Ten Points For Natural Wine to Answer

Two weeks ago 5000 people attended two separate ‘Natural Wine’ fairs in London, many the paying public on a Sunday and the rest wine trade professionals working’ (lol!) by tasting wines on the Monday and Tuesday.  One was called RAW, the other The Real Wine Fair.  Lest we go overboard with shock, the annual Clothes Show in Birmingham has 150,000+ visitors and The Wine Show in London over 25,000. 

But ‘natural’ wine is weird stuff, at least organic if not biodynamic in its grape growing and low on treatments, techy wizardry and additives which are water off a duck’s back for most wines.  So 5000 is a high number for this type of event.  Something is going on.  As my friend summed it up, there was ’a disproportionately high representation of young gunslingers.  So you’re in from Guildford and Amersham, mid fifties, with the clipboards, this was not.’  

The gilded young with an interest in wine have wonga now to spend and may have even more in the future.  Many have grown bored with the factory-made wine brands in serried ranks on supermarket shelves, good value though they may be.  And they are fascinated with the idea that healthier wine and food may mesh nicely with a lifestyle suspicious of global brands and interested in hand-made, small-scale products.  Natural wine exerts a collective emotional pull over its drinkers and producers that is new.  Both these shows were a great success by any standards.

The fairs were exciting events with a great buzz, side show seminars and tastings and even top nosh street food.  The style was undergraduate and agit-prop, joyful and studious all at once. Cutting edge cool. You could taste the wines of 400 producers if you went to both.  Doug Wregg, the Real Wine Show’s exhausted but smiling animus from importers Les Caves de Pyrène told me last year’s single inaugural show had split because of ‘personalities’.  But he added the obvious point looking around:  ‘It’s got so big that one show would have been impossible.’

I had a wonderful time tasting new wines and those from producers already familiar to me, at both fairs.  There were far too many wines I did not taste through lack of time so my opinions here show nothing about the overall quality level of what was on show.  But if anything I did come away with the impression that there were fewer faulty wines than at the unified fair last year, so perhaps word is getting through to ‘natural’ producers that if they are tempted to plead ‘terroir’ or ‘my wines do not have an international style’ when in fact they stink to high heaven, it will not wash, at least with the UK’s discerning wine lovers.  There was one strange case of tasting through the wines of a property which last year I found delightful and penetrating – the red wines of Domaine Les Eminades from St-Chinian – only to find they now seemed dull and lifeless and one cuvée (Cebenna) reeked of too much Brett to the point I enquired if they also thought so.  They did and said it was a problem they were trying to correct.

The wines I really enjoyed for their energy, intensity and finesse were from Les Clos Perdus near Narbonne, the newly emerging style of wines from Le Soula in Roussillon and the complex wines of Salvo Foti I Vigneri, COS and Arianna Occhipinti from Sicily.  The intense but structurally European wines of Julian Castagna from Victoria, Australia, were a revelation.  The champagnes of Léclapart, Frank Pascal and Tarlant I already knew, and they were all superb, so fascinatingly inspiring and different from the mainstream fair of most of the bigger houses.  The Georgian wines, being heavily promoted right now by the Georgian government, I found had a strangely suppressed fruit and very dusty leathery tannin, but I need to taste them more widely. 

But in the end I am still a natural wine sceptic as I explained in this piece Natural Wine – Chateau Snake Oil? last year.  So here are some issues I’d love to see clarified by those who are interested in this mini movement.

1 Is there any way to satisfy those who complain the ‘rules’ of natural wine are too vague and varied and want an agreed standard set in wine law?  If a standard was set, on total sulphur levels for example, no doubt it would see huge dissension on all sides.  Is labelling of all ingredients the answer?

2  The term ‘Natural Wine’ can seem offensive to many in that it implies the blanket pejorative judgment that everything else is ‘unnatural’ and therefore evil, to be condemned.  

3  I hesitate to say there is a default natural wine style.  But many of the reds in apparently good condition seem simply fruity and then assault you with a bum-clenching hit of tough tannin.  Why should this be?   Is the careful managment of extraction and tannins something natural wine is exempt from?  Is the rustic suddenly now to be put on a pedestal?  Too many of these wines can seem like old style basic country wines from 25 years ago.

4  What is the view on some of the world’s most complex winemaking styles?  Is champagne and champagne method wine to be excluded from being natural wine because the second fermentation in bottle in almost all cases necessitates a selected yeast able to work under very specific and ‘unnatural’ conditions?  You can count the fizz producers on one hand that experiment with indiginous second yeasts.  Equally are the world’s classic very manipulated wines, fortified wines, to be excluded from the natural pantheon because they involve traditionally such complex procedures and unnatural ageing and blending techniques? Natural Port, Madeira and Sherry?

5  Wine made with marginal free sulphur levels and low additions to kill acetic and malolactic bacteria, particularly in warm regions with high pH musts, often demands use of extensive refrigeration and inert gas to keep them stable before bottling and cold transit and storage conditions after.  This has a carbon footprint cost which seems to jar with naturalista theory.  How is the stability / sustainability argument squared?   

6  What is the answer to the argument that naturalistas, trendy though they may be, are in fact deeply conservative and even reactionary, romantically believing there was a golden age when wine was great because it was not mucked about with?  Might it be that fear of science, technology and quality control of large volume winemaking is an illusory wish to turn wine back to a time when most of it was simple and poor? 

7  Isn’t the basic concept of ‘natural wine’ a misunderstanding of nature itself which is a constant flux of decomposition not simply reproduction?  Wine making is a huge intervention against nature in the wild, both in the vineyard and the winery.  Winemaking is always a rational plan to combat and control nature, not simply let it run its course.

8  Apart from asthma sufferers, is there any near-definitive scientific evidence that SO2 at ‘food safe’ levels is fundamentally damaging to health?  I argued last year: ‘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.’

9  What is the naturalista position on oak barrels?  They are certainly traditional and can be a regime for low-tech clarification, fining and the avoidance of high tech filtration.  But used in highly controlled and complex, rather unnatural ways, they can also be methods of micro-oxygenation, flavouring, texture manipulation through lees contact, colour fixing and tannin polymerisation.  How natural is all this?  Are wines made with big barrel regimes not natural?

10  How does natural wine answer the charge that it seems to claim a wine is good or bad by the method used to make it, not what it tastes like?

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