Back to Nature
What are ‘natural’ wines? And do they matter?
More than a decade ago, I was so fed up with wine, I was ready to jump to cocktails. That year just might have been the pinnacle of new oak usage. Whether inexpensive or high-end, the majority of wines were cloying and boring, smacking of cherry and vanilla, and all one size — jumbo. Delicacy and nuance was lost and very few wines showed their terroir.
What kept me going, however, were the happy exceptions coming from a few stubborn traditional producers and some fresh faces from France. When I realized that these new and the old had commonalities, wines made without artifice, I found my soapbox — natural wines.
Natural wines are made from the ground up (literally). They start with at least organic viticulture to best represent nature and their location. Their vinification is simple —minimal handling and nothing added or taken away, except for a little sulfur at bottling. If ingredient labels were required, many could have one and only one: grapes.
Conversely, conventional wines are made with any number of the 200 or so legal additives including aromatic yeast, bacteria, enzyme, acids, grape concentrate, tannin, oak dust, gum arabic, caramel, anti-foaming agents and gelatin. Sulfur? It is an important preservative, but the naturalist’s way is to, if needed, add a little sulfur, maybe up to 20 parts per million only after the winemaking is over. In conventional wines, sulfur is added in up to 300 parts per million in the US (350 parts per million in Canada) from start to finish.
There is also practice and process. Farming is often mechanical. Fruit is often manipulated by irrigation for extreme flavor. Thermovinification — sterilizing, then heating the grape mash — is available to speed up the process. Reverse osmosis extrudes alcohol, water and sludge so the wine can be reconstituted as desired. A spinning cone — a form of steam distillation — also reduces alcohol. Micro-oxygenation erases a wine’s tannins and often, my interest. Even something as innocuous as temperature control can have an adverse impact, if obsessively used. It can bring about bright fruit, but can dull the finish.
The winemakers who produce wines that continue to intrigue me, however, work to pull back the hand of man. They take the back seat so their fine vineyard work can dazzle in their quest for true terroir wines. All of this seems noble to me, yet as the fame of natural wine has risen, bashing them has become as common as dumping on the Kardashians.
On a recent night, for example, Domaine Dujac’s Jeremy Seysses tweeted, “So please, natural wine enthusiasts, stop serving me brown, oxidized filth while telling me that these wines truly reflect their origins.” What ensued was a Twitter brawl and the tweets flew freely.
In the end, a few star winemakers and sommeliers tweeted, as if thumbing their nose at the natural wine movement, as if it was the enemy.
Seysses might have been stunned to see the crush of enthusiasts at the London Natural Wine Fair in 2011. Before and during the event, the local papers had a dusting of nasty articles about the natural genre of wines. Looking over the 800 or so consumers happily crowding the tables, one journalist who loves this genre of wines, British writer Fiona Beckett who also pens a blog entitled Wine Naturally, observed to me, “It looks like the consumer might be far more ready for them than some of my colleagues.”
Professional wine educators and winemakers who have studied in wine schools might have a harder time with these wines as they have spent a good deal of money on an education that has taught them wines need to be squeaky “clean.” Their wines need to be free of any sheepiness or apple cider nuances. They have also learned that wines come in only three colors, white, red and rosé.
But those not schooled are free to just love them. The other night, a friend of mine was over to dinner. She was not a “natural wine enthusiast,” yet she was transfixed by a wine made by Frank Cornelissen in Sicily. A love-it-or-hate-it, hardcore, no-sulfur-at-any-time-wine, his Mt. Etna MunJebel Bianco routinely gets slammed for being “brown and filthy.” But Audrey was riveted by its orange color, wild tastes and rough texture. Her only problem with it was that she could not stop drinking it.
Once, I was showing Frank Bruni, (the former New York Times dining critic) a Loire wine. It was a no-sulfur wine from Christian Chaussard, etheral yet filled with tart Red Zinger tea character. He burst out laughing and asked, “What the hell is that?” He was so charmed, he bought a case of it the next day. These are the reactions that fuel the enthusiasts and the increasing number of winemakers working in minimalist ways.
Do these wines matter? Authenticity always matters, whether in art, politics or people. To me, they are liquid metaphors, something I kept on thinking about one day in Paris. I arrived on June 14. Five closed restaurants, four cloudbursts and three blisters later, I ended up at the wine bar, Le Garde Robe, nibbling and toasting to the French Revolution with Ludwig Bindernagel’s Cremant de Jura and Thierry Puzelat’s Le Rouillon, made from pinot and gamay. The Le Rouillon was juicy and had the faintest touch of apple cider, something some critics would call a flaw. To me, that touch, in balance, with the velvet and raspberry, was perfect. Wines like those were the reason I stayed drinking wine and persevered as a wine writer.
And if others want to bash them, well, c’est la guerre.