‘Natural’ has become the latest buzzword in wine, but what does it mean and, more importantly, what does it taste like?
The Natural Wine fair in 2011
In 2011, London importer Liberty Wines emblazoned the first page of its trade list with the words ‘you won’t find any of the so-called natural wines on our list’.
According to David Gleave MW, Liberty’s managing director: ‘It is important to me that a wine expresses the character of the grape and the place in which it is grown. Almost all of the natural wines that I have tasted have this expression marred by one fault or another.’
Gleave is not alone in his reservations. Critic Tim Atkin MW recently wrote in his blog, ‘natural wine lovers do seem to be indulgent of faults… that have nothing to do with good winemaking or terroir.’
So what exactly is natural wine? Where did it come from, why does it elicit such strong reactions and is it a passing fad or does it really have a future?
Today the natural wine scene is exploding. According to Sylvie Augereau, a wine journalist and author of the natural wine guide book Carnet de Vigne, there are about 400 natural wine producers in France alone, ‘and if you include those who make the odd cuvée, perhaps double that number’.
Natural wine fairs are now two-a-penny: France and Italy have a handful, and the UK this year got one of its own, The Natural Wine fair.
There are natural wine producers as far afield as the US and New Zealand, as well as in lesser-known regions such as Slovenia, Georgia and Serbia. Paris, New York, San Francisco and Tokyo are mad about the movement and London is now close on their heels.
Given current media hype, natural wine might seem like the new kid on the block and, in the sense of a movement gathering momentum, that’s true.
Natural wines themselves, however, have existed since time immemorial. When wine was first made 8,000 years ago, it was not made using packets of yeasts, vitamins, enzymes, Mega Purple, reverse osmosis, cryoextraction or powdered tannins – some of the many additives and processes used in winemaking worldwide.
The wines of these bygone days were natural: they were made from crushed grapes that fermented into wine.
The natural wine movement
The natural wine movement, however, is a relatively new phenomenon. There is no single individual to whom the movement is attributable; instead, dozens of people contributed to the consciousness that ballooned as winemaking and viticulture became increasingly industrialised.
Among the earliest visionaries were agriculturalists such as Austria’s Rudolph Steiner and Japan’s Masanobu fukuoka, and wine gurus like Burgundy’s Jules Chauvet.
They were followed more recently in the 1970s and ’80s by producers Favard (Bordeaux), Gravner (friuli), Joly (Loire), Lapierre (Beaujolais), Laughton (Australia), Maule (Veneto) and Overnoy (Jura), to name a few.
Each turned their backs on conventional agriculture. Their philosophies inspired others, causing ripples of interest in their respective ponds. Soon other growers followed suit. The natural wine web was born.
Though a worldwide phenomenon, most winemakers advocating a return to the vineyard (away from the processing and manipulation of technology) are located in the ‘Old World’ hubs of France and Italy.
This, to biodynamics consultant Monty Waldin, who has made wine in both Europe and the New World, is hardly surprising. ‘New World wines succeeded on the back of technology – specifically long, cool, temperature-controlled fermentations, often in huge metal tanks for fruit-driven wines… natural winemaking is the complete opposite.
‘New World wineries were technology-driven from the word go,’ adds Waldin, ‘because they lacked experience, and strategies revolved around intervention in the vineyard and winery to eliminate risk.’
This is key. The importance of history and tradition in Old World wine heritage is in the fact that it emerged before the days of advanced technology – vineyards had to solve problems using natural know-how, as neither machinery nor additives had even been invented.
We have lost perspective
While advancements in technology and winemaking science mean we now understand wine in a way in which our ancestors might not have, we do seem to have lost perspective.
Rather than use science to produce wines with as little intervention as possible, we use it to gain absolute control over every step of the process – from growing the grapes to making the wine itself. Very little is left to nature. This is this key factor that sets natural growers apart from all the rest.
