Joe Wadsack offers a definition of what ‘natural’ really means when it comes to wine – and debunks a few myths along the way.
There is an argument that says all wine lists should offer a natural wine or two if they claim to be following best practice. Lockdown has been a catalyst for this
by making more consumers aware of the plight of others and traceability of all things, whether it is burger meat or properly-made, effective PPE. The idea that your customers would want to know how well-treated their hen was before being hung on the rotisserie, but wouldn’t care if systemic herbicides were being used on the vineyard that makes the wine in their glass is a double standard. Like many technical wine terms, however, I don’t think the majority of wine consumers are clear in their minds what ‘natural’ means or precisely to what it is referring.
What indeed does ‘natural’ wine mean? Is it the same as organic? No, but the grapes in natural wine are almost certainly going to be organically grown. In fact, you can’t have organic wine. You can have wine made from organically grown grapes. That is to say, once the grapes have been grown and harvested, and transferred to tanks in a cellar, you can still do pretty much what you like to them, although most organic associations would take a pretty dim view if you proceeded to beat up your lovely pristine grapes with chemicals thereafter. The truth is that there are very few harmful things you are allowed to do in wine production anyway.
So, if you care about vineyard sustainability, and the ingestion of chemicals, it makes sense to buy organic wine, but natural wine? Wine ‘naturalists’ crave something else, a palpable sense that the impact on the land is so low that they are seeing the resultant wine through a clearer lens. The wine isn’t forced in one direction or the other by the use of selective yeasts, or excessive oak influence. The only way I can describe these wines is ungroomed. Unshaved, no anti-perspirant, no underwear. As close to how god might have intended if the vines were literally grown in the wild, the grapes picked in the wild, and the wine allowed to make itself. This is all done under close scrutiny of course. It’s amazing how many so-called modern wine techniques can be replaced by avoidance measures and planning ahead, now that we know so much more about the microbial science. This is no different to insisting that your restaurant venison is wild, if you think about it.
The intensive commercial horticulture required to plant a vineyard and make wine in the first place is already so juxtaposed to the idea of ‘natural’ that I have always moaned under my breath that no wine is truly naturally made. I used to read in horror about vineyards that were intensely organically farmed, that were only established by dynamiting half a mountain side and felling a dozen ancient oaks in the first place. All the poisonous chemicals and mined precious elements it takes to make a Toyota Prius mean that, sadly, the books are never going to be balanced on that vehicle. If you care about the planet, stop driving and stop having children. Okay, enough teeth gnashing. I just want to clearly point out that some wines that appear to be naturally made are nothing more than vanity projects where the damage is already done. Don’t establish an organic vineyard with a helipad. You have been warned...
So, what DO I mean when I say that natural wines are important? The erudite and highly respected Dr Jamie Goode, one of our finest technical wine journalists, said it best when he wrote the first seminal book on the topic with his friend Sam Harrop MW. The book is entitled Authentic Wine: Toward Natural and Sustainable Winemaking. Natural wine depends upon three essential criteria: authenticity, sustainability and traceability. Natural wines have often been born out of vineyards that have been so intensively farmed that the soil was effectively dead from poisoning by chemicals, before extreme natural measures by a conscientious vigneron have brought wildlife and natural plants back to the ecosystem. Natural wine techniques and so-called biodynamism can literally bring earth back to life – surely not a bad thing.
If you say where your meat is from, why not say where your wine is from? Investigate if you are suspicious of devious practices, and simply delist the wine if you are unsure. If the environment matters, it matters, and wine has been given too much slack for too long.
One tiny problem. A lot of natural wines are crap. Caring about the sustainability of wine isn’t an excuse to sell funky, bad wines. Virtually all non-organic wine- practices were developed, non-cynically, by scientists to make wine taste better, so they are not all the devil’s work. However, the younger generations of erudite, well-trained winemakers care enough that there is a huge choice of wines to choose from, and some natural wine styles that have emerged have proven themselves to be fantastic in a food setting and, if anything, more gastronomic. Going to a bar or restaurant is about offering choice. This is more choice.
THREE NATURAL WINES THAT PAST MUSTER
Litmus Orange 2020
RRP £17.49 grapebritannia.com
This is an English still wine – yes English. I rated the 2019 the best English table wine I’d ever had. If anything, this is a level up. Made by Aussie/Ukrainian John Worontschak, who literally knows more about making wine in England than anyone. Truly stunning and über-complex with baked orange, aniseed and roasted tropical fruits stitched through it. The genius addition of 10% Pinot Noir into 90% Bacchus gives the palate Burgundy levels of gravitas. Insane with crispy pork.
Domaine Les 4 Vents, Crozes-Hermitage Blanc 2019
RRP £20 feelgoodgrapes.com
This is a white Rhône, made more naturally and with more energy and conviction than a Prince Philip faux-pas. 100% Roussanne gives it a genuinely regal tilt, and because it was made with natural yeast, it has more texture than a duvet. Try this with salmon.
Reverie Pinotage 2018 Voor Paardeberg, South Africa
RRP £29.95 graftwines.com
This amazing, silk, mega-layered red comes from an incredible dry-grown, granite-strewn vineyard, and old, savage Pinotage vines. This wine explains what it means to be truly natural. Loaded with smoke, cherries, and juicy cranberries.