Road and vineyards

Natural Wines: Two Obstacles

Road and vineyards
Vines in a “natural” vineyard near Soave in winter.

The Obstacles for Natural Wines

Before I launch into a long, nasty tirade about this very misunderstood area of wine, indulge me for a moment and permit me to say that I think the premise of “natural” wines is likely the most appealing of all the possibilities open to us for winemaking and viticulture:

wines made without any additives – often not even sulphur – and without fining or filtration; from grapes that are not sprayed with pesticides or fungicides, the vines rooted in soils that are not compacted, not sprayed with herbicides, and not treated with chemical fertilisers. Completely natural.

This may be a bit severe, but it is about as good a definition for natural wines as any out there, and better than many.

But it isn’t the definition that is the problem for natural wines, although they do suffer from the lack of a cohesive movement. No, the troubles are more fundamental than even a unifying definition and coherent practices. Nevertheless, nearly all the myriad perceived troubles boil down to just two main problems:

#1: Too Many Bad Wines

If you wanted to have a single, most significant issue, this would be it: the success rate is regrettably dismal.

For the consumer, natural wines remain a minefield  – or a crapshoot, if you prefer. Buying “blind” is simply extremely risky. I do not want to say that I never get any good natural wines, because I do – lots of them, in fact. But I get far, far more defective ones that are hawked under the moniker of “natural” than I do from any of the other labels that can be attached to a wine: sustainable (haha!), organic, biodynamic, and that much-maligned “conventional”.

A case in point: last year I was at a presentation put on by a major German importer of natural wines, where I took the opportunity to try nearly a hundred of them. Over sixty of those wines were perceptibly faulty – and in some cases the winemakers themselves were standing there pouring them! But instead of admitting that the wines are problematic, defenders of the defective wines trot out the same excuses over and over again: it’s the taste of terroir (take that excuse and shove it, those of you who want to further abuse the word “terroir”), it’s a different flavour and aroma palette (yes, it can be, but defects remain defects) and more. Or they obstinately denied noticing anything at all. What’s more, most of the wines at the event (particularly the reds) actually tasted much the same – a criticism generally levelled at the mass-produced, industrial wines that populate supermarket and discounter shelves. Yes, the palette is different, but within that palette, there was a bland sameness to all the wines.

Let me be clear: making a successful natural wine requires dedication, experience, and fanatical attention to hygiene in the cellar, not to mention very healthy grapes coming from microbiologically balanced vineyards. They don’t happen overnight. They generally require an investment of years of experience, time and care in the cellar and especially in the vineyard to get a reliable product, and even then things can go wrong in a heartbeat. I’m not criticising the effort, nor am I denigrating the ambition, which I find admirable. No, I am calling out the deception and the willing blindness of people with a vested interest in the success of the movement, as well as the fans who turn a blind eye. There are too many people willing to praise a faulty product simply because its production is virtuous.

#2: Too Complicated

Let us assume, for a moment, that natural wines are defective at about the same rate of any other wine. In fact, let us also assume that the taste of the average natural wine appeals equally to the average consumer as a wine from one of the other categories, and that the cost is also about the same. The producers offer about the same cachet or prestige, as does the area where it is made. All other things being equal, what would the reason be to buy a natural wine instead of a conventional or organic one? Clearly it would have to be because the wine is “natural”. But what does that mean? The definition I have supplied above may be more or less accurate, but is it useful to the majority of people (not experts) who are out buying a bottle?

No. It isn’t.

There remains, unfortunately, a lot of explanation that needs to be undertaken for the average consumer to make the decision to buy from this category. And this is because, in order to understand what a natural wine is, one needs to understand why it is necessary to have the category at all.

Despite the popularity of organic produce and “fair trade” products and all the other socially and environmentally-aware movements underway in the consumer world otherwise, there remains comparatively little awareness of what goes on in the vineyard and in the cellar when it comes to wine. Most people, even many wine professionals, remain unaware of the scale and number of additives and treatments that exist and can be used. This means that, to understand the natural wine movement, one has also to understand what it is a reaction against. Many consumers still think very romantically about the wine that they drink and consider it a natural product to begin with. “Why is this called ‘natural wine,’” they might wonder, “isn’t all wine natural?” It certainly should be, in my opinion, or it should be labelled otherwise.