Natural growers make a panoply of wines, but all share a similar outlook: nurturing biodiversity while embracing and observing nature, rather than fighting to control it. ‘Vines grown for the long term on a soil with a healthy and diverse microbiology will have a more balanced life and will be able, when necessary, to rely on their own immune system to fight off disease,’ says Jean-Pierre Amoreau of Château Le Puy in Côtes de Francs, which has been organic since its beginnings 400 years ago.
So how then does natural wine differ from ‘organic’ or ‘biodynamic’ bottlings? According to Alexandre Bain, Pouilly-Fumé’s only natural wine producer, ‘organic and biodynamic are the tools, natural is the philosophy.’
However, in Europe today these tools essentially govern practices in the vineyard rather than the winery. By contrast, natural wines extend this philosophy into the cellar, and are far stricter about what is and isn’t permitted.
Low intervention in the cellar
They are all about low intervention in the cellar. There is, for example, no rectification of sugars or acidity, no addition of yeasts and no removal of excess dilution in a wet vintage. They are as nature intended: a frank representation of a piece of land in a particular year.
As regulations stand, organic and biodynamic accreditation bodies are primarily concerned with regulating the use of synthetic chemicals in the vineyard, rather than additives in the winery.
For example, the UK branch of biodynamic-certifying body Demeter allows commercial yeast strains to be added to wines to kick-start fermentation.
This is a definite no-no in natural wine circles. Instead, all the components necessary to start and complete fermentation and give balance and complexity to a wine must come from the vineyard itself.
As Nicolas Joly from La Coulée de Serrant puts it ‘to achieve zero technology in the cellar, you need to be an artist in the vineyard’.
The only additive used by some natural wine growers is the controversial SO2. Under EU law, maximum total sulphite levels permitted in a bottle of wine are 150mg/litre, 200mg/l and 400mg/l for red, dry white and sweet wines respectively.
Organic and biodynamic certifying bodies are a little more stringent, but natural wine is the strictest of all, with most producers averaging under 30mg/l for reds, 40mg/l for whites and 80mg/l for sweet wines (according to the Association des Vins Naturels). Some growers use none at all.
This lack of additives is claimed by natural wine proponents to be a boon for wine drinkers, as anecdotal evidence suggests that natural wines induce fewer side effects than their conventional counterparts.
There are people who have rediscovered wine thanks to additive-free bottles. What’s more, Roger Corder, professor of experimental therapeutics at the William Harvey Research Institute at Barts Medical School in London, is concerned by some additives used in wine. Because of a lack of research, ‘we have no idea about the consequences of some of these on our health.’
Detractors say that natural is often an excuse for poor winemaking. But then, what is the definition of a ‘fault’? Paul Old from Les Clos Perdus, a natural wine producer in the Languedoc, says ‘making great wine is to flirt with fault’.
Noticed. But the issue of where the fault/quality line lies seems to confuse the debate. Cloudy or not cloudy; oxidative or not oxidative… these traits are not requirements of a wine’s being natural.
There are natural wines that exhibit these characters and there are many that don’t. Honing in on specifics in this way is unhelpful since drinkers often (incorrectly) apply such judgments to the category as a whole, which is a shame – even the most ardent critics still find natural wines that they love.
Fine natural wines are vibrant and alive, and show excitingly diverse personalities that are full of emotion.
How to prove it
So if they taste great, are environmentally sound and may even be healthier than conventional wine, why the controversy?
The main issue is accreditation. There is none. As Jem Gardener of Vinceremos, a specialist organic wine shop in Leeds, points out, ‘we are expected to take it on trust… that they are using natural methods and ingredients. I’d love this to be sufficient, but I fear in this world it isn’t’.
Any grower can call himself natural. Whether or not he is comes down to his own integrity. Natural wine associations in Europe are attempting to rectify the situation with quality charters, and are working towards a common definition.
Accreditation would certainly help natural wine be taken more seriously.
Wine is one of the few food industries not regulated by labelling laws. As we become increasingly aware of what we eat, it seems bizarre that we are not yet asking the same questions of what we drink.
