Natural Wine or Unnatural Beverage
Trendy and romantic, natural wines appeal to our sense of what wine should be but often isn't.
On the über-hip streets of New York, London, San Francisco and Paris, the compass of wine trends is pointing directly towards so-called natural wines. Of course, just by adopting such a phrase, the movement has successfully framed the debate in a completely slanted way.
The idea that a wine may be classified as natural, or—somehow—unnatural, strikes me as ludicrous. Left entirely to nature, vineyards would not exist and neither would wine. Vines are cultivated, and wines are made, by virtue of human intervention. Natural wines, according to advocate and author Alice Feiring, are defined on her Web site as containing “Grapes, maybe a splish [sic] ofSO2.” She goes on to embellish by adding:
1) Assume minimal chemical to no chemical farming.
2) Wine with grapes and nothing else added. And that means yeast.
3) No forceful machinery to alter the taste, texture or alcohol level
of the wine.
4) S02? Softcore natural means a little SO2 at bottling. Hardcore natural, means non, no way, no how.
The typical insinuation underlying the use of the term is that wines produced according to the natural wine dogma are more “honest” or truer expressions of a region than wines that are produced “unnaturally.”
There’s no denying the romantic appeal of this concept: dry-farm the grapes organically or biodynamically; pick them, crush them, let them ferment; age the wine; bottle the wine. That’s all there is to it, right? It’s an idyllic, chemical-free existence, one that we all enjoy when we venture out onto our termite-ridden decks to gaze over our dandelion-laden lawns and weed-choked gardens.
As consumers, we lap it all up. As a result, wine marketers spout the noninterventionist line and have convinced many winemakers to talk that talk, despite the fact that winemaking requires human intervention. When to harvest? To sort or not? To destem or not? Control temperatures during fermentation? Cap management? Tannin extraction? All of those decisions, and we’re only partway through fermentation of a “natural” red wine. Already, winemakers have made a good number of decisions that will affect the finished product and intervened accordingly. The only things that separate natural wines from “regular” wines are the degree, type and number of interventions.
If natural wines represent one end of the winemaking spectrum, the opposite ground has been popularly defined as being spoofulated. Spoofulated wines are those deemed by the stone-thrower to be overextracted and overmanipulated. In short, to be overdone. Spoofulation covers a multitude of winemaking “sins,” including various (legal) winemaking additions or subtractions.
Although natural wine sounds great, and spoofulated wine just the opposite, reality, as usual, comes in the various shades of gray that lie in between. Micro-oxygenation—the carefully controlled introduction of oxygen into must or wine—is one example of a technique generally derided as “spoof.” Yet racking—the relatively uncontrolled introduction of air into wine by transferring it from one vessel to another—would be considered “natural.”
Other common winemaking interventions that probably wouldn’t be considered spoofulation (depending on degree), but certainly aren’t “natural,” include:
Watering back. In California, grapes picked at extremely high sugar levels produce musts that would not complete fermentation, so
water is added.
Acid adjustment. Adding (common in warm regions) or removing (typically in cool climates) tartaric acid to adjust the pH of the must or
wine to help prevent spoilage or adjust balance.
Must enrichment. Either through chaptalization or reverse osmosis, to increase the alcohol content of the finished wine. Or perhaps, as
many Burgundians assert, “simply to prolong the fermentation.” Degree matters here.
Fining. Removing suspended solids within the wine to adjust clarity and texture. Commonly used materials include egg whites, bentonite, casein, isinglass.
Filtration. Like fining, this is done to adjust clarity and texture. Each country has its own list of additives and processes that wine
may be subjected to, some of which may be surprising to lay readers—Section 24.246 of the TTB’s regulations includes a complete list of permitted additives. But all of the listed treatments have been deemed safe, so there’s no reason for concern in that regard.
None of these interventions, nor the use of oak barrels for aging—which, at least for the first few uses, add various soluble aromatics to wine—do I find objectionable in and of themselves. Sometimes the resulting wines are spoofy and sometimes natural wines are lacking—tasting wines blind as I do for the Buying Guide, I don’t find any hard and fast correlation between intervention and quality. The principles of natural wine and nonintervention are noble ones, but when it comes down to it, I just want to drink wine that tastes good.