Therein lies the rub. The explanation of why there is a “natural” category must also include – I daresay it must start with – an explanation of what “conventional” wines entail (without even going into the fact that we are talking about treatment and additive options, many of which conscientious producers would not use). Not only that, we will also need to explain what “organic” and “sustainable” mean, insofar as that is possible to do (challenging with regards to “sustainable” practices). This quickly becomes an epic sales pitch, and it should be unnecessary. The quality of being “natural” should be a feature, not the function.

What to do?

In an ideal world, make good quality wine that can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with equivalent wines from any other category. Then sell it as “just” wine, not as natural wine.

As I have written previously, these labels (natural, organic, biodynamic) cannot, must not be the primary sales argument. The wine must taste good. If the wine is good, every other positive thing about it becomes a pleasant bonus and the negative things (such as price, if it is more money) can be mitigated. The “virtue” factor plays a role here, too: people in many markets are often willing to pay a little bit more for a product that has low environmental impact. Organics has demonstrated, too, that there is a significant market out there for products utilising lower-impact intervention. Natural wines and the associated viticultural and cellar practices take this idea much closer to its logical conclusion.

As far as being able to make them well, this is far more difficult to master. Many new, young winemakers are fascinated with the possibility of making natural wine, and often jump in headfirst, and without the benefit of previous experience. As I’ve said, I find the ambition admirable. The success rate, however, could be vastly improved with more sharing of ideas, techniques and practices between winemakers. This is starting to happen, particularly with such winemaking associations as VinNatur, which I mention below. But far more importantly, it is crucial that the people making and selling the wine approach the final product as honestly as possible. When faulty wines make it onto the market it not only damages the producer’s reputation, it damages the category. I don’t think that many producers of such wines are trying to convince customers that the wines are not faulty; I think they have already convinced themselves.   

Natural wines, made well, DO taste good. The flavour and aroma palette can be different from conventional wine – particularly in the case of white wines – but it doesn’t have to be so far removed as to be unrecognisable. Defective wine remains defective wine, and the pleasing self-satisfaction of virtuously buying a bottle of “natural” wine instead of the alternatives will only mask the taste of an awful wine for so long. Only the greatest self-deceivers will continue to buy bad-tasting, defective wine year in and year out and convince themselves that they enjoy it.

On a Positive Note

Despite the problems, the natural wine movement is picking up momentum, which I find very positive. If you take a look around you will see a few indications that the natural wine movement is something to take seriously. As far as I am concerned, the more producers who take on the challenges, the more successful wines we will get. If the successful producers can show others how to overcome the difficulties, there can be a sea change in the way that we perceive wines and winemaking. As the category emerges from its niche, more and more consumers will know what it is about. 

  • Mainstream producers are taking notice: many high-profile organic and even conventional producers have begun to experiment with low-sulphur or sulphur-free (I mean there is no added sulphur, of course) wines. These are, obviously, not necessarily natural wines – but daring to make wines with low or no sulphur requires a whole different way of working if they are going to succeed. And, as I mentioned, the aroma profile of the resultant wines can be quite different than expected. The more producers there are offering these wines, the more “normal” they become. It may be baby steps at the moment, but they are baby steps in the right direction.
  • Private Associations are filling the need for legislation with regards to winemaking and best-practice, leading to better quality and consistency. One of the best was founded in Italy and counts 170 members from across Europe: VinNatur. The best tasting of natural wines I’ve ever experienced was one of theirs, with plenty of delicious, ageworthy wines and not a single defective bottle among the lot. They have laid the groundwork to help people convert to natural production and support them along the way, and are conducting ongoing research into best vineyard practices. Great stuff, read more about them here next week.
  • Wine Shops and Wine Bars dedicated to the category have sprung up all over the world. Granted, they are still almost always in major centres, but they have become big drawing points and word gets around quickly. Some of them may be cashing in on a perceived trend, but most of the people I know who are involved in such enterprises are passionate about the wines – and generally don’t tolerate the bad stuff.

As I said, the premise of natural wines is ideal. I sincerely hope that the reality catches up with it as soon as possible.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *