Natural Wine – Chateau Snake Oil?

‘Natural’ must be the most overworked buzz word in the language; one that normally rational adults are wary of, even dismissive of its marketing meaninglessness.  It should set your bullshit antennae on red alert.  For its vague promise of well-being, no word can compete.  It just seems, well, natural.  This is particularly the case in the promotion of cosmetics and food.  Melanie Warner – good name – puts us all on the qui vive telling us that in the US last year foods packaged with the word ‘natural’ outsold those labelled ‘organic’ by a 4:1 margin.   

Perhaps it’s unsurprising the natural word has caught up with wine, seen by most consumers as close to its original grapes, fat free and in most forms sugar free too.  Consumers feel notoriously insecure buying wine so the word ‘natural’ no doubt goes well in the marketing mix.  We’ve been told for some time that wine in moderation is good for you.  But for some producers and pundits, a drink made from a farmed crop is not enough.  For them, most wine is mucked about with too much, is over-processed and not natural enough.  Though a French, Japanese (actually quite a phenomenon in Japan) and US hipster mini movement for some time, the recent flurry over natural wine in the UK seems new, and what’s more, it’s not being pushed here by the big firms as in health products and cosmetics.  Douglas Wregg of wine importer Caves de Pyrene and Isabelle Legeron MW (who calls herself ‘that Crazy French Woman’) seem to be the leading lights but other small wine merchants joining in are Aubert & Mascoli, Dynamic Wines, Wine Story and Yapp brothers.

Between them they pulled off something remarkable in mid-May at London’s Borough Market, symbolically the cutting edge founder shrine of the ‘farmers’ market’ movement in the UK.  On a Sunday morning they managed to get 800 punters out of their genteel beds, who’d paid £18 a head to taste hundreds of natural wines from 114 producers.  And for two days after, large numbers of wine professionals also came to taste in ‘trade only’ sessions.  The atmosphere was quietly celebratory: open air and warm, very cool as in ‘cool, man’, with senior wine fans and the chic young united in the kind of collective bliss-out usually seen in church halls when an Alpha course has gone well.  

So what is natural wine?   There are no legal standards but manifestos tend to say:

  • No synthetic chemicals (pesticides and herbicides) in grape growing (organic in other words)
  • manual harvesting
  • indigenous yeasts
  • no chaptalisation (adding sugar to ferments to increase alcohol,  – oh, and make more wine!)
  • no additives except (with extreme reluctance) minimal amounts of SO2 (sulphur dioxide)
  • Others add:  small independent producers only, and…
  • low vineyard yields
  • no acid adjustment
  • no micro-oxygenation or reverse osmosis
  • no filtration or fining.

In one sense it’s easy to agree with all this.  For a long time most wine critics have waxed lyrical about the wines with the least ‘intervention’, especially when it comes to highly selected yeasts which are selected and cultured to give flavour and textures to many wines which they otherwise would not have.  But equally they have their uses and many wines would have terrible off flavours, many champagnes for instance, without specialist yeasts that work under tough conditions.  And you could go further and query barrels.  For all the key work barrels do, fixing colour, performing a very natural slow settling and clarification, a tiny complexing oxidation and helping tough tannins to polymerise, there’s always a nag that added oak flavours are hardly ‘natural’, gorgeous though they can be.

But we might ask why the sudden proselytising requirement to label as ‘natural’ wines that are organic, biodynamic and made with minimal manipulation?  Many such wines have been around for the last 20 years; they are no new discovery or technique.  In fact the best wines at the Natural Wine Fair for me were wines that have been around a long time without the moniker ‘natural’ stuck on them.  Josmeyer’s sleek, aromatic and mineral Alsace wines have been bio since the end of the 90s.  There is no added sugar (not too difficult when most wines achieve high levels of residual sugar naturally in Alsace).  Some filtration and SO2 is used. Bottling with the amount of residual sugar normally in Alsace wines would be nigh-impossible without SO2.  A very sophisticated pneumatic press system and stainless steel thermo-regulation at Josmeyer also uses high tech and significant energy no doubt.  Is it critical or really informative to call these brilliant wines ‘natural’?  They are a mix of high tech and non-intervention, sure, but a far cry from dumping grapes in a vat and hoping.

