I can’t remember when exactly I first came across the natural wine phenomenon. It was probably back in the 1990s, when the Internet – fresh out of the box – proved to be a place well-suited for connecting like-minded geeks. It was a time of Netscape web browsers and glacially slow dial-up connections. I was an active member of the Wine Lovers’ Discussion Group. For a keen wine novice it was a great place to hang out and learn about wine, and occasionally meet up to drink wine with others in what were known as “offlines.” Natural wine was quite a talking point on the WLDG. And even back then, it was controversial.
Jules Chauvet, a winegrower and scientist from La Chapelle-de-Guinchay in Beaujolais, is widely regarded to be the father of natural wine. A fourth-generation winegrower, Chauvet never set out to start a movement; rather, his desire was to make better, purer wine. Chauvet was most active in the 1940s through 1960s, a time when Beaujolais, along with the rest of France, was adopting chemical inputs at an alarming rate.
It’s easy to judge this harshly through today’s lens, given what we know about the problems caused by widespread herbicide and fertilizer use. But at that time people saw the soil merely as a growth medium for the vine. Chemicals seemed like a wonderfully scientific option that would save winegrowers a lot of work in the vineyard and provide better results.
Chauvet was prescient and realized such an approach might lead to trouble. He also thought that relying on sulfur dioxide as an antioxidant and antimicrobial would impact the true expression of the wine. So Chauvet devised a protocol for making Beaujolais without any additions at all.
In 1981 a young winegrower in Villié-Morgon, Marcel Lapierre, met Chauvet. Lapierre had taken over his family domaine in 1973 and was drawn to Chauvet’s vision. He decided he’d like to make wine with no additives. Some of Lapierre’s colleagues agreed, and suddenly Beaujolais became ground zero of the emerging natural wine movement.
A small set of wine bars in Paris began selling these wines, and before long the phenomenon of natural wine fairs was born. Here, like-minded growers would gather to pour their wines to consumers and buyers. People started talking. This was very much a bottom-up, not top-down revolution.
So how do we define natural wine today? Is it just about not adding anything, especially sulfur dioxide? Not entirely, but that is the one additive that is hard to kick. There is no precise definition, but if I were to try my best to come up with one, it would look something like this:
- No (or minimal) sulfur dioxide added during the fermentation process
- Minimal (or no) sulfur dioxide added at bottling
- No added yeasts or bacteria
- No acid adjustment
- No fining
- No filtration
- No enzymes
Or, to put it in a more positive way, natural winegrowers allow fermentation to proceed without any additions. They bottle the wines after natural clarification and settling with minimal, if any sulfur dioxide additions.
How else can we define natural wine? Practitioners tend to avoid new oak. Many avoid small oak barrels altogether, opting instead for larger barrels, and also clay and concrete containers. Many are experimenting with terra cotta amphorae, tinajas and qvevri, finding a harmony between their wines and clay vessels of fermentation and elevage.
You’ll also find that many natural wine producers use zany or colorful labels, and these labels tell you frustratingly little about what’s inside the bottle. Often, because they tend to work outside official appellation rules, they don’t even have a vintage indicated (although you might find it as part of a lot number or code if you look hard enough, or on the cork).
But most of all, natural wine is about being part of the club.
Over the last decade, the movement has grown considerably. Most wine-producing countries have a set of producers who badge themselves “natural,” and who take part in natural wine fairs. Most operate on a small scale, and frequently in regions outside the established classic fine wine areas. (Vineyards are often cheaper there.)
And the wine fairs have spread. London had its first, the Real Wine Fair, in 2011. A couple of years later, Isabelle Legeron, who’d been involved in the first one, split off her own venture and called it RAW. This is a more commercial event that now pops up in Berlin, New York and Los Angeles, too. (There are definitely shades of Monty Python’s The People’s Front of Judea and the Judean People’s Front here.) There’s also a popular fair in Sydney each year called Rootstock.
These fairs are usually rammed with a young-ish, hipster crowd, as well as geeks like me who find many of the wines really compelling and thought-provoking. They are a welcome antidote to the profusion of international, ripe, oaky wines that lured so many over to the dark side in the 1990s. And even some of those producers who haven’t gone the fully natural route have found that this movement has made them rethink their approach to picking times, oak use, and sulfur dioxide additions.
Across the wine world now, the trend is very much to work more naturally in order to best express the lovely regional flavors known to us as terroir. Terroir, in brief, is how the environment vines are grown in, including its microclimate, soil, and the vineyard management, causes wines from different places to taste different. This can be regional, sub-regional, or even from different plots within the same vineyard.
And this is where natural wine runs into a bit of a problem. Taste through a range of natural wines, and sometimes you’ll find they taste more of the process than the place. All the effort to grow the vines organically or biodynamically by working the soil and avoiding chemicals, and the merits of special vineyard sites themselves, can be lost in the winery if rogue yeasts or bacteria take over, say, or if too much oxygen enters the wine.
As a result, sometimes these wines taste “natural” more than they taste of place. While some may be delicious, many have clearly lost their terroir. (Personally, I find there’s a style of lighter reds with just a sniff of wild funk and a delicious juicy drinkability that I spot immediately as natural, but which I then find impossible to place.) And while picking grapes earlier often results in more elegant, terroir-expressive wines, pick too early for a particular site and you end up with a wine of style, rather than a wine of place. (The same thing occurs with late picking for more sweet fruit flavors.)
There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a juicy, gluggable, slightly funky, light vin de soif red wine, served chilled in a carafe. But it sticks in the throat a bit when you’ve paid $35 for it, and you can get the same sort of joy much more cheaply elsewhere.
Sometimes it seems that being cool is what counts, and that natural winemakers are immune from criticism, even when they are making placeless wines while speaking a lot about the importance of terroir. You can’t have it both ways: Does the wine taste of the place or the process?
Another problem is the term “natural.” Ill-defined as it is, it also has the unfortunate consequence of implying that all other wines are somehow unnatural. There are now many growers in all regions seeking to make interesting, authentic wines and not all of them would consider themselves “natural.”
Could it be that the natural wine movement has sort of done its job? It was a necessary but reactionary movement that did its job, but has become a bit of a fad, and now we’re beginning to move past it. The hardcore naturalistas will always be with us, and we’ll celebrate them and enjoy them. But in our search for great wine experiences, we’ll be able to venture bravely from the natural wine ghetto, and discover the excellent wines being made elsewhere. Wines that taste of a sense of place in an elegant and inspiring and captivating way.
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