There’s a lot of emotion around wine. One reason I like writing about it is the vigor and passion it generates—winemakers and viticulturists talking keenly, intensely, as though their conviction (be it dry farming, native yeasts, or concrete tanks) is the one true creed. It’s a bit like sports, but more serious and without the silly hats, chants, and occasional menace.
Right now there’s nothing quite so schismatic as natural wine. Originating in France in the late 1970s, it was a response to what some saw as the over-manipulation of wine and a desire for something more feral and animate. Today it’s a buzz word, and in much of the media’s mind linked to cool kids in Brooklyn or Hackney, part of the lifestyle appendage for hipsters. Detractors, though, prefer the words scam and cult (one British publication compared it to Scientology).
Part of the trouble is the term. Natural wine doesn’t really mean anything—it’s vague and prickly at the same time. For clarification, I called up Alice Feiring, who runs a natural wine newsletter (the Feiring Line) and is author of Naked Wine, a book on the topic.
Her definition is simple: “There’s nothing added or taken away. There’s nothing in it except the grape.”
(Aside: Sometimes there’s a little sulfur added to help preserve the wine. Whether this is natural or not is a debate as nuanced as how many angels can fit on a pin head.)
Grapes generally come from vines that are organically or possibly biodynamically farmed, with the winemaker intervening in the production process as little as possible. All you should taste is the pure expression of the fruit. That may seem innocuous and agreeable, but critics question why anyone would willfully ignore modern winemaking techniques that (arguably) improve the wine and ensures reliability (natural wines have a reputation for spoiling faster). Many also think natural wines taste like crap.
A stereotypical natural wine is all askew. It has some effervescence, a lot of funk, and is unstable. If you’re lucky, it tastes bland, if not, it tastes like an overly yeasty cider.
Feiring shrugs off these criticisms: “There are few rules to what they taste like, except alive,” and adds that “just because you make a natural wine doesn’t mean you’re a great winemaker.”
There are plenty of natural wines that don’t make a song and dance about it, and without checking the small print on the label, you wouldn’t know any better. My local bottle shop has a Malbec called Haute Côte de Fruit that tastes like any mild-mannered Cahors from southern France ($18, from 1856, 1465 NE Prescott), despite it being natural. It’s far from the hysterical cry of “it’s all undrinkable!”
More in the funk zone, but hardly a candidate for devil’s piss was another wine from the south of France, Close Fantine from Faugères ($22 from Division Wines, 3564 SE Division), which was lively and a bit spritzy, but also packed with lovely notes of sagebrush and rosemary that suggested the Mediterranean. Many Oregon producers, such as Teutonic, Brooks, Grochau, or St. Reginald Parish, also make wines in a natural fashion with little fuss. I have had natural wines where a few sips was more than enough, but like Feiring said, there are good and bad examples.
So why all the righteous mudslinging? At heart, the debate is about authority. Natural wine enthusiasts are calling into question the established definitions of good wines, and who gets to make those calls in the first place.
Each side is talking past the other and uses its own references and values the other doesn’t respect. So, critics point out that in a case of natural wine, each of the 12 bottles could be different. To a fan though that’s the point—they revel in such variance and possibilities. In turn, they don’t care about the accepted wisdom of what’s supposed to be good—they’re not interested in overpriced Bordeaux or what a wine broker thinks, as it’s not relevant to their preferences and tastes. The old guard hit back, accusing them of being philistines and cultists.
However that clash shakes out, natural wines are here to stay. Feiring believes that in the not too distant future they will be accepted and just called “wines.” She hopes that bottles will carry ingredient lists so consumers can make informed choices.
In the meantime, as natural wines become more fashionable, the term is likely to be used as a marketing tool by companies more interested in money than winemaking philosophy (there are already examples of brands using the term indiscriminately). Feiring acknowledges the risk, but she’s confident the “majority [of winemakers] will be making wines they want to drink. That’s how the movement started in the first place, and it will still be a major force.”