Natural wine: a more practical point of view

80-year old grenache wines at Domaine Matassa's Romanissa vineyard, in Roussillon

Since I last wrote on the subject in the spring, the natural wine debate has only heated up and taken some unexpected turns. From Alice Feiring to Jancis Robinson, Steve Heimoff, Jon Bonné and Mike Steinberger, a lot of people have pitched in with their point of view and sometimes controversies, as I point out on this Palate Press piece published today.

The main point of the piece, however, was not to add to the controversy, but rather to bring the story back to a more practical level. Over the last few months, I had the pleasure and privilege of meeting with a number of vignerons who aim at making natural wine (which I’ll define, in the strict sense, using Alice Feiring’s idea of “nothing added, nothing taken out). And the talk was fundamentally down-to-earth, focused on the health of the vines and the requirements of making good wine with minimal use of technology and chemical additives of any kind. I heard little ideology, much more conviction developed through practice, in the field and in the cellar. And that’s what I wanted to give a sense of with that article.

It’s good to focus on the point of view of experienced practitioners like, say, Paul Draper, whose words on winemaking published on Alice Feiring’s blog are a true pleasure to read – and an instructive one, at that – or Jared and Tracy Brandt, whose manifesto, published last year on their blog, is a very intelligent statement of intention and observation.

Still, one of the things that strikes me in the ongoing debate surrounding natural wine – and which I didn’t get too in the current story – is how some people dismiss natural wine by saying that it is “impossible” to make good wine in this nothing added, nothing taken out approach. This includes some winemakers who either state that “all wine is natural” or that natural fermentations are “dangerous”.

I beg to differ. Not out of dogma, but simply of what I’ve tasted and even worked on in the cellar, as I’ve been lucky enough to work on crush at Closson Chase vineyards in Prince Edward County, Ontario, where the focus is clearly on natural fermentations and where sulfur is applied sparingly, for most cuvées. I’ve seen things move forward to delicious finish without any intervention other than a careful watch. Not that it’s always perfect without any further ado, but it’s certainly very possible.

I personally don’t understand how a winemaker can come to see something that is done regularly and successfully as “impossible”, when empirical evidence says otherwise. Maybe it’s not just the fans of natural wine that are being dogmatic.

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  1. Posted October 28, 2010 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    People choose to believe it’s “impossible” to make good natural wine because they choose to remain ignorant to the various alternatives. For example, wine snobs turn their noses at boxed wine when they know that it decreases our carbon footprint and helps to mitigate the risk of climate change. They can be told a million times that not all boxed wine tastes repulsive, but they still believe that good quality wine from a box is “impossible”. We need to keep an open mind. I think that natural/organic wine is great! A lot of people are quick to go the natural route when it comes to food, beauty products and medicine – so why should we react differently to organic wine?

    • Posted October 30, 2010 at 8:55 am | Permalink

      You are right that it is important to keep an open mind – and the case of boxed wine is a very good example of this. The Swedes are much less resistant to alternative packaging and, as a result, I did taste a number of really nice boxed wines there. Let’s hope it catches on here: for high-volume restaurants, in particular, boxed wines, kegs, etc. are indeed very good solutions.

      In the case of natural wine, there is also the weight of training, for winemakers: in school, they are generally told that natural fermentations are too risky and unreliable. It’s hard to go against everything you have been taught – and you have to take into account that these decisions represent tens of thousands of dollars at a time.

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