Natural wine is a beautiful paradox
Its name suggests wine from antiquity. It harks back to a time before unnatural wine. But, like a lot of things it’s a contemporary response to a very modern problem.
That problem is the industrial complex that has arisen around the wine industry since the Second World War. The post war era and its commodification of pretty well everything has crept up and been applied to wine.
Which would be fine. But getting into it more, wine and wine culture is the antithesis of the post war stack ‘em up, pile ‘em high approach.
Wine celebrates variety. It revels in diversity of climatic conditions, terrain, grape varieties, approaches and yes, altitudes.
Perhaps in response to this modernist over-analysis, natural wine is more a creed than a certificate. In fact, there’s only one certification body to verify a wine is ‘natural wine’– Institut National de l’Origine et de la Qualité (INAO).
How is natural wine made?
There are two essential processes in making wine: growing the grapes and fermenting their juice.
To our contemporary ears natural wine does pretty well what it says on the tin. It’s freedom from anything ’unnatural’ in these two wine making processes. This means while growing NO chemical fertilisers or synthetic pest control products are allowed. And during fermentation NO unnatural additives (including adding sulfites) are permitted and perhaps definingly, NO unnatural yeast are allowed too.
Unnatural yeast in this context is what can also be called cultured or selected yeast. Natural yeast is normally referred to as wild or indigenous yeast: yeast that drifts all over the place, including vineyards.
The problem is there are hundreds if not thousands of strains of wild yeasts. But there are only a handful that serve the wine making process well.
Without wanting to get too technical, the majority of yeasts die out before the grape juice is fully fermented. This leaves the wine full of residual sugar–the fermentation is halted, stuck, disrupted. Which is not good, and because of the preference for natural yeast, is more prevalent in natural wine.
The remaining few ‘good’ yeasts that complete the fermentation process are not necessarily going to be present and correct in the wild where the wine is being fermented. Hence the risk with natural wine.
Another side to the argument is wild yeasts are indigenous to where the wine is grown, so they add to the sense of place in a wine. If, like in Jura, France, those indigenous yeasts are the right kind of yeast you’re quids in. But, it seems quite a lot of natural wine falls foul to the wrong kind of wild yeast.
In short, I think natural wine is defined by what it’s not (freedom from) not by what it is (freedom to). And that's where natural wine is falls down. It's only part of the solution to our very modern problem.
Michael Braungart and William McDonough wrote a while back an excellent book called Cradle to Cradle, which I've recently read (and highly recommend).
In it they outline five steps to what they call 'eco-effectiveness'. Natural wine covers the first step: 'get free of known culprits'. As an approach, let's push it to define how it works with nature and all it's biodiversity to reinvent what truly beautiful, sustainable wine is.
And, back to antiquity
Most Greeks who drank wine with Philip of Macedonia would normally have their wine cut with honey and herbs. Those who drank it uncut would suffer serious stomach pains and ulcers caused by the acids.
Over the thousands of years of wine making history it has been a struggle to understand the wine making process. Perhaps the arrogance of modernism thought it had solved wine making.
We say emphatically NO.
There is still lots to learn. And in fact, the way wine is made is never done: it’s more a reflection of the culture that makes it.