Alain Chabanon’s organically-certified Languedoc wines, and on the way to Bio status, shone brightly at the Fair.  No fertiliser is used, no added yeasts.  But he uses SO2, in fact he told me ‘I don’t like wine without sulphur’ and wrinkled his nose up adding: ‘Quite a few of these tables have the aromas of volatility before you even taste.’  Volatility or VA being the acetic taint from spoilage yeasts or bacteria that arises from poorly protected wine.  Basic levels can be fine, high levels are usually disastrous.  Like Josmeyer, the vinification at Chabanon uses high tech temperature control and pressing and the barrels are bought second hand from super second Chateau Ducru Beaucaillou in Bordeaux.  He prefers barrels from top chateaux because they use ‘top class barrels and look after them well, seasoning, disinfecting and sulfiting them’.  Again, it seems a mix of low intervention and tech.  Natural would be a misnomer here.  But his Coteaux de Languedoc ‘L’Esprit de Font-Caude’ ’04, 50/50 Syrah and Mourvedre, was a star of the show.  And his slightly sceptical disowning of the ‘no-SO2′ and ‘natural’ label was echoed by a number of winemakers I spoke to.  A common view was: ‘We’ve been making our wine like this for a long time and suddenly we’re labelled ‘natural’. 

And it was a similar story as I carefully tasted and noted a total of about half the wines on show over two days.  The real stand-outs, with Josmeyer and Chabanon, were Domaine Matassa, Tom Lubbe’s small operation in the Agly Valley, Roussillon and making particularly intense, mineral whites.  Les Clos Perdus from Corbières and around, Mas de Daumas Gassac from the Languedoc, Sylvain Fadat’s great wines from Domaine d’Aupilhac and the Domaine Vinci wines from Emanuelle Vinci and Olivier Varichon in the Agly Valley too.  But these are already giants in the small notebooks of connoisseurs and have been so in most cases for some time; I was already familiar with their wines, had visited these domaines and seen their work in detail.  Less well-known, to me at any rate, was Domaine Les Eminades from St Chinian whose wines shone with purity, good structure and charmingly flattering bright fruit.  But though undoubtedly ’low intervention’ wines, these are all from producers who mostly do use some fining and filtration and judicious amounts of sulpur in the vineyard and SO2 in the winery when they deem it necessary. I was very impressed too with the Mas Bruguière wines from Pic St Loup (Languedoc again) and those of Clos du Gravillas (Minervois – Languedoc again!), especially a delicate and detailed 2009 Muscat St Jean de Minervois Vin Doux Naturel, which could not be made safely without the addition of SO2, pretty much obligatory if you want to make a sweet wine that avoids becoming a bugs paradise.  Finally, in the golden mentions, it was a relief to find Domaine Gramenon’s Rhône wines tasting sleek, vibrant and complex and clean, a far cry from when I asked someone serving them two years ago if a particularly noxious smelly Gramenon was meant to taste like that and he said ‘Yes’.  So far so good; there were plenty of glorious wines at the Natural Wine Fair.

But most of the great wines at the fair could be in the firing line of the holier-than-thou campaigners for Really Natural, because there is often (low) sulphur used by these estates.  And no-SO2 is the talisman requirement of the hard core natural wine brigade.  What is curious here is to know quite what the objections are to SO2.  Sulphur is allowed by organic and Bio rules in vineyard sprays, but is generally used as a last resort across the range of approaches from ‘lutte raisonée’ (natural predators of pests, close monitoring and vineyard eco-systems) to organic and bio.   It has also been established for over 25 years that the best wines are made with very careful control of yields and painstaking viticulture so that what arrives in the vat is ripe and healthy with no rot and so needs minimal addition of SO2 to the winemaking phase.  Apart from this, SO2 is produced in small quantities quite naturally by yeasts in fermentation, up to around 10mg/L  – SO2 is natural.  

SO2 levels in even the most commercially made wines are usually far below those in fruit juices and dried fruits and in most wines on the market SO2 averages 80mg/L, highest in white and sweet wines.  80mg/L is about 60mg SO2 per standard bottle of wine.  Half a bottle of these bogey industrial wines therefore would give 30mg intake of SO2.  The World Health Organisation RDA is 49mg.  Hardly a health hazard.  And a fraction of the SO2 will disappear in air from the glass or decanter.   A random look through some technical sheets of wines sold in the UK gives these figures for three wines’ total sulphur:  Domaine Portas Assyrtiko 2008 (white) 84mg/L, VdP des Coteaux de Ceze Rosé 2010 70mg/L and Château Clinet, Pomerol 2000 (red) 93mg/L.   The Natural Wine Fair’s star producers would no doubt all have sulphur levels below these, but the levels in these non-natural wines are hardly cause for a health scare.  The legal maxima for EU reds is 160mg/L, 210mg/L for rosés and whites, more for sweet wines.