We celebrate unpasteurised, stinky Epoisses for its uniqueness, and fresh apple juice for its cloudiness, yet we insist on wine that is sterile and consistent, regardless of how it was grown or made.
It seems that we are asking the wrong questions. Rather than focusing on particular flavour profiles, let’s ask how much manipulation is justified and at what cost?
When you taste wines by the likes of Le Casot des Mailloles in Banyuls or Domaine de Fontedicto in the Languedoc, which both make beautiful examples with no additives at all, it does make you wonder: if they can manage it, why can’t everyone else?
Natural wines have blown open the debate about wine’s authenticity and transparency; that alone is cause for celebration.
Written by: Isabelle Legeron MW
Is this the earliest recorded flame war between wine geeks?
A searing debate raged in France from the mid-17th to mid-18th century between the Universities of Reims and Paris.
Guy-Crescent Fagon и Louis XIV
It all started with a change in Louis XIV’s Royal Physician in 1693. The previous Royal Physician, Antoine d’Aquin, was a fervent promoter of the wines of Champagne. The new Royal Physician, Guy-Crescent Fagon, made clear there would be no more Champagne, and that it would instead be Burgundy that would be used as a vehicle while administering quinquina infusions to Louis XIV. You may recognize quinquina, or chicona bark, as a source of quinine — a modern day ingredient of tonic water and a whole host of liqueurs, which has retained its reputation as a treatment for fever and malaria.
Fagon was seeking to remedy Louis XIV’s fevers. And once Monsieur Fagon had pushed Champagne off the royal table, each town’s university medical department became engaged in a century-long battle to prove — trading blows, via graduate theses — whether the wines of Burgundy or the wines of Champagne (which were not yet sparkling) were superior.
And it got really dirty, really quick.
After a first shot fired during an earlier thesis in 1652, in which Monsieur Arbinet capriciously held that “because the wine of Beaune was the most pleasant, it is also therefore most healthful”, things heated up much later in May 1700, when a retort by Monsieur Le Pescheur was defended at the University of Reims, contending that the wine of Reims is superior to Burgundy.
Finally, we have a third shot fired when, unable to stomach Pescheur’s thesis, Monsieur de Salins’ document is written only a few months afterward in November 1700: his Défense du vin de Bourgogne contre le vin de Champagne, the subject of this article, first reprints a selection of Monsieur Le Pescheur’s pro-Champagne thesis, then tries to refute it, returning all the nasty jabs with the fiery, hateful force of a modern wine geek.
How does one substantiate a perfectly subjective claim such as ‘X wine is better than Y?’ Why, with whackadoodle pseudo-science, that’s how! Humors, phlegm, tartar, essential salts, an obsession with “purity”, and all sorts of hysterical 17th century biochemical chicanery.
The 23 page manuscript is so disarmingly entertaining.
Excerpts from Monsieur Le Pescheur’s Slightly Nasty Pro-Champagne attack:
“One typically praises wine’s color, odor, taste, consistency, ageworthiness, and the terroir within which it grows; as nature has its favorite places for production: when all of this is eminently visible in wine, it is impossible to refuse it its laurels. In the Kingdom [of France], only the wines of Reims and Burgundy compete for primacy.
The color of the wine of Reims is so vivid that the purest diamond couldn’t shine brighter before one’s eyes, sometimes the red is so vermilion and so full of fire that one might mistake it for distilled rubies. It is the union of these two colors which forms that which we know as the oeil de perdrix [the eye of the partridge], which is no less pleasant to look at even if it does not have as much brilliance.
The wine of Burgundy draws upon the dried rose, and shows at the edges of the glass some odd mix of yellow and orange which represents a sort of rainbow, especially once it begins to age: in regards to odor, it has none at all, or only a burnt exhalation which burns the organ and smells of the ruddy3 and mineral earth of the country, or of its burnt stones4; on the contrary, the wines of Reims possess much more subtle and volatile particles, because they grow in a light, delicate soil, exhaling an odor so pleasant that the nose is always perfumed before one tastes it, such that one might call it the very charm and delicacy of this sense.
