Placing the word ‘natural’ in front of the word ‘wine’, without any apology, or fear of reprisal, the considered use of quotation marks, or adding the phrase ‘so-called’, in order to soften the divisive blow that strikes upon wine’s face whenever the words natural and wine meet one another, is finally a risk I’m willing to take.
There have been many other words prefixed to the word wine to evoke the phrase ‘natural wine’ with the intention of easing the usual automated, antagonised responses that the prefix ‘natural’ seems to conjure up. For example, naked, real, raw, and authentic are all excellent philosophical substitutes that, when all is said and done, really mean to say, that this wine or that wine is, in fact, a natural wine.
When these words are used in front of the word wine, they can be more precise, more emotive, even more divisive than the word natural, but, ultimately, when used in reference to wine, what these words really mean, is natural.
The very use of these different words only serves to expose a weakness in natural wines’ armour. When the first arrows are fired from the camp of natural wine critics, they’re usually aimed squarely at the fleshy lack of any definition that natural wines have. And, despite natural wines’ DIY punk philosophy, this lack of definition will not only serve as a pedestal for the critics’ easily won trophies, but also allow for the unscrupulous merchant to enter the natural wine realm with a few bottles of ill-defined booze in tow.
Too many times I have drunk or heard of horror stories where colleges and friends have opened a bottle of wine to discover that, yes, the wine does indeed taste like mushroom cider from the back of a cupboard, only to hear the winemaker justify this nonsense in a glass as being a natural wine.
Natural winemakers don’t want to make wines that taste like molded mustard spread on green bread. Hell, they shouldn’t even be called natural winemakers! They’re just winemakers, and they want to make wine – good wine, from which people can derive joy, pleasure and excitement. To this end, natural wines need to be defined.
Now, of course by definition, wine isn’t totally natural. Any suggestion that wine can be one hundred percent, utterly and absolutely natural shows a complete lack of understanding towards botany, reproduction and domestication. Vines have evolved on our planet alongside many other species of flora, and the fact that they exist today proves that they are good at doing what they are meant to do; survive and reproduce.
The particular variety of vine that has bewitched so many people, long before the natural wine debate of recent years, is vitis vinifera and the only reason it bears fruit at all is not so that we can all happily drink wine (natural or otherwise), but so it attracts birds to eat the berry and carry the seeds, to hopefully be dropped somewhere else with fertile soil, so that a new plant can grow.
When vitis vinifera was first domesticated many, many moons ago, it was discovered that if the fruit could be kept away from pesky birds, picked, squashed and stored in something container-like, then after a few months, through some miraculously transformative process called fermentation, the sweet juice inside the fruit could be converted into a tasty drink that contains alcohol, which was not only fun to drink (in moderate amounts), but would actually last a lot longer and fresher than most other available beverages.
The very process of harvesting fruit from a grapevine and fermenting it to make wine is, by definition, un-natural and involves some form of manipulation.
But, so too is adding dimethyl dicarbonate – a poisonous sterilising liquid, used to kill yeast and bacteria – which is an allowable ingredient in wine.
There are many other allowable and totally legal additives that can be used to photoshop a wine to get it to taste consistent from year to year. This is because wine, like most other agricultural products, has been turned into a commercial commodity, similar to, say, a chicken (which is, apparently, where chicken nuggets come from). A commercial commodity is something that needs to be available to the widget buying consumer at any given moment, no matter where they are, or what time of year it is, such as a can of Coca Cola or a cheeseburger from McDonalds.
Unfortunately, as many of the large corporate wineries in the 1990’s soon found out, wine is an agricultural product, and is subject to the many whims and wants of Mother Nature, which indeed calls for a skilled viticulturist (read farmer) to work with her volatility as best as they can in order to grow some grapes and make some wine. This mentality of wine as a commercial commodity then spawned many other spin-offs, which have been detrimental to a consumers understanding of what wine actually is, or indeed where it comes from!
The winemaker is lauded as the superstar of wine, while the viticulturist (read farmer) is relegated to the sidelines as a bit part player in the whole process. This is the same viticulturist (read farmer) who spent at least ten of the last twelve months that it takes to grow grapes, keeping them free from pests and disease, pruning, mowing, weeding, walking, monitoring, reading, listening, looking and learning about the place they were working in. So that, by the end of it all, they could deliver a quality bunch of grapes that can be transformed into wine by the superstar winemaker. The viticulturist, as farmer, plays the most important role in ensuring good quality wine, second only to the vineyard itself.
The winemaker, then, becomes a skilled and careful interpreter of these raw materials, much like a chef who carefully creates a delicious meal from quality raw ingredients. In both processes, however, it is the raw materials via the farmer who grows them, that is the most important detail in creating good quality food and wine. The more processing involved, the less qualities can be retained.
