Natural Wines...Why the Hubbub?
Natural Wine....Why the Hubbub
Eric Asimov, one of this country’s most insightful wine writers, recently published an article in his New York Times column, The Pour, about the hot button issue of “natural wine.” Why in the world would something - an idea, a movement or wine with a name like “natural” be so divisive? What’s not to like about wine, or just about anything else for that matter, being made as naturally as possible? And what is “natural wine” anyway?
For starters, there is no official definition for the term natural wine, but it’s loosely the idea that a wine is made with as little manipulation as possible. This means starting with grapes that were farmed sustainably/organically, then brought into the winery and left to do their thing. Certainly the winemakers may help the wines along their path, but they don’t set forth the path or force the wines to go in a certain direction or correct for defects or deficiencies. No reverse osmosis machines, no roto-fermenters, no pre-packaged yeasts and usually, no new oak.
The natural wine “movement” began with a small group of winemakers, mostly working independently from one another but sharing a common idea that producing wine should start by being good stewards to the land and the philosophy of staying out of the grapes/wine’s way and letting it essentially make itself. The goal of making wine this way is to have a wine that speaks of the soil that it was grown in and the grapes natural flavors. Eventually, through the tireless work of a few importers (i.e. Louis/Dressner and Kermit Lynch) people started to take notice. At this point, a small group of sommeliers, wine bars and bloggers started to talk/write about the virtues of natural wines.
While natural wines have gained favor with a certain subset of consumers, they still only make up less than 1% of all wine sales. So why would such a small percentage of all wine being made and sold cause a backlash? Robert M. Parker, the world’s most influential wine critic, referred to the natural wine movement as “One of the major scams being foisted on wine consumers is the so-called ‘Natural’ wine movement.” Mr. Parkerhuv is not the only one who seems a little hostile to the natural wine movement. Certain winemakers, importers and retailers are a bit testy when the topic arises.
But why? For winemakers who don’t subscribe to the natural wine movement’s general practices, it could be that they don’t want their wine to be deemed unnatural in the public’s eye. If they farm conventionally and employ tactics in the cellar like reverse osmosis to concentrate their wine, add enzymes for darker color and use the genetically altered super-yeasts necessary to ferment a wine to over 15% alcohol, does this make their wine any less natural? Like the topic of global warming, the answer may be clear, but different individuals may see different answers.
For importers and wholesalers who work primarily with conventionally made wines, they may just be guarding against their hard fought market share. For some retailers, it could just be that they are unfamiliar with natural wine and don’t care to learn about these new-fangled wines because “they’ve never needed them before so why should I worry about them now...and natural wines are for pretentious people anyway.” Look out.
And then there is the question of wheather natural wines any better than conventional wines, or vise Like any category, or sub category of wine, there are both sublime and undrinkable examples of natural wine. I really don’t care that much weather or not the wine I’m drinking is “natural” or not, so long as it’s delicious, food-friendly and interesting. All things being equal, I’d opt for a natural wine, but not demand it. While wine can be made in any number of ways and turn out delicious, I do find that a higher percentage of natural wines are food-friendly and are more outright interesting. In any case, attacking natural wines and the people who make and enjoy them seems counterproductive as this only serves to bring more attention to these wines. Can’t we all just enjoy what we enjoy and let others do the same?