‘Natural wine’ is a category almost guaranteed to catch the attention of an anthropologist. It is a type of wine that many, if not most, people in the ‘wine world’ agree exists, but they don’t agree on what it is. Some think it pushes boundaries, others think it invokes traditions now sadly lost to modernity, and yet others think it means pretty much nothing. Or pick any combination of the above. To an anthropologist, it is an identity and an ideology as much as it is a type of wine.
But what, from a wine point of view, is this vague thing called ‘natural wine’? Without entering the debate on what is and isn’t natural wine, let me sketch my understanding, and why this is of interest to consumers and others.
Natural wine, at its heart, is about minimal intervention. Ideally, nothing should be added in the grape-growing or wine-making processes. This means that in growing the grapes, sustainable, organic or biodynamic methods are most often used, even if the vineyards aren’t certified as such. In the winery, the yeasts found growing on the grapes are used, rather than commercial yeasts. Fining and filtration – means of clarifying the wine – are out. Any other ‘technological’ approaches to wine-making, whether chaptalization (adding sugar) or reverse osmosis (to remove alcohol) are out. (To be fair, many of these interventions will be regulated by various appellation or other laws.) Even SO2 (sulphur dioxide), used as a preservative in wine, is often used sparingly, if at all. Quite what you are ‘allowed’ to do depends on how radical your stance is.
What does this mean for the consumer? Natural wine, being unfiltered and unfined, will often appear cloudy. In more conventionally produced wine, and in most wine-tasting, this would be considered a fault. Some critics argue that the minimal SO2 makes natural wines unstable, and even potentially dangerous. Supporters would reply that the wine, being a living thing, is in its own way more stable than lifeless, conventionally produced wines.
Taste-wise, things are more complicated. Some people find natural wines off-putting. At a recent tasting we ran in Austria, most of the natural wines were rejected as ‘faulty,’ ‘not ready’ and ‘not healthy’. (Interestingly, they were more tolerant of the natural red than the white or rosé). Since natural wines often fall outside the range of expected tastes – particularly for whites – they can be described as an acquired taste.
There are a number of reasons to be aware of natural wines, even if you don’t like them. One is simply that they are a growing trend in the wine world. They also make you think about what a wine should taste like, and why. Finally (for now), natural wine makers tend to be concerned about the environment and sustainability. They are not the only ones who are, of course, but they are worth paying attention to.
This only scratches the surface of natural wines, but this is an issue I expect to return to, and explore at more depth in the future.
Goode, J. and S. Harrop. 2011 Authentic wine: toward natural and sustainable wine making. Berkeley, University of California Press. A good, well-balanced introduction.
Legeron, I. 2014. Natural wine: an introduction to organic and biodynamic wines made naturally. London, CICO Books. A glossy introduction by a key proponent of natural wine.