You can still make a decent drop of wine out of poor quality grapes, just like you can make a decent hamburger out of poor quality meat. You just need the right tools and equipment. The list of permitted additives, as listed on the Australian Wine Research Institute website, is well over 200 individual items, each of which is legally permissible as an ingredient in any wine made throughout the world. 89 of those are allowable ingredients for wines made in Australia.
Common additives such as citric and tartaric acid are used mainly for flavour enhancement, acid, pH and taste adjustments. Tannins, which are a naturally occurring antioxidant found in grapes already, provide structure to a red (or orange) wine, but can be added from a packet to boost their presence in the wine. Enzymes are naturally occurring compounds, usually extracted from edible plants that can be added to wine to help release juice from pulp and inhibit pectins, and this too is already found naturally in grapes. These are the naturally occurring common additives, but a winemaker can also add stuff like di-methyl-poly-siloxane, which is a silicone-based water repellant, used in wine as an anti-foaming agent. It is also used as an ingredient in silly putty, shampoo and chewing gum.
Poly-vinyl-poly-pyrrolidone is a synthetic protein-like substance used to reduce brown colours and bitterness in wine (a great help, in case you use too much tannin), and is made synthetically in factories that produce other plastic products. A winemaker can also add a cultured army of specially designed yeast strains to their wine, which helps make the ferment more efficient (a good thing if the grapes have been sprayed with fungacide et al.), and can even impart a particular flavour to the wine, such as cherry, or banana!
Technology can also play a part in ensuring that poor quality grapes can be turned into a decent wine, (and then into a widget) with techniques such as reverse osmosis, which takes the worry out of careful vineyard management by allowing a winemaker to receive overripe grapes (which contain more sugar and therefore, potentially more alcohol) and simply pass the wine through a membrane of tiny pores at high pressure to separate the smallest molecules in wine – water and alcohol – from the rest of the liquid. Then, to reduce the alcohol (ie. to correct overripeness) you simply add however much water you want back into the wine.
Et Voila! Deliciously dialed-up wine, which can be replicated year on year without all that fuss and bother of going to the trouble of growing the grapes properly in the first place, picking at the right time, and handling them carefully, and with respect, back in the winery.
Natural wine, on the other hand, is wine that is made from grapes.
Preferably organic or biodynamic grapes, which have been hand picked (which also helps eliminate bad bunches), fermented using wild or indigenous yeast (yeasts that hang around on the grapes in the vineyard, or in the winery), maturated in a neutral container, such as concrete, stainless steel, or old oak, bottled unfined and unfiltered (sometimes leaving in a little bit of cloudy goodness). Only the minimum amount of sulphur dioxide (70ppm or less) is added, if any, right before bottling, to ensure the wine is as stable as it can be, and helps reach your table as well as the winemaker intended.
Reductionist critics of natural wine will sometimes argue why sulphur additions are allowed at all, if a certain is claiming to be natural. If this happens, point them in the direction of the Romans.
For some reason, there is still a debate going on about natural wines. Whether or not they indeed exist, and if they do, whether or not it’s actually just some divisive marketing propaganda in an attempt to hoodwink everyone into drinking wines that are as individualistic, creative and variable as a live performance of their favourite song.
But, better that than having to suffer the routine drudgery and homogenised vanillin swill that would otherwise be poured into our glasses every single day.
If it wasn’t for the excitement of volatile vintage variation, wrapped up and expressed in all it’s glorious natural imperfections, courtesy of Mother Nature, a watchful viticulturist and careful winemaker – who in fact doesn’t want to make “wine taste worse than putrid cider” – the very joy, pleasure and excitement we all feel when we’re seized by something that far surpasses anything we could ever dare dream up would be wasted.
Art, music, poetry, writing, reading, gardening, walking, dreaming, and anything else that inspires you, including wine, would be utterly meaningless. Indeed, life itself would be meaningless. Thank goodness nature abhors a vacuum!
Natural wine exists. It exists without quotation marks or prefixes, or even excellent philosophical substitutes. It exists because it comes from grapes, and that’s all that wine is.
If you don’t agree, then please show me which part of a chicken the nugget comes from…
D// – The Wine Idealist
Links and Further Reading:
- ‘Why ‘Natural’ Wine Tastes Worse Than Putrid Cider’ by Bruce Palling – via Newsweek
- ‘Is There Anything Natural About Wine?’ by Bruce Palling – via Gastroenophile
- ‘Notes from the Undersoil (How to Enjoy Wine)‘ by Doug Wregg
- What’s In Your Wine? by Blind Corner, WA
- What’s In A Wine? by Max Allen
- What’s In Your Glass? Newcastle’s own real wine festival