The Give and Take of the Natural Wine Debate

PullI am always excited when I see an article or blog post on-line that was written in response to something on this blog. At the very least it means someone is reading me. Even better, it could mean that what I've written inspires someone. More Better: It could mean they took my thoughts seriously.

So, I was pleased to see that Janice Cable over at "Inside IWM" (IWM = Italian Wine Merchant—a GREAT wine merchant) had a long and thoughtful response to my various thoughts on "natural" wine. And her thoughts in turn inspire me to respond here with comments and clarification.

After acknowledging some of the definitional problems with the term "Natural" and appreciating the way the term can be abused by marketers, Ms Cable writes: "In short, it’s hard to define “natural.” And perhaps it’s this very slipperiness as applied to natural wine that Tom Wark of the Fermentation blog has taken to task so repeatedly and so vehemently." In the end, she isn't in agreement with me that the "natural wine movement" is a gimmick."

Actually I'm not concerned with the difficulty of defining the term "natural". Rather, I'm concerned that the use of the term "natural wine" is unjustified, that many of its champions are willing to denigrate what they would consider "non-natural" wines for the sake of promoting their own wines and that champions of "natural wine" are unwilling to use far more accurate words, terms and phrasing to describe what they are doing in order to take advantage of the positive connotations of the term "Natural" despite the unjustified use of the term in the first place.

As for the wines that fall under this unjustified heading, I think they are just great. I think it's wonder that more and more winemakers are determined to use more non-interventionist techniques that have been incorporated into winemaking by artisan winemakers now for years. I think many of these wines are tasty as all get out.

In defense of the "Natural" wine movement Ms. Cable goes on to say:

"I…dislike the 'purple' taste that often accompanies seriously manipulated wine. It’s a thing, and maybe it’s pretentious, but all things being equal, I like a wine that’s made with minimal crap added to it."

I don't know what "purple" tastes like, but that may be a deficiency in my own palate/vocabulary skills. But I do know that wines that are not marketed as "natural" or organic or biodynamic do not necessarily have "crap" added to them. Unfortunately, the impression that many champions of "natural" wine are keen to see left with the wine trade and wine consumers is that if it's not "Natural" it has "crap" in it and may even be dangerous for your health. I have previously offered up a number of such comments and can point folks to these and others that indicate what I'm talking about.

Ms. Cable ends with this:

"For all of these reasons—personal, professional, and ethical—I don’t see natural wines as a marketing gimmick. Sure, it can happen. But mostly it’s about an informed choice about what we put in our bodies, whom we want to support with our money, and what happens on the earth around us. I know how I make my choices, and when I can, I opt for wine made by people who understand the fragile beauty of nature and who honor it."

I think she's written an excellent essay here and I recommend it. But I would be remiss in not pointing out that even this moderate and personal expression of her preference and appreciation for "natural" wines implies that if it's not natural, it's not unlikely to be of dubious content.

Finally, there is an aspect to the way the champions of "natural" wine talk about their object of affection that presumes to suggest that only these "pure" and "raw" wines can play the role that fine wine is supposed to play: to tell the story of the terroir in which the wine's grapes were grown. Consider this nugget:

"Natural wines are as diverse as the places they are made. Natural wine lovers are people who celebrate this diversity. Conventional wines have little or no sense of terroir, because it is all but destroyed by conventional winemaking practices."

What is "conventional" winemaking? Is it the same as "industrial" winemaking? It is entirely different than "natural" winemaking or only a little different? If commercial yeasts are used year in and year out on a specific single vineyard wine and if that wine displays similar characteristics year in and year out, must that characteristic be a result of the commercial yeast used to ferment the wine?  If a bit of RoundUp is used on weeds, will this obliterate any terroir that might be displayed in the wine? If the wine is fined with some natural element, will this obliterate any display of terroir in the wine? We rarely if ever get specifics when claims like the one above are made. We don't have wines being named.

To argue that you must indulge in "natural" wines in order to taste terroir is every bit as silly and denigrating to winemakers around the world as is suggesting that what "natural" winemakers are producing is natural at all.

Another example of a "Natural Wine" champion that does more than imply that anything but "natural" wine is artificial. This time it's accusing any wine not made with natural yeast to smell artificial and like shower gel. I wonder if this producer can guarantee that none of the yeasts floating around his vineyard and winery are manufactured? More marketing of one's own wine by denigrating others. What's worse, the claims are unsupportable. #nastyhabit

17 Responses

  1. Janice Cable - April 30, 2012

    Sweet post, Tom. Thanks!
    There’s nothing better than a healthy, respectful, spirited debate.
    Cheers to you,

  2. Bob Rossi - April 30, 2012

    My wife and I just got back from a month’s vacation in France, and we drank lots of very good wines, almost all purchased from producers we visited. A lot of them were from small family wineries with very committed vignerons, and some were from some very highly-regarded cooperatives. I don’t know how many qualified as “natural,” but in my mind the wines almost uniformly expressed their terroir. At one cooperative, where we were given a personal tour arranged by one of the cooperative’s growers, I saw a lot of bags of chemicals lying around, which didn’t thrill me, but boy did they make a fantastic rose, as well as a late-harvest Viognier.

  3. adrian reynolds - April 30, 2012

    Jesus, you’re a gasbag…

  4. El Jefe - April 30, 2012

    I’m still confused by the term “Natural Wine”. Seems to me that putting wine in a barrel and sullying its terroir with charred oak flavors could be considered unnatural. Filtering or fining the wine could remove too much. In fact, anything other than dropping the must into jars at the end of fermentation could be considered unnatural. I’m not getting it.

