1978, and a young Morgon winemaker named Marcel Lapierre is experimenting in Beaujolais with no-sulphur winemaking, from grapes grown organically. In doing so, Lapierre along with a few local cohorts, had unwittingly caused the modern genesis of vin naturel… or natural wine. Of course this didn’t happen overnight, but soon enough, with the help of some Parisian sommeliers, a few eagle eyed importers, a couple of intrigued wine writers, and some notable new wine fairs such as, La Remise, Salon des Vins de Loire, The Natural Wine Fair in Borough Market, then Real Wine Fair, and RAW, and most recently, Rootstock Sydney, vin naturel has become to wine, what farmers markets are to big chain superstores.
The increased interest for natural wines (largely from trade, but consumers are slowly catching up) over the last few years has become a bit of a hot topic in the wine industry. Without a doubt, it’s organic wine that is leading the charge for consumer awareness about the natural wine vanguard, with the promise of little or no hangovers being a significant motivator for someone to want to seek out these drinks. In fact, in the penultimate chapter of Alice Feiring’s book, Naked Wine, in an interview with Jaques Néauport, Alice discovers that the humble beginnings of natural wine was indeed, “to make life without hangovers a reality” (pg. 172). But, natural wine has evolved into much more than just the promise of an easy rise the next day. Nowadays, it’s seen as a pure expression of place, encapsulating ideas about provenance, sustainable farming practice, sociability, as well as the artisan who creates it and how it is made. It’s also become a bit of a pathfinder, connecting the seemingly exclusive world of wine to the conscious consumer, and brought with it a democratisation of this enduringly beguiling beverage.
“Wine is meant to be fun,” says Tom Belford, from Bobar in the Yarra Valley, “or, at the very least, enjoyable and accessible.”
There was a time when natural wine was only seen dancing within the margins of wine commentary and communication. Nowadays, it seems as though it’s becoming a bit of an ‘on-trend’ product, with many sommeliers and writers promoting it more and more in their restaurants and bars, and in the mainstream wine press. Some are even having a go at making it themselves (hands up) – possibly because it’s perceived that natural wine can be created fairly easily, with phrases like ‘hands off’ and ‘minimal intervention’ winemaking, often being associated with its creation.
“I think it’s significant,” says Doug Wregg from UK wine importer Les Caves de Pyrene, and Real Wine Fair, “and yes, it is part of the democratisation of wine… critics need to get out of their armchairs and experience life beyond the wine glass. You only truly understand wine when you have tried to make it and realise that it can’t be learned from a text book, or in a laboratory.”
“In some ways the natural wine movement has been mainly driven by somms and writers needing to make discoveries to validate their reputation,” says Clive Dougall, winemaker at Seresin in Marlborough. “The very nature of these wines is that they aren’t judged by the same standards as ‘normal’ wines, with questionable flavours and characters readily forgiven, or even accepted as qualities. This forgiving environment,” Clive continues, “has opened the door to unqualified people to have a go at making it themselves, which is a democratisation of sorts.”
As Andrew Guard says, making a natural wine,”is minimal intervention, but it takes maximum observation.” To make a natural wine is not simply a matter of ‘doing nothing’, as we so often hear. In order to transform any amount of grapes into a liquid necessitates some intervention, and if it’s wine that you want to make, you’re going to need a human being. But just because natural wines are perceived to be easy to make, because you seemingly do nothing, shouldn’t it still be left up to those winemakers and growers who have specific qualifications in viticulture, oenology, and so forth?
“I see no reason why anyone and everyone who’s willing and keen can’t be involved in wine and winemaking, it’s fun right?” says Fraser McKinley of Sami-Odi in the Barossa, “the more the merrier for mine.”
Tom Belford from Bobar reckons that, “it’s exciting to see drinkers get in and make some wine. Maybe it will give them a better understanding of what’s required, in terms of the intrinsic complexity and practical simplicity to making a wine… it shouldn’t be seen as a threat.”
Wine writer Mike Bennie, who has dabbled in the art of making wine, sees many parallels between ‘having a go natural winemakers’ and home brewing, especially with the rise of the craft beer industry, “If home brewing has engendered the impressive rise in interest of craft beer, ipso it should be good for wine. The more that participate in the process is a good thing… and the idea that more Joe Publics are engaging in the wine world, understanding process and provenance of wine, is encouraging.”
“You can’t be a laissez-faire winemaker and a natural one,” says Doug Wregg, “you have to get up close and personal with your grapes, and reach the end without using the usual drugs (wine making additives), that’s the artisan magic.”
But Clive Dougall remains somewhat cautious about natural wine becoming too much of a fad, and having all wine diluted, simply because natural wines happen to be in vogue at the moment.
“There’s an element of this being a self-perpetuating fad that exists in a very small sliver of the wine drinking population, mainly from wine professionals,” explains Clive, “which has now led to a time where the (natural) wines that are seen as the weirdest, or the more scarce, or have the best story, these things have become more important than the quality and authenticity of the wine. It’s the part of the natural wine scene that disappoints me, and I hope that the great traditional natural winegrowers don’t suffer due to the explosion of amateur wines muddying the picture.”
So, like all great movements that evolve, grow and posses an inherent truth which can be captured in a moment, felt, and potentially emulated, whether it’s a painting, a book, or a song, will natural wine eventually become just another tired fad, and sell out to the major labels? Will natural wine, one day, get its own Avril Lavigne?
Fraser McKinley thinks so, “I’m sure every marketing department will have a natural wine in no time, if they don’t already. There’s a lot of wine to sell, and to latch onto these ideas and ideals, whether one believes in them or not, is a sure bet to increasing sales and staying current.”
Tom Belford agrees, that if one of the big wine brands was to release their own version of a natural wine that it would, “probably come across as glaringly cynical and would almost certainly not be part of the community of artisans involved in the movement, which is made up of a lot of small individuals working really hard.”
Without naming names, Mike Bennie says, “they already exist and more are in the works, however, it feels somewhat ingenuine when such wines are ‘made to market’ by larger producers, but it might also reasonably be seen as a stepping stone to cultural change within a winery, leading to better and more sustainable practices in their wine producing.”
And therein lies the essence of natural wine. Small artisan producers, winegrowers that are really not much different to the farmer who sells you his/her strawberries, apples, or potatoes on the weekend at the farmers market. Natural wines are wines made by farmers-cum-winegrowers, who want to showcase their passion, their skills, and their place in a bottle of wine.
Mike Bennie believes the future of natural wine should be to, “encourage consumers to make better choices about wine… if people visit farmer’s markets or grow their own, then the progress should be to encourage more people to engage with wine in similar ways.”
“I’m not much of a fan of the term ‘natural’,” says Fraser McKinley, “but I do like the ideals that sit inside it. Simplicity and nature in a bottle is my kind of tonic.”
D// – The Wine Idealist
Australian Wine Idealism – Real Wine Fair, April 13/14, LONDON
Is natural wine a fad? Come to the Real Wine Fair this weekend and find out for yourself!
I will be presenting a seminar about the most exciting wine scene in the world – The Secret Australian Wine Revolution – this Sunday (13th) at Real Wine Fair in London town. Come along and say hello, then taste and discuss with me some of the most incredibly delicious and diverse wines from the new paradigm of Australian wine… More information here.