“Natural” wine

The other day Jamie Goode @jamiegoode, a wine journalist for whom I have a great deal of respect, tweeted “Why is natural wine so divisive? Lots of people enjoy drinking them. There are many that are profound. No reason to get upset.”  My knee-jerk reaction would have been to reply “There’s no such thing” but rather than try to have a discussion 140 characters at a time, I thought I might put together what I intend to be a more thoughtful response.

[He has since posted an article as well, though I wrote this post before I saw it.]

Let me start by saying that I judge wine first and foremost by what’s in the glass, and I encourage producers to use whatever methods they think will result in the best wine.  When it comes to wines described as “natural”, I have enjoyed some a great deal and others I have enjoyed much less, but that is also true of wines in general, irrespective of how they are made.

When it comes to the term “natural” however, I do have some opinions.  I think it is neither a useful nor appropriate term to adopt for the non-interventionist approach to winemaking.  Even before the term became something of a movement in the context of wine, it had been completely devalued by its use with regards to food in general – see Cheetos for details.  The way the term is used to describe wine is no more useful than with food as there is no definition or regulatory organization.  Anyone can describe their wine as “natural”, irrespective of their viticultural or vinification practices.  Given the proliferation of “natural” on food labels, there is little reason to believe won’t happen with wine should consumers favour wines so labelled.

If that’s why the term “natural” isn’t useful, why is it inappropriate?  Start to finish, wine is not a natural product.  The vineyards where I work contain two types of fruit – blackberries and grapes.  The blackberry bushes appear randomly across the property, grown from seeds dispersed by animals, and producing fruit each season for anyone who braves the prickles.  I think “natural” is a fair description of the bushes and their fruit.

On the other hand, the grapevines are specifically selected clones, grown from clippings, with thousands of genetically identical vines set in neat rows, densely spaced, and carefully pruned over each season.  There is nothing natural about how the vines were cloned, planted, and cultivated.  If blackberries are the equivalent of free range eggs, grapes for wine are the product of battery caged hens.

With regards to the winery, if wine were a “natural” product, there would be no winery, because there would be no need to “make” the wine.  It’s romantically been said that wine is made in the vineyard, but the baskets, bins and trucks that turn up at wineries each vintage contain grapes, not wine.  Even the least interventionist winemaking starts at the harvest and continues through crushing and pressing, none of which could be considered natural processes by any stretch of the imagination.

Am I being too literal, or worse, pedantic, since that is how vines have been cultivated and wine produced for millennia?  For those who think the term “natural” should mean whatever they want it to mean, undoubtedly.  But really, this whole controversy is about terminology.  Winemakers should always be free to make their wines by whatever methods they choose.  However, when they hypocritically label those practices as “natural” they’re not only being dishonest, they’re also disparaging producers not using those methods by establishing the dichotomy of “natural” versus “unnatural”.  That is the root of this issue as far as I’m concerned.  No producer should object if their neighbour refrains from using SO2 or cultured yeast, because it’s up to consumers to decide which wine they want to drink.  However, it’s unacceptable for anyone to call their practices “natural” when they are so clearly not, and worse to the tar fellow winemakers as “unnatural” by comparison.


2 thoughts on ““Natural” wine

  1. It’s fine to question the term ‘natural’, but what term then do you think should be used to describe wine that has been produced with far fewer chemicals? It’s disingenuous simply to protect your own position without suggesting a constructive alternative. It’s a rather unreconstructed point of view to say that the only thing that matters is the taste in the glass – are you saying you don’t care that it may well be swimming in unhealthy and unnecessary chemicals? I would rather consume fewer chemicals and have to work harder to find a good wine – and enjoy the pleasure of a new dimension to the wonderful world of wine.

  2. First off, thank you so much for your comment. As to terms, I am torn between something that I think is more accurate like “minimal intervention winemaking” which is vague enough to describe most of the adherents and practices, and something which can be imbued with meaning like “real” that I think has worked well for CAMRA in the UK with the Campaign for Real Ale.
    I’m sorry if I’m out of step for only caring about the taste in the glass but I can’t reconcile being concerned about health issues with consuming alcohol. If I think something is overly hazardous I won’t drink/judge it, but generally I check my concerns at the door in terms of consuming alcoholic beverages. Alcohol is so incredibly destructive that I think the non-alcoholic health risks that all manner of wine presents to those who enjoy it (beyond the obvious) outweigh the dangers of introduced chemicals, and therefore I am happy to hazard their risks. And rather than try to audit every winery as far as how healthy their wine might be, I’ll stick to what’s in the glass.

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