But what of claims that sulphur is a health risk? There is no hard evidence that SO2 causes hangovers or headaches.  Look rather to the main poison in wine – alcohol itself.  Unlucky asthmatics who do react to SO2 are a growing fraction of the population and quite rightly should avoid all but low sulphur wines.  But asthma in itself is not caused by SO2 in wine; genetic factors, rising obesity and SO2 from fossil fuel air pollution are possible causal links, but wine is not to blame.   The demonisation of sulphur by the natural wine movement is even more mystifying given sulphur is a major constituent of plant and human metabolism, quite naturally.  Our bodies have more sulphur than any other mineral, a key constituent of all cells.  Most of the sulphur we ingest is from food proteins, not additives.  Sulphur is important in the metabolism of some B vitamins.  Sulphur also forms about 6% of the dry weight of all plants and plants absorb some of the SO2 from atmopheric pollution through their stomata, performing a natural ‘green’ function.  Apart from the risk to asthmatics, there is no evidence that SO2 at legal levels in wine and certainly within the WHO RDA levels, is any risk to human health.

So turning sulphur or SO2 into public enemy no 1 by the natural wine movement seems to make an abstract and suspect ‘purity’ principle out of little.  Noone can argue with the aim to reduce chemical additives in wine to a minimum but to make it into a near-zero principle risks making wines which will not keep long and can develop some very unpleasant smells and flavours.  Most worrying at the Natural Wine Fair (alongside no champagne there!) were a slew of rather lean but swingeingly tannic red wines from a range of small producers and countries, which all had light body, simple flavours and certainly that raw gawkiness and rusticity which reminded me most of French coop cheap wines in the 1980s and 90s, before our supermarkets decided that even these were not good enough for basic.  The problem is that this same style of wine, touted as ‘natural’, is in fact still basic, but now comes with high prices because it is made in tiny quantities and can speak the mantra of ‘natural’.  And then there were wines on show that did not stink to high heaven across the range but were hit and miss, where some of the wines were good, some bad.  The faults were more often than not vinegary volatile acidity (VA), oxidation, horsey brettanomyces and that sherryish/ cider acetaldehyde smell that can come from bacteria, yeasts and sometimes too much oxidation in wine.  Some of Domaine de Rapatel’s wines(Costières de Nîmes) were like this and generally raisiny; the Pithon-Paillé and Réné Mossé wines from Anjou too, with too much VA.  As so often, the Savennières wines of Nicolas Joly, the prince of bio from the Clos de la Coulée de Serrant, were a bitter-sweet joy. Both wines on show had power and presence, the 2008 Coulée de Serrant was vinous and pure, all yellow plum and quince with a gorgeous pressing texture, but the 2008 ’Le Vieux Clos’ was oxidised.  Wines I really struggled with, all a soup of faults, were those of Tenuta Grillo from Piemonte.  

At times I was left wondering why it is that blemishes or major disasters in wines that seem plain to my taste, receive plaudits from others who say they are ‘original and intriguing’, ‘cerebral’ and ‘grown-up’.  I had to smile at the irony a few days after the Fair when Alice Feiring (‘I want them natural…I want them to speak the truth’), the sometimes uncompromising US blogger, was interviewed at the Fair by Jancis Robinson MW and slammed the critics of natural wine in the UK for its late recognition here, saying the UK was the home of over-picky people who are diplomad and Masters of Wine and just love finding faults in wine.  The irony being of course that the leading light of the Fair was Isabelle Legeron MW, France’s first female Master of Wine and grand champion of natural wine herself.  

In the end, I’m quite happy for the natural wine movement to grow and evolve.  It’s only wine, it’s a drink; and a broad church is better than a bunch of dogmatists.  I do wonder (OK, not that much, not like I wonder about my kids) why it spawns such heat on both sides of the wine fence.  As I’ve argued, the best ‘natural’ wines are nothing new and have been around for 15-20 years at least.  I can remember Patrick Matthews’s book ‘Real Wine, the Rediscovery of Natural Winemaking’ was first published in 2000, so 11 years later the producers described there did not count?   I’m bemused a mini-bandwagon is really a revival.  I worry ‘natural wine’ is such a vague concept, with no legal definition.  On the other hand, imagine the mud-slinging that would go on if the wine authorities were persuaded to force things to a measurable definition.  I worry that organic and bio grape-growing is easiest in hot places rather than cool damp ones but that it is is precisely in these hot places that pH (the concentration of hydrogen ions) in wine can be too high in the wrong direction to limit oxidation or allow very low or no sulphur.  And I wonder too, if the type of high tech kit that is sometimes employed to make low sulphur wines, with all its thermo-regulation, has a carbon footprint that is not necessarily a good trade-off for very low or no sulphur regimes.   And it concerns me that some features of wine that would be a fault 15-20 years ago, even in Europe, and would get the wine sent back with the waiter, are now deemed by some to be delicious.  And this is chic.  And I worry that the criteria for what makes a wine ‘good’ for some people is becoming a list of boxes to be ticked before the wine has even been tasted.  But most of all, I worry that ‘natural’ wine might be the new snake oil.

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