Natural Wines…Why Controversial for Some?

I have wondered why natural wines have, at least, in my view a vocal minority of opposition.   I was at a conference last year and a fellow participant said to me “Natural wines are B*(#*@!” I asked what he meant by that specifically…. I didn’t get an a rational response. He was quite perturbed by the thought of natural wines.

I think there is another large pie slice of wine interested people who don’t’ have an opinion, another pie slice that is neural and lastly those that like or love natural wines.

Another comment I heard at a conference this year was another vociferous voice that used a less than savory description that natural wines smell and I was turned off by the comment.

I think there is no specific agreement on what natural wine are—as one producer might use one or two or many natural wine techniques and may or may not call their wine a natural wine.

Wikipedia’s entry does not help clarify the state of natural wine:

“Natural wine made without chemical and minimum technological intervention in growing grapes and making them into wine. ….to distinguish…from organic wine and biodynamic wine because of differences in cellar practices……”  The first paragraph goes on a bit more and tries to re-clarify itself and needs to be more clearly written.

So I could take away (from the above) that a natural wine can be from convention wine grape production; doesn’t need to be organic or biodynamic and yet the beginning sentence is in contradiction to the second.

Here is what I have heard producers say about natural wines and I paraphrase:

  • Our wines are natural because we use organic grapes
  • We observe biodynamic practices
  • We use a minimal amount of sulfites
  • We use no sulfites….

I think many wine customers want, of course, well constructed wines… and if asked organic grapes, biodynamic farming practices would be either preferred or required…. But asking about minimal sulfites to no sulfites begins the problems.   Many people blame sulfites for a whole host of difficulties when they drink wine with sulfites. Yet sulfite-free wines are certainly a rare feature of many wines today. There are very few truly on the market place when compared to the conventional set of wines. If we talk about no sulfites in wine still does not eliminate sulfites entirely and that is because there are trace amounts in wine regardless (it is what nature does).  When we talk about low sulfite usage what does that really mean? It may mean just trying to decrease total amount entered into wine or truly may negate the reason to put them into the wine in the first place or just a desire to reduce to a very minimal level.

Other thoughts and considerations that may define what is a natural wine:

  • Wild yeast ferment
  • A clay vessel
  • Hand picked
  • Sometimes dry farming
  • No manipulation for acidity
  • No other manipulations such as micro-oxygenation
  • No additives
  • Minimally touched and transported
  • Minimal irrigation/no irrigation
  • No fining or filtering

So a wine may contain some of the above points, all, or additional or even possibly none and still a producer may call their wine a natural wine. I do think it is important to understand the topic and even have an industry standard that is not dictated by government regulators. There are some specific country-by-country associations that have definition and certifications but what is potentially good for one country could be mute in another.

And If I can compare this to the terms “Reserve” and “Old Vine.” There is no consensus for the use of “Reserve” or “Old Vine” labeling on a bottle and it is still approved by TTB without any reservations. I always ask a producer what makes their wine a reserve or an old vine wine (how old are the vines)? A little touchier is what is an Organic wine in the US… no sulfites as approved by the US Department of Agriculture versus the TTB (the standard label approver).  And yet some producers consider their wine organic if they use organic grapes and use sulfites.

I see the terms “reserve” used way too often on producer labels when I doubt the wines are truly reserve. For me, I associate reserve to mean: best blocks of wine grapes, grapes sorted, extended barrel aging and later releases.  I have seen several producers who only produce “reserve” wines for $9.99 a bottle….

I have heard producers tell me that their Old Vine Zinfandel is 20 years old or another producer say they use 100-year-old vines. And even some producers average out the “old vines.”  I think a consumer might think of something older than 50 years old being an old vine… or is it 60? Or 70? when it might be much less than that.

Wine merchants can play a good partner to the wine buying public who can hand sell and ultimately help to create a handshake between consumer to producer by providing knowledge to consumer and meeting their need and requirements.

****

I don’t advocate a government body to regulate on the natural wine definition. And yet it is about the consumer – what is it that they are seeking and even what they expect a natural wine to be. I do think there could be one system or non-profit body to administer on what a natural wine label could be.

I do view it important for a more coherent message as it is the consumer who have specific needs that they want met—no additional sulfites, organic grapes, no added sulfites or even no animal product utilizing in the wine making process. I think a good wine merchant will educate their customers as well as producers and, of course, I think wine consumers like any other category attempt to education themselves so that they are getting the product they truly want.

I don’t get heavy handed about what is a natural wine… I also don’t get bothered by the term or even the wine; I enjoy natural wines. Like the wines I love –I prefer to balance on this subject of natural wines. By shooting down a whole category is not just dismissing the wines but if someone is a wine writer/reviewer or somm then harm to producers through decreased sales.

I am surprised to hear someone say that natural wines are B*(#*@! – that to me is a bit too strong and I hear anger.  Some people in the wine community have very strong passions but ultimately I don’t think I could get to this level. I actually want to enjoy the positive aspects of wine and really nurture the natural.

While there are many definitions of natural wine and there is a state of perfection by some wine writers, reviewers, educators and somms for the perfect definition–perfection is a slippery slope of never finding the answer.   As an analogy: there are many ways to convey a thought through a sentence. The beauty of language is that we have options and there is often no one right way…. And this comparator applies to natural wines.

I think if someone doesn’t like natural wine ….well there are plenty of convention wines to drink. For me, I won’t get hot and bothered about natural wines…instead I’ll enjoy them for the rustic palette experience and appreciate the wine.

Santé,

James

James the Wine Guy

Demystifying Wine…One Bottle at a Time from all wine regions around the world.

Wines courtesy of producer.

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Comments

2 Comments so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. This was a really nice post. I don’t think I began to truly appreciate the differences until I began small batch wine making. From the purpose behind the chemicals, to fruit selection, the clarification (or not) – the processes involved are pretty varied depending on what you want as the final product. I think I care more about the farming techniques on the land then what happens during the vinification process itself.

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