We’re all familiar with Andersen’s 18th century tale turned popular idiom. The emperors subjects daren’t speak their truth for fear of being branded stupid. It takes the unrestrained tongue of an outspoken child to declare the Emperors obvious nudity. Natural wine can be a funky old place (no pun intended) What started life as a well-intentioned, philosophically-sound approach to holistic viticulture and winemaking may have past its use-by date. Narcissism of small differences, an undertone of pontification, lack of definition and a determination to overlook faults may leave the emperor feeling a little exposed. In this article I explore the issues as I see them.
Given that this is an opinion piece I should make my position on natural wine clear from the offset, I am a skeptic. I don’t like what the term infers, I’m cautious of the disproportionate amount of fault I find, I am unsettled by, and find unproductive, the inclusive nature of the ideology and I question the movements ongoing value.
The natural wine revolution appears to have found momentum, if not origin, in France during the 1970’s. It can largely be attributed to four producers (coined ‘The Gang of Four’) Lapierre, Breton, Thévenet, and Foillard, all centred in Beaujolais. The region, perhaps through good fortune, proved somewhat ideal to foster such a revolution. The soils, well-suited climate, and amicability of Gamay, allowed for a conversion from chemical farming in a way not so easily achieved elsewhere. After the war, France, hungry from a decade of despair, turned to large-scale chemical farming. Industry was fired up and the motivation was short-term economic regeneration not long-term consideration of land or vine. It is possible that witnessing this shift in farming toward a method aligned to philosophical belief encouraged and motivated revolution.
Almost 50 years later any definition of natural wine is ambiguous at best. The following ‘basic’ criteria are generally accepted as constituting natural wine. Organically or bio-dynamically grown grapes (with or without certification) dry-farmed, low-yielding hand-picked vineyard, no added sugars, no cultured yeasts, no adjustments for acidity, no additives for colour, mouth-feel, minerality, etc, no external flavour additives (including those derived from new oak barrel) minimal or no fining or filtration, no heavy manipulation and of course minimal or no added sulphur. Camille Lapierre tells Grape Collective that for her there is ‘no real definition of natural wine‘ and that ‘it doesn’t mean you do nothing in your cellar or your tank, it means if you have to use something you will, if you don’t need to, you will not‘ an answer not too useful to anybody seeking clarity or direction.
As movements grow. as this one has, they require definition. Without formal structure and hierarchy they are prone to losing original virtue, open to being hijacked and rapidly descend into representation by ideologues at the extremities. Alice Feiring recently wrote a piece in The New York Times titled ‘Is Natural Wine Dead?’ the piece outlined all sorts of challenges, focally the issue of large corporates hijacking the now trendy, particularly amongst a younger liberal demographic, natural wine movement, stripping their version of it of all original value.
My first, and most pressing, issue with natural wine is the inference of its name. To define a particular category of product as natural (a term commonly invoking thoughts and feelings of health and wellbeing for oneself and the environment) by default infers that an alternate category may not be so natural, this is simply not the case. The condition of farming and winemaking is a continuum, a bi-modal distribution not binary. This kind of inference is problematic not only to those winemakers choosing not to adhere to the loose requirements of natural wine but also to the perception of the wider consumer.
I have spent a great deal of time talking to winemakers in vineyards across Europe, the number of them farming in a biodiverse (whether that be organic, biodynamic or biodiverse not certified) fashion is vast. Chiara Boschis handpicks a specific caterpillar from her vines, caterpillars which she has not yet figured out how to rid without killing. Gaia Gaja, whose vineyards are painstakingly tended to year round, ensuring all-encompassing biodiversity, finds romantic connotation in the term ‘natural wine‘ but chooses not to associate herself with it. Earlier this year in London she told me ‘there is nothing natural about winemaking‘ and that she prefers to experience ‘human wine‘ a wine in which she can taste culture and dreams. Whilst I am aware that both biodynamic and organic are also labels, each with their own unique inferences, it does not seem obvious to me that they infer an equal level of potentially negative consumer inference toward opposing categories. Additionally it seems that they have not (with some exception to biodynamics) became touted ideologies.
One could discuss, explore and debate the philosophical underpinnings of natural wine all day long. On the other hand, my second issue warrants no debate. There is a disproportionately high rate of fault found in natural wine when compared to ‘classical’ wine. What is perhaps most frustrating about this heightened rate of faults is the pluralistic ignorance of natural wine’s adherents, a failure to call a horse a horse for what appears to be fear of invalidating the philosophy or movement as a whole. I’ve opened a number of obviously faulty bottles (primarily brettanomyces and volatile acidity) with natural wine fans who have instead described the faults as funky or unique, pungent odours of barnyard and nail varnish referred to as character and style.
Lack of regulation and definition appears to lead some natural winemakers, particularly those with little experience, down a path of do-whatever-you-like. A stern refusal to ‘add any baddies’ all too often results in unpalatable wines. Rigid ideology cab result in more focus on adhering to the process than the end product. Inability to sensibly address these fault-related issues can create a desire to avoid affiliation, fuels the fire of critics and devalues the underlying sentiment of the movement.
The narcissism of small differences is the thesis that groups with close relationships are especially likely to engage in feuds due to hypersensitivity to points of differentiation (e.g small sects of breakaway Christian groups and mainstream Christians argue more than with Muslims or other seemingly juxtaposed religions) In her New York Times article Alice Feiring shines a light on ‘the ‘tribal infighting and purity tests‘ growing ever popular within the natural wine world.
This brings me on to my third and final issue. A movement born of philosophy, sharing ideals and respect for land and vine seems to have a side not so idealistic. More often than not when I engage natural wine fans on the topic (I’m polite, I promise) theres a sense of pontification, a sense of ‘if you don’t get it you will never will‘, a club that skeptics just can’t be part of. I think this forms some of the allure of natural wine, a mysticism, a uniqueness, and until recently a degree of exclusivity. It is not my personal experience but Feiring speaks further of infighting amongst winemakers, importers and critics who are also aggressively defending their hallowed turf (against who I am not so sure)
It may seem that I am entirely pessimistic about natural wine, I’m not. Not only have I drunk some fantastic natural wines but I also recognise the force which the movement is capable of yielding in propagating a healthy and diverse approach to farming, an approach that we are desperately in need of (I recommend listening to Mimi Casteel on Levi Dalton’s Podcast) The underlying philosophy is not only healthy but essential if we are to continue to farm in many of the world’s most desirable regions. But (and it’s a big BUT) I believe much of the movements current growth is driven by trendy millennials whose purchasing decisions are interchangeable, volatile and prone to switching.
As the trend grows, and reaches new heights of interest, the decisions of larger corporates have the potential to discredit the movements philosophical intentions as it becomes detached from its origins. Whilst its proponents are eager to encourage others to adopt more holistic and environmentally friendly farming techniques, I am not so sure those at the centre really want the movement to achieve mainstream notoriety. People are attracted to movements which allow them to differentiate themselves, mass-market status simply does not offer the same level of appeal.
The answer to the question of how to encourage sustainable agriculture, embed an appropriate philosophy and communicate this message effectively to those who want to listen without encountering all of the aforementioned issues is incredibly challenging. Perhaps we need a new testament, a natural wine 2.0, perhaps a grading system on some sort of continuum, maybe the answer is better communication methods with the consumer. Who knows, not me, but I’m certainly dubious of the movement in its current form.