Nature or nurture? An introduction to natural wine philosophy.

The last fifteen years have seen the meteoric rise of the ‘return-to’ movement. A return to sustainable agricultural practices, small time arts and crafts producers and locally sourced foodstuffs. The movement has something of a nostalgic air to it, the idea that simpler is often better and that there is an honesty in the toil of the traditional, local craftsman. It’s a philosophy that has influenced politics, fashion and particularly food, and in doing so has made some striking headway into foods’ great friend: wine.

We’ve probably all heard about natural wine. It’s a strange concept in my mind; wine is hardly natural. Fermentation as a process? Yes, but the wine that we drink? Not really. Anybody who has been to a winery will know that beneath the glamour and mystique – that peculiar ‘rustic yet refined’ veneer that is attached to makers of luxury products – making wine is essentially manufacturing. Nonetheless, natural wine has spawned a great slew of other such terms, nouns preceded with honest, morally clean, Greenpeace-ian adjectives – ‘wild yeast’ or ‘indigenous yeast’ (yeast is particularly guilty) or ‘low-intervention viticulture’. What do these buzzwords mean? Lots of things, in the case of natural wine. As of yet, it has no definition.

As with the ‘return-to’ movement as whole, the boom in the natural wine scene started as something of a counterculture initiative, a backlash against the big boys making oceans of wine with little to identify one from another. Part of this miserable homogony was down to the uniformity of the winemaking itself, a process likened best perhaps to following a recipe. The vines were pumped with chemicals to mitigate disease and improve ripening, the grapes were picked not when they were ready but when they were required, then crushed, fermented, fined, oaked, bottled, done. Rinse and repeat. Season throughout with enthusiastic lashings of SO2 (sulphur dioxide) and pump mercilessly with fining agents to remove any of those unattractively cloudy (and perhaps tasty) bits of grape gunk. The resultant product would be cheap and fruity with mass market appeal, and anything but interesting. Such wines could be made anywhere in the world and taste the same, and it was this sense of ‘placelessness’ that so angered those first few rebels.

It’s an interesting feature of the natural wine revolution in that it isn’t progressive so much as reactionary, almost conservative in its refusal to do things. If terroir were a book or a flag, it would be this movements book or flag. Instead it’s an idea, and an old one at that, floating in an extremely grey zone between the worlds of science, mystique and marketing. The discussion of what terroir is and what it means is itself article-worthy, but in its vinous essence it can be summarised thus; wine is of a place, and is influenced by that place. The natural wine rebels have taken this idea and turned it into an ideology; wine is of a place, and should taste of that place. Let the wine speak of the vine speak of the vineyard – man is a mere shepherd guiding the flock to bottle.

In practice then, this means minimising human input throughout the process. The natural wine movement is generally concomitant with that of sustainable viticulture, and at the extreme end, biodynamic viticulture. The focus is on creating – or indeed, preserving – a healthy vineyard ecosystem that can ripen grapes effectively without the use of chemical fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides. The problem of weeds for instance, is not dealt with by spraying the earth with toxic compounds, but with soil cultivation, mulching or mowing techniques (mowing can be handled quite effectively with the judicious use of grazing livestock). Natural winemaking places a greater (or at least more necessary) emphasis on grape quality than perhaps a more hands-on vinification would, largely because good grapes can make a good wine far easier than bad grapes can.

This sounds logical of course, and it is. Grapes without rot need less (or no) SO2 and less fining and clarifying, while a grape that can be picked with an optimum balance of sugars and acid will mean that no acid adjustments or chaptalisation procedures are necessary. The absence of these adjustments is key; natural wines are all about maximising the qualities of the native grape, and making extra sugar or calcium additions alters these qualities utterly. Things aren’t added, and similarly, things aren’t removed, typified by the lack of filtration common to natural wines. As a result, they are generally cloudier or hazier than is standard, and this can contribute significantly to both the aromatic and textural qualities of the wine.

Less is more is clearly the maxim applied to the natural wine philosophy, and yet sometimes less can be undoubtedly less. Contrary perhaps to immediate logic, not doing anything can often be harder than actually doing something, and a good deal of skill (and luck) is required of a natural winemaker. Additions such as SO2 provide a safety net against the all-too prevalent risks of oxidation and spoilage that can occur throughout the process, and the decision to avoid it is a brave one. A degree of vigilance must be maintained at all times to ensure that air contact is minimised as much as possible, while the absence of the protective assurance that SO2 provides renders it very hard to judge exactly how long a natural wine will live for once bottled.

Similarly, the refusal to inoculate with ‘non-native’ yeast means that winemakers must rely on the quality of the strain dormant in their particular vineyard or winery, and these somewhat ‘wildcard’ yeasts are often far less efficient than their off-the-shelf equivalents. Stuck or disrupted fermentations can result, producing volatile compounds with musty, feral, or downright nasty aroma profiles. Such faults are unfortunately all too common in the natural wine movement, attempted, at times, to be disguised as aspects of ‘natural terroir expression’. This is not the case. They are faults, and it is misleading and dishonest to describe them as anything but.

As of mid-2017, the natural wine movement has perhaps pushed itself out of and beyond the movement stage. It is now firmly here, and its philosophies have, just as with any successful revolution, asserted themselves beyond its borders to be adopted by the many, the less dogmatic, the normal guys. Elements of organic viticulture and low-intervention oenology have been embraced across the wine world, perhaps not so much in response to a deep conviction in the rightfulness of natural winemaking, but rather as part of a wider rediscovery of the concepts of terroir and craftsmanship, and the changing (and perhaps more educated) tastes of the wine drinking community as a whole.

Natural wine is to be applauded for this, as are many natural wines themselves – bottles that are truly unique, delicious and expressive of the land in which they were made, but as with all things in the world of food and drink, dogma should not stand in the way of taste. Wine has a duty, first and foremost, to be good wine. I like a wine to taste of terroir, but I also like it to taste nice, and if that requires a dollop of SO2 and a dusting of finings, then, I guess, so be it.