Firstly, let’s take a look at what natural wine actually is. While the term is not standardised, and there is no universal agreement on how it should be used, the principle is clear: it is used for wines made with minimal intervention. So in principle, the grapes are grown with no artificial fertilisers or pesticides, and in the winemaking nothing is added to the grapes or removed, and there is no new-fangled winery technology. Here are some of the more important practices that distinguish natural from more conventional winemaking:
- No chemical-factory vineyard treatments, apart from the traditional sulphur and copper sulphate
- No bought-in yeasts
- Minimal additions of sulphur in the winery, or none at all
- No chaptalisation or acidification
- Minimal fining and filtering, or none at all
So far, so unremarkable. But of at least equal importance is that natural wine has become something of a movement, with hip winemakers, jazzy wine labels with provocative names, and trendy natural wine bars, riding the wave of concern for the environment and free-from foods. All this has ruffled the feathers of more conservative members of the wine establishment, who poo-poo natural wines, pointing out that they are the faulty products of poor winemaking.
I present all of the above with no comment. I just want to give an impression of what natural wines are, and how they have polarised opinion, in some circles at least. Now for the two penn’orth from me. From my experience with wines that are marketed as natural, they do seem to have distinctive flavour profiles. That factor alone is for me a big positive. Unless a wine style threatens to kill off other ones, and that is hardly yet the case with natural wine, it only serves to offer choice – no one is forced to drink natural wine. I personally would definitely chose to do so, occasionally at least, if only for the additional fun it contributes to my wine-drinking. And if you want to do it as a life-style choice, well there are worse options.
With natural wine being so vaguely defined, and also allowing for all the different grapes varieties, wine regions and producers, you will understand there is quite a lot of variation between natural wines. I agree to an extent with some of their detractors about wine faults – I think natural wines do tend to show off-flavours more commonly than conventional wines. But such wines are still in the minority, and I am of the view that these so-called faults are generally a good thing because they add interest. Or to put it another way, if I like a wine I do not care that other people chose to say it is faulty.
Without wanting to generalise, other features you might find in red natural wines are sharpness, astringency and vibrant fruit. The whites often suggest apple to me. Yes, sometimes the over-ripe apple flavours of oxidation, but crunchy fresh apples more often than not. They can also often gain interesting leesy characteristics from the sediment. And look out for the orange wines, much beloved of some natural wine producers, with their phenolic flavours and often high astringency. If you are old enough to remember carbolic soap, you might think the phenolic nature of these wines is a nod in that direction. Don’t let it put you off though, as it will be the merest of nods. Natural wines can also just taste like, er, well, wine – the common or garden unnatural stuff.
Another objection is that natural winemaking obliterates terroir and varietal typicity, with the result that it all tastes alike. We can right away knock on the head the idea that all natural wines taste alike: they simply do not. And to the extent that some wines might seem to taste similar, could it possibly be that we have not yet allowed our palates to tune into the styles? As a community, wine enthusiasts have invested a lot of time learning to spot more-or-less subtle differences in conventional wines. I suggest that natural wines need a bit more consideration before we declare that there is no terroir and varietal typicity. We might have to accept that they have different types of typicity, but is that so bad? Even if they turn out to have no typicity whatsoever, is it really such a disaster?
I actually have a suspicion that some aspects of natural wines are only indirectly related to their so-called natural methods of production, for example that the sharpness and astringency is actually due to harvesting the grapes when they are less ripe. So we might eventually find conventional wines changing to mimic natural ones. If I am honest, I think I would like that to happen. Even if I like natural wines themselves, there is a lot of ideology in the natural wine movement I do not get along with. This is exemplified by the use of the word natural itself, as if somehow natural wine makes itself and is uniquely healthful, all other wines being industrial chemical abominations. Of course, the truth is much more nuanced.