It is difficult to utter the words natural wine without sparking a heated debate. The term polarizes people. The definition conjures confusion. Consumers seem destined to either love or hate it.
Much of the conflict is based in semantics. The vague quality of ‘natural’ fuels the argument, while mainstream producers take offense at the implication that such a term renders their wine ‘unnatural’ by comparison. Even amongst those who align themselves with the principles of the natural movement there is discord about what to call these wines and how to label them.
In general, natural winemaking (which I will call it for simplicity’s sake) encompasses the ethos of a group of winemakers who grow their grapes without chemical additions, hand harvest the fruit, avoid the addition of industrially produced yeasts, and keep sulfur additions to a bare minimum, if it is to be added at all. The degrees to which producers adhere to this ‘naturalness’ vary, as do the names by which they define their products – including ‘authentic’, ‘naked’, ‘artisan’, and ‘sustainable’. The one thing they share, however, is a drive to make wine with very little intervention.
This hands-off approach is celebrated because it is seen as a means of preserving identity and distinctiveness. Key to this classification is that ‘organic’, ‘biodynamic’ and ‘sustainably produced’ wines are not necessarily of the natural ilk. Many wineries employ such practices in the vineyards, but when it comes to the cellar, the grapes are often subjected to industrial methods. This includes techniques like reverse osmosis and microoxygenation, and can also mean the addition of colorants, enzymes, sugar, artificial flavorings, and synthetic preservatives.
“Modern winemaking techniques and refinements can erase perceived faults but they also kill personality,” says Giulio Armani, the winemaker at La Stoppa and founder of the new domain Denavolo, both in Emilia Romagna, Italy. “The joy of natural wines is that each one is living and every bottle is unique, even those from within the same vintage.”
Many opponents suggest that this approach is simply a fad, a trend that excuses sloppy winemaking techniques. Renowned critic Robert Parker Jr. has pronounced that the natural movement is “one of the major scams being foisted on wine consumers.” This raises the question of how we choose to define flaws and faults in products, a somewhat hazy overlap between food, art and craft. But what many people love about natural wines is not that they are necessarily the best—that is, the most refined or elegant—but that they are unpredictable, alive, personal, and reflective of a winemaker’s work with particular fruit and in a specific place.
In the end, there is definitely room to accommodate both markets. Natural wines counter what seems to be increasing homogeneity, and it is heartening to see producers and retailers embracing craft practices while creating products that do not present an ever-pervasive sameness.