At this moment, I am sitting at my desk, recovering from a low-intervention, natural Gruner-Veltliner-induced hangover headache, propping my head up with my hand and wondering if this is indeed is the hill on which I would like to die?
Do I want one of my first blogs, the words that surely some hipsters will accidentally stumble upon while searching for a cloudy, funky Pet-Nat Rosé, to be a rant about Natural Wines? Am I ready for that kind of drama?
Ah, who am I kidding? No one is going to read this
As long as this is purely an exercise in futility, let’s discuss the world’s trendiest category:
The natural wine movement is more of a movement than wine, more of an idea than a process, more of a dream than a reality.
To summarize, I doubt Natural Wine exists
It’s kind of like Santa Claus. When we are young and naive, we happily believe that a fat man in a red suit jumps down the chimney, stuffs coal down your stocking, and drinks your Riesling (Oh, it’s just milk? That’s fine then). Then you find out it’s just your drunk dad, and the illusion disappears.
Just like the story of Santa Claus found its place in the hearts of every child, the “natty wine” trend found its place amongst pretentious adult children with mustaches and berets.
It’s not all bad, though
Like the old Saint Nick, the movement is based on real things in the wine world and has plenty of positive aspects in the vineyard and the cellar to capture our imagination.
And now, attempting to explain Natural Wines without going down the rabbit hole (fuck)
Getting fruit from organically and biodynamically farmed vineyards is an essential component of natural wine (although not a requirement). The focus, especially with Rudolf Steiner’s biodynamic approach, is to maintain the vineyard’s natural flora and fauna and manage diseases and pests naturally, without causing Mother Earth lasting damage. This process requires an artisan approach from a dedicated vineyard manager/ vigneron. While the biodynamic and organic practices come at a premium- and that fact shows in the cost of every bottle of natural wine- it is a small price to pay to preserve the industry’s (and world’s) future. Hand-picking is also a staple of natural wine. Again, the work is pricey, as labor doesn’t come cheap, especially in California. Yet picking clusters by hand is still the gentlest and best way to harvest.
In the winery
Now, once the grapes enter the production facility, this is where natural wine ideas begin to skew toward dogma. Natural winemaking is “completely hands-off.” There are no additions, fining, filtering, and, notably, no sulfur.
Wines create their SO2 as part of the fermentation process. Therefore, all wines have sulfites. Sometimes it may be necessary to add some additional sulfur compounds to prevent microbial growth and unsavory flavors. Sulfur acts as an antioxidant and is a natural substance that winemakers used since the 15th century. It is beneficial during the bottling process, helping to curb bottle variation. And no, no matter what anyone says, there is
NO definitive proof that sulfur gives you a headache
I am not saying that a winemaker cannot make good wine without sulfur (or any other additions, for that matter). On the contrary, wines made in an oxidative environment (like a barrel) could benefit from fermentation and aging without the addition of SO2. Yet, there is nothing inherently wrong with sulfur or light fining when needed. While it should be used only when required, it is a tool used to improve and maintain quality and does not obstruct the nature of the wine.
As for fining and filtering, both processes have been shown to produce phenomenal wines when done in moderation. Wines don’t need to be fined, filtered, or stabilized. On the other hand, it is not ok when mass wineries push their wines aggressively through filters and strip most of their flavor.
As for additions, there are various things that winemakers can do to assist their wine which natural wine matra restricts. Acts such as acidifying the must (grape juice with or without skins), adding water to reduce alcohol, and protein stabilization can all sound scary. Big producers use them to make wine on “easy mode,” getting a drinkable product regardless of the quality of that year. That is a shame and a fear tactic used by natural wine proponents to convince you to drink wines that taste like feet and cat piss.
I am here to tell you that there is a middle ground here
Wines from quality producers with good vineyards do not require additions
So, to tie this in a neat little bow, I don’t think there is anything wrong with making “no intervention wines” (a synonym for natural wines). I only truly have an issue with natural wines when they are done poorly, carelessly, because of a misguided belief. We should enjoy wine, not use it to express misguided ideology. Simply speaking, I am unwilling to sacrifice the quality of the final wine for an idea, and people who are… are missing the point.
And this brings us to the main issue, which is the people
No one is double-checking the idealistic rhetoric espoused by natural wine fanatics. No scientists are making sure that all is truly natural or safe. This negligence leads to wide swings in quality and inconsistency across producers and even across different bottles of the same producer. Most natural wines are complete unknowns regarding quality. So much for all the talk about understanding what is in your glass or on your plate.
Like anything trendy, there is a rabid fanbase of Natural winos with ideals as pointless as their Salvador Dali mustaches. Natural wines have become a torch for overprivileged and underworked youth who use them to symbolize superiority. The hipster is the encapsulation of privilege of my generation, and natural wines are an extension of that pretension.
“It’s not a bad wine. You just don’t get it” is a fan favorite mantra. No, I get it…and it’s dumb.
I know what you are thinking
I sound like someone in line at a trendy nightclub for hours, just to be turned away at the door. That is certainly not my intention. I am an idealistic person who believes wines must reflect their terroir with as little human intervention as possible. Organic/biodynamic pioneers like Nicolas Joly in Savinnieres and Sylvain Pataille in Marsannay don’t make their wines based on hype. And it shows.
I want to conclude this discussion on something that I have found very interesting
I once met with a natural “winemaker,” who told me that the key to producing natural wines was to “put them in a barrel and let them do their thing.” I’d argue that it is the exact opposite. Sure, to make kombucha-like, funky, barely drinkable natural wine, you can “go with the flow.” But to create a truly natural wine that is delicious, complex, and representative of where it comes from is one of the most challenging things to do in the world of winemaking. And those vignerons who create these works of art year over year, and intervene in the cellar only when necessary, don’t get the respect they deserve.
THAT is the hill I’d like to die on.
Check out this interesting New Yorker article about Natural wine