The final verdict: The wine of Reims is more pleasant and healthful than the wine of Burgundy.”
Excerpts from M. De Salins’ Incredibly Nasty Pro-Burgundy reply:
“(…) I ask you, sir, if there could be a finer soil, orientation, and exposition to the sun anywhere in the world than those of the wines of Beaune, Pommard, and Volnay? Is it permissible for the best climates of Champagne to even approach them? Removed as they are from the Equinoxial Circle by three degrees and a few minutes (latitude), and thus possessing much less sun and warmth, which renders wines little more than the cadettes of our own, far from any right to claim superiority, which up to now causes the greatest and most objective connoisseurs to say: The wine of Reims is thin, not quite wine-flavored, and acid, which, like most other white wines, has the strength to make urine, but very little to nourish & to warm.” And so on…
So how did this war conclude?
After Louis XIV died slowly and painfully of a gangrene in his leg which he had ignored, Fagon was removed from power — standard protocol upon a king’s death. His successor, Phillippe II, became obsessed with sparkling Champagne.
Champagne exports surged in the coming decades15 — and once bottle and cork technologies improved, by the early 19th century the sparkling wine as we know it greeted world markets. Champagne’s market dominance over Burgundy soon became a foregone conclusion.
Internationa Wine Challenge 2015, London
I did not plan on writing on this matter but the guys from Apollowine got interested to hear more about. Yana Petkova has already elaborated on how wines are judged at the International Wine Challenge London. As my impressions from my second year of judging in IWC last week are still fresh, I will write a few notes.
IWC tastings last a fortnight where the wines are judged. Shortly after trophies are awarded. The way of judging is fascinating. Every single wine has all the chances of winning a medal. For objectivity the wines are valued by different teams. Each wine is tasted at least twice and the five chairmen of the IWC would have the last word if consensus is not previously achieved.
All judges are standing while tasting. It may look exhausting, but the whole process is so consuming that it is barely an issue, unless on high-heels (there are some high-heels masters though). A tasting panel goes on two tables. The one of them is always served and ready for the next flight. Thus any pouring, unloading and distraction by the staff is avoided.
These are some amazing and funny days of tasting wines from around the world, meeting some old as well as new fellows tasters, writers, critics and winemakers.
Along with the pleasant emotions, sometimes come disappointments. This year I had a flight with 8 Portuguese red wines, 4 of which went down unworthy of a medal. Despite the young vintage 2012, they have gone bad, oxidised, no “nose” and taste. I am still wondering why somebody bothered sending samples…
It is always fun at the IWC…
Last (my first) year in IWC, my task was to find my first gold medal wine (a requirement for all the rookies). I was supposed to do this at an early stage, in the very beginning of the competition whereas all the wines were judged if they are worthy of a medal. I had to discover that particular wine and write detailed tasting notes. In addition, I needed to back up my choice. Then the very same wine is tasted at least twice more, including the five chairmen. Unfortunately I felt like there was not a single impressive wine at all. At the end of the tasting day I had a flight of unoaked Spanish whites, with one exception. Although, I am pretty fastidious about oaked white wines, I was impressed by this exception. It was a blend of Viura, Malvasia and Garnacha Blanca and it received my gold medal. A wine with medium (-) acidity levels, pronounced flavours derived from the oak and a lot of fruit, finesse and balance though. This was Camino del Monte White Reserva, 2009 by Grupo Baron de Ley. It sales at £ 15 RPR and is not easy to find.
Finally, if I have to draw a general conclusion from my experience in judging at the International Wine Challenge, the trend is toward more elegant and delicate wines, not over-loaded and over-extracted high-alcoholic bombs.
Recently, a friend of mine, Dimitar from ApolloWine, broached a topic, which is a question of present interest and accents on the evolved label of the Bulgarian wine.
