In which I weigh in on the whole “natural wine” thing

For a wine to be good, it is neither necessary nor sufficient that it be a so-called “natural wine”.  That is the twitter-length version of this post and if you get it, you may stop reading.  I invite you to read on though, either way.

Natural wine is the latest “thing” in the wine world.  A natural wine might be defined as one that has been made with the fewest possible steps between vine and wine.  Stomp grapes, ferment juice, stick in bottle.  That’s it, sort of, as opposed to the addition of any number of other wine making processes, such as fining or filtration (to make the wine look prettier), adjusting acidity and sweetness levels (to make it taste more balanced), micro-oxygenation (to make the tannins taste softer) the addition of sulphites (to act as a preservative), and so on.

There are many reasons why one may wish to make a wine in this way.  The one that appears to me to have gained the greatest currency is a reaction to the perception that using the techniques listed above has led to a preponderance of boring and homogenous wines conforming to international notions of general pleasantness.  A form of reaction to airbrushed, “Photoshopped” wines, if you like.  A way in to seeing the purest expression of a particular grape or place.

And I’m all for that.  If you can make a better wine, that is individual, tasty, and more reflective of its terroir by not using the above techniques, then that’s great and I’ll be the first to try it, and indeed recommend it. 

But to reiterate: I’m all for it if it results in a better wine.  It seems that the trend of natural wine has caught on amongst some consumers as something that is desirable in and of itself, which is quite wrong.  After all, the winemaking techniques I referred to above were invented for a reason.  Ugly wines, like people, can benefit from a bit of makeup sometimes.  This point seems to have been lost on some people.  A while ago I ate dinner at Duck Soup in Soho (great restaurant by the way – go if you can, but be prepared to queue).  “All the wines are natural” the waitress boasted.  What exactly am I supposed to take from that?  It is just as likely that a natural wine will be a cloudy, cidery, slightly fizzy wine that smells of farts as it will be a textured, minerally wine of gustatory pleasure.

More often than not there is genius in simplicity.  Einstein is reputed to have said that everything should be as simple as it can be, but not simpler.  Precisely.  They didn’t give him a Nobel Prize for nothing.  Same with wine.  Simplicity in the making doesn’t necessarily make it better, and as a consumer you might very well be put on the wrong track by purchasing a wine by reason only that it is promoted as being “natural”.  You might end up with something fantastic, but equally you could end up with something a bit like this:

Here’s a recommendation for a wine that I think achieves the profile that a natural wine would aim for.  It’s the 2009 Domaine Du Cros Marcillac “Lo Sang del Pais”, and it’s about £10 a bottle.  I’ve no idea whether it’s a natural wine or not, and I don’t care.  It’s made from Fer Servadou (the local grape of the Marcillac region), and it has aromas of blackcurrant leaf, pencil shavings and even iron filings in a way I often associate with cabernet franc.  But it also has an added dimension of angular, bony acidity and a savage, rather hard to describe “earthy”, even saline quality.  The furthest thing from commercial, mass produced pap you could imagine.  If you don’t trust my judgment, Jamie Goode (a proper wine writer) recommends it here.  But I can’t help but wonder what those blurry words are in the bottom left hand corner of the photo.  “Contains sulphites” by any chance?

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7 Responses to In which I weigh in on the whole “natural wine” thing

  1. Great post! I’m a producer of natural wine (and of ‘normal’ organic wine too) and you’re dead right about those reasons. Firstly, “a preponderance of boring and homogenous wines conforming to international notions of general pleasantness.” Secondly, to attempt to express my terroir every year as well as possible. Thirdly, to do so in an eco-friendly manner, as sustainably as possible, and without the use of chemicals. But most importantly, to make a “good” wine! Doing all the above is no excuse for making bad wine. I think the only difference is that I wouldn’t attempt to make a good terroir-expressing wine using chemicals because of the environmental issues; and I wouldn’t use intensive intervention techniques because the sense of terroir would be lost. Just being delicious and tasty is not enough for me, I think how the wine got to be delicious and tasty is also important. Loved the video! I happy to say that I’ve never had that reaction when someone has tasted my wines 🙂

  2. A fair analysis. Just thought I’d make a couple of points:

    Lo Sang Del Pais is not a Natural wine, ‘though it is imported by one of this country’s largest importers of Natural wines, as well as other importers. It’s from a co-operative, who are generally ‘low intervention’ but they do sulphur.

    ‘Contains Sulphites’ is a legal requirement on the label of all wines, because sulphites are a by-product of the fermentation process, and some people are allergic to them. This can lead to some wines that proclaim ‘No Sulphites’ as part of the design on the front label, but then also this disclaimer on the back. I have seen some wines where a particular barrel or tank has needed addition of sulphites but others haven’t (this kind of variation is not uncommon with natural fermentations, as you might imagine) the same wine is then sold as two variants in the same vintage- one with sulphites, one without. Similarly many natural winemakers will add different amounts of sulphur to wines destined for different markets. Going down the road to the local bistro the wine will not need sulphites, going half way round the world to a NY restaurant- it will.

    Also a fair amount of the debate regarding the addition of sulphites is slightly misplaced. Some winemakers will think that any addition is wrong and detracts from the wine, but more often you will hear that sulphites are not used at any point in the winemaking process until ‘just before bottling’. This is because sulphiting before fermentation can kill wild yeasts. Personally I would contend that natural fermentations are a more central tenet of Natural wine, than the level of sulphite addition.

    p.s. Great blog- cheers.

  3. Kit Kat says:

    Vinos Ambiz, your wines are beautiful, fresh and alive. Thank you!

  4. Hi Kit Kat, I only just saw your comment now! Thank you so much, I’m so glad you liked it 🙂

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