  5. Bruce G. - April 30, 2012

    How does one become a Champion of Natural Wine?
    Is there a competition? Is this an elected position?
    Inquiring minds wanna know…

  6. Phillip Hart - May 1, 2012

    Have you ever tried making different beverages with different yeasts? You might give yourself an education. I made some mead last year, one batch with Roussanne yeast, on batch with Grenache Blanc yeast – both yests were “Natural” (oh gosh what a terrible word) that came in with the grapes. The resulting meads were worlds apart, I mean worlds. They were also different from the batch made the year before using Belgian ale yeast.
    Does the picture start to formulate that non native yeast can not represent Terroir or “Natural” wine.
    I’m keeping it simple, but I practice what I preach and make “Natural” wine.
    I did get a giggle from “A little bit of roundup”, how about I pop just a drop of roundup into your 20 egg omlette, oh, come on, it’s only a drop. We really need to start thinking about this “Just a drop stuff”.

  7. Tom Wark - May 1, 2012

    How to account for the fact that single vineyard wines made by different producers using different yeasts retain a similarity of character?
    As for the Round Up example, it would make sense were we spraying RoundUp on the grapes in the fermenting vessel. But since we are not talking about that, then we are not making sense.

  8. Ken Bernsohn - May 1, 2012

    The desire for “natural” wine is a product of social economics. If you’re poor, you want food. Once you get a little more money you want better food. More money, you wan healthy for you food. still more money, and at a further remove from producing agricultural products you way want food that has a social component — less damaging to the earth or less manipulated (which takes a LOT of money. Then, if you have spare time and money, you may become concerned with the idea of food.
    The same changes apply to wine. Those concerned with”Natural wine ” tend to be urban university graduates with more money with more money than most.
    This isn’t to say they’re wrong, it’s simply that their interest is an expression of time and money.

  9. Bruce G. - May 1, 2012

    Commercially available yeasts can contribute certain recognizable flavors. This is well established.
    Whether it’s enough to completely decimate any terroir-related character is a far more contentious proposition.
    I don’t see that anyone here (“here” also including opinions contained in the links provided) is suggesting this, though.

  10. JohnLopresti - May 2, 2012

    The naturalness of wine products is a complex topic. In a way, the age-old controversy about FDA contents labeling for wines remains a sort of unspoken subtext in the respective advertising campaigns of competing jug wines versus more natural wines.
    In other foodstuffs, recently I have noticed a three tier grading in labels. Some companies which have produced a commodity that has become a consumer standard favorite for years have begun adding new product lines with labels like Natural, and certified USDA Organic, each more costly than the original generic product.
    With respect to the yeast questions, that, too is complicated. One of the features of jacketed stainless steel tanks is the temperature control that affords winemakers, which, in turn, allows for selecting which yeast is going to have its optimal conditions for being the predominant fermenting organism in the must. Personally, I find innoculating with commercial yeast interesting, and usually results in superior composition of the wine by all measures of sensory evaluation.
    A further aspect of the natural claims also appears to ask a question which by definition the sommelier will not answer: namely, the natural product advertising that critiques bulk processed wines’ composition, in part is advocating an evaluation of corporeal effects of both products. This goes beyond standard organoleptic assessment scoring, as wine judges do not ingest the wines they are scoring.
    And, like many other branches of agriculture, the politics of viticulture/enology tend to generate outsized disputes among proponents of one methodology rather than other ways of growing winegrapes and producing so-called still table wines.

  11. Virginia winemaker - May 2, 2012

    Odd about the “natural yeast” comment. All yeast, whether found in the vineyard or bought from Laffort, are natural. Wonder what the rationale is for thinking that packaged yeast is unnatural.

  12. Bruce G. - May 2, 2012

    Almost all yeasts would have to be considered natural. The only exception I would mention would be those wine yeasts that have undergone some kind of genetic engineering. Right now I think there’s only one of those commercially available, and I don’t believe it is used by many, so it’s a minor point.
    Same is true of clonal selections in the vineyard, often frowned upon by the “naturals”.
    Again, the terminology is a bit confusing, even if the general idea does come across.

  13. John - May 3, 2012

    Sorry, I still haven’t seen a commonly accepted definition of “natural wine”
    Until then, we’re just spinning our wheels.

  14. tanya - May 4, 2012

    i think that if wine producers were to all list the contents of the wine on the label this would help clear up the to and fro about who’s natural who’s not. let’s not forget that a vast majority of wines sold worldwide are supermarket wines, and i personally would rather not give them the benefit of the doubt, by assuming they were made in a ‘conventional’ way. these are indutrial products, and poeple should have access to information about how they are made and what is / isn’t added to them. most people ignore the ingredients labels on food products, but for those who do care, it is not unreasonable to expect that information to be readily available.

  15. tanya - May 4, 2012

    perhaps the difference is more related to the process of fermentation that occurs with wild / naturally occuring yeasts vs cultivated yeasts. have you noticed the difference in taste between sourdough bread and commercially leavened bread for example? this relates not so much to the yeast itself but rather the fact that wild yeasts allow for the presence of many other micro organisms that also have an effect on the taste of the finished product.

  16. Josephine - May 5, 2012

    Yes – like brettanomyces…
    ‘Commercial’ yeast is simply ‘pure’ yeast. Wild yeast is leaving to luck whatever happens to be floating around in the vineyard or winery.
    Neither is ‘unnatural’ – this issue is a silly argument – and the ‘made with wild yeast’ moniker is often just a marketing ploy by wineries with tins of active dry yeast out the back – I could name some of the most prestigious names in Europe and the US having worked for many years with them on yeast selection (but I won’t). Some yeast strains impart flavour and some don’t – this is determined by the individual strain of yeast, not by whether they are ‘wild’ or ‘pure’.

  17. Josephine - May 31, 2012

    And one final word from a highly respected wine scribe:
    It was the most atrocious wine tasting I have experienced in m 30 years in the wine industry.

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