Thursday, August 30, 2012

Natural wine: The critics rage ... but the beat goes on

One of the most debated issues in the wine world today is the validity and viability of the natural wine movement.  The barbs hurled in the direction of its adherents have been both pointed and numerous but they seem to serve only to strengthen the resolve of the beseiged.  I will examine the arguments both for and against natural wines in this post.

According to, "Natural wines are wines that are made without the use of synthetic chemicals in the vineyard and few, if any, additives in the cellar."  According to Jim Fine (Natural Wine: Weird or Wonderful,, natural wine is basically wine as it was produced hundreds of years ago and includes techniques such as organic farming, hand-harvesting, indigenous yeasts, and no additives.

What are the driving forces behind this back-to-the-wine-future movement?  According to Mike Steinberger (Down with the natural wine movement, Slate, 9/24/10), the movement is a backlash against the perception that today's wines are highly manipulated.  By pursuing naturally made wines, adherents are "defending authenticity and artisanship" and rejecting industrial winemaking and its evil spawn "bland homogeneity."  The modern wines do you no harm physically (in moderation, that is); they are just not "holy" enough.  Natural wines are touted as "purer, earthier, and more eco-friendly," arguments that are, according to Steinberger, "philosophic and aesthetic."  The movement took root in France's Loire Valley in the 1970s and France remains the hotbed today with about 400 of its producers embracing this philosophy. 

The biggest problem confronting the proponents of naturalness in wine is the lack of an objective set of standards as to what constitutes natural wine.  As Steinberger notes, there is no: (i) classification for natural wine; (ii) no sanctioning body to say when a wine qualifies; and (iii) no agreement, even among adherents, as to what constitutes natural wine.  For example, some proponents discourage the use of any sulphur dioxide while others say that 10 milligrams/liter should be allowed and still another constituency is lobbyimg for up to 20 milligrams/liter.  Similar disagreements are encountered when the discussions turn to chaptalization, acidification, and yeast-type with some producers seeking flexibility in these areas.  As a matter of fact, the proponents cannot even agree on the nomenclature for the movement; some have deserted the label "natural" for "authentic," "real," and "naked" (Beverly Blanning MW, Natural Wine, TONG #12).

The second significant issue confronting natural wine proponents is perception of wine quality.  According to Fine, natural wines can be "funky" at times with shocking visuals and significant bottle variation due to the embargo against sulphur dioxide and other additives.  Some adherents seek to present this side of natural wine as a virtue.  According to one adherent, "The appeal of natural wines lie not only in the discovery of a new vintage every year, but also in the promise of a beverage so mercurial that every bottle, or every glass, may be unique."

Critics do not quite see things that way.  As a matter of fact, they see the marketing of wines with this level of instability as a form of vinous malpractice.  According to Blanning, by refusing to add sulphur dioxide during production, natural wine producers are making wines that are unstable, faulty, or both. Conventional producers view sulphur dioxide as (i) essential and (ii) beneficial for stability and hygiene and consider it irresponsible to bypass its use.  Natural wine proponents bristle at this characterization.  In an interview with Blanting, Alice Fiering, one of the leading natural wine proponents, described sulphur dioxide as "controlling" and "sucking the life out of wines."  It should be pointed out that there is no scientific basis for such a claim.  It should also be pointed out that Fiering and Robert Parker have clashed repeatedly and publicly over the natural wine issue with Parker basically calling her a charlatan and a knave for "peddling" the natural wine concept.

Benjamin Lewin MW (The shape of things to come, TONG #12) piles on by characterizing wine as a human invention that lies along the path from grape juice to vinegar and, in that regard, as being inherently unnatural.  Based on Lewin's argument, drinking natural wine would require that the wine -- fermented with natural yeasts -- be drunk immediately after fermentation.  Beyond that, human decisions and actions (or lack thereof) aimed at stability constitute intervention.  Lewin points to steps such as encouraging/discouraging malolactic fermentation, chaptalization, acidification, Jesus units, and oak aging as examples of human intervention that can be found at some level in the production of so-called natural wines.

With the large number of powerful critics arrayed against it, why isn't the natural wine phenomena withering away (it is, in fact, growing)?  According to Matt Walls (What the wine trade could learn from natural wines, Matt Walls Wine Blog,, while many of these wines are "challenging, difficult, or downright weird" natural wine has found a market niche relatively easily because it is "cross-cultural, vibrant and funky" and "associated with young people."  Walls talks about the importance of authenticity -- as reflected in product inputs and the story of the human element -- as being very important in the marketing of a number of brands and sees the same principle being applied -- wittingly or unwittingly -- in the natural wine arena where a set of simple, clean ingredients are made into wine by a number of simple, hole-in-the-overall farmers.  Walls compares natural wine to craft beers: authentic, straightforward, inclusive, down to earth; and here to stay.

The concept of natural wines has caused swords to be unsheathed, arrows to be strung, and knives drawn, but is this a case of vinous intolerance.  Has the market spoken but it's call been ignored by the sages in the land?  From time immemorial, small, visionary producers (even if they happen to be backwards-looking visionaries) have gone off and done weird things and time and market forces have been the arbiter of whether the ideas were good or not.  All that I am saying is that we should allow the market to make a determination on natural wines.  I do not particularly like when I cannot see through a glass of wine and the opacity is not a result of the intensity of grape color.  Nor do I revel in funky tastes or bottle variation.  But that is my style in wine. Conventional.  We are always looking to increase the number of wine drinkers and if natural wine is an enabler of that goal, we should acknowledge it as such.  We do not have to embrace it; just don't try to kill it.  The role of the critic in this instance is to compare and contrast within the segment rather than attempting cross-segement comparisons.  If there is a market for natural wine, I say let that market be served.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

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