May 01, 2012 3 comments
A version of this post appeared recently on Harpers Wine & Spirits website. Thought it might be worth a repost here!
Natural Wine. It’s funny to me what fervour those little words stir up in the wine industry, despite making up only a minuscule portion of the world’s wines.
I first discovered natural wine (or real, or artisan, whatever you want to call it) over two and a half years ago when only a handful of people were talking about it. I knew not what I was drinking except that it was clean and pure and difficult to describe, and so, well, natural. It was the beginning of my love affair with natural wines.
Suddenly in the past year or so, natural wine has become a hot topic. Or the latest ‘trend’, the word many journalists and bloggers have latched onto. But that fact is that hundreds of winemakers around the globe have been working this way for many years. And before the dawn of the age of pesticides and synthetic yeasts (and the myriad of other legally allowed sprays and additives), it was the only way they worked. Natural wine is now a staple of wine bars around the world, particularly in the USA, France and Japan. Just because more and more Brits are now becoming aware of these wines’ existence doesn’t make them a trendy new fad. I think of a trend as being something that suddenly appears from nowhere, creates a lot of buzz, and then leaves as rapidly as it came, and this certainly doesn’t apply to natural wines.
Perhaps this is because natural winemaking is really just a philosophy, a set of ideals that a growing number of winemakers are striving to achieve. Romanee-Conti’s Aubert de Villaine or Chateau Musar’s Serge Hochar are working in similar veins to small producers like Giorgio Clai in Croatia or the Kleins at Ngeringa in Australia