little bit of dogma on the natural side is a good thing. Natural fans are saying, “hey, wait a minute, that’s not necessarily a fact, it’s just someones opinion,” and it happens to be a very established and entrenched opinion among wine amateurs and professionals.

    What we really should be saying is that there’s room for all kinds of taste, and it’s up to each person to decide what they think the best wines in the world are. Right now that is dictated by dogma that’s been around for a very long time, and has resulted in prices that make no sense. So I think the idea of a new dogma that has a completely different price structure is very appealing. I know it is to me.

    In an ideal world everyone would have their own tastes and leave everyone else free to judge what they liked best, but the established order seems to bristle at the idea that what they cherish as best might not really be so. Thus we have a controversy. But the benefit of this controversy is that we are all talking about it, and hopefully as a result, some consumers are starting to learn that there are other choices out there, and can make their own, informed decisions.

    Big broad labels are always cryptic, elusive, and hard to nail down. That’s true in life in general, but even more so in wine. What does grand cru even mean anyway? Does it mean the best? Nope. Not even the established order would argue with that. Natural wine is what we’ve got now, and it’s the best thing going, so I say we stick with it, flaws and all.

  20. Posted April 28, 2010 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    Thanks for a thoughtful piece Remy. There has been some aggressive backlash about natural wine lately, so nice to hear a voice of reason. Wine is made for loving, not fighting! Cheers, Amy

    • Posted April 28, 2010 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

      Couldn’t agree more. The tone of discussion on this blog has been remarkably balanced and fun to read. Thanks!

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