You can read the whole article HERE.
I totally agree with him! As the Bulgarian wine production has improved in the recent years, and it should if it wants to compete on the international wine market, so has the vision and package become better looking. A label typical for the past communist times, that of a wine called “Bear’s Blood”, is hard to find anymore. The credits go to Jordan Zhelev and Stefan Gyonev, designers of wine labels in Bulgaria.
Now, the producers try to present their wines better. They admit that many new customers are drawn by the wine label and/ or the shape of the bottle. Whether it would be an extravagant and easy-reading label (easy for the mass consumer to understand) or distinguished and possibly a little complicated (appreciated mostly by wine connoisseurs) is up to the marketing department. Moreover, I cannot hide my frustration with the fact that in a very typical Balkan-orienthal style, we have gone overboard with the modernization of some wines- many now resemble the look of vodka, whiskey, beer or even go as far as a shampoo and are respectively advertised by shiny dolls (with hair extensions and duck lips) on billboards and buildings. My apologies to the colleagues from INSEEC! NO FURTHER COMMENT!
I find it necessary here to point to the contrast with the world of the traditional wine makers and their marketing efforts; this cannot be overlooked – somеbody would ask why most of the French, Italian and German wine labels do not change, keep the same traditional look with gothic letters, maybe only a little stylised?! All that is because of the centuries – old traditions in winemaking in those countries and specific regions, plus well established wines on the world market – things that still do not exist in Bulgaria. I wouldn’t go that far in discussing the Bulgarian wine regions and how and where certain producers buy grapes from.
Obviously, there are more and more wine producers emerging in Bulgaria, but I believe a man is born creative enough and well able to make something new and different, if they want it badly enough. However, it is always easier to copy & paste something that already exists. It depends on the mentality of the winery owner or marketing manager and how they want to present themselves, plus the message they want to deliver.
0My personal opinion is that a man can be inspired from a logo, crest, sign, and still exhibit creativity, developing the idea, using his imagination, and in doing so respect the inspiration (inspirer), rather than duplicating it all. This would likely save them much embarrassment, long letters exchanged between lawyers of big world renowned brands and sarcastic notes like: “Look there is a Masseto here! Oh, I’m sorry. They just copied the label”, or “I would like to order a bottle of Angelus, but the Bulgarian one, not that French with that bell on the label”, etc.
Sounds very idealistic, doesn’t it…?!
Lately in Bulgaria writing about wine has become the NEW thing, the next fashionable endeavor. I call this a “wine modernism”. Starting this blog, I guess I am taking part in it, but I believe I have deeper intentions than just being on the arena. Hesitations have appeared and continue to do so but I thought the right time would never come!
Although I am involved in the industry as a wine producer, I will do my best to sound as objective as possible. Can’t promise it though… The particular preferences and taste would certainly bring a dose of subjectivity and in a way make everything very personal. So, I reckon the painting will be much influenced by my understanding, emotions and interpretation of everything about wine.
I am definitely not starting this blog affected by the very common howlers in Bulgaria like “Chablis is a french grape variety” or “Barbaresco wine is made from the Chianti grape”. I rather think, the main idea behind this blog is sharing my modest experience and knowledge, and adding these to the general knowledge about wine in Bulgaria. For many years there has been a lack of competence about the wine, the world of wine, the wine worldwide. Either in the specialty stores or in the restaurants. This is what has urged me to start writing about the wine in Bulgaria, whether Bulgarian or imported. I will focus on things like why I drink wine, why I appreciate it, how I approach it, styles of wine, trends, etc. I am hoping to move the general idea about wine a little forward by provoking both, those involved with the industry for a long time and also the Bulgarian wine consumer.
Somebody would say “That is too much…”. Well, I am blogging for those of you who are interested in the details of this matter. I am not planing on tasting wines, giving scores, etc. But who knows…
Well… That is a good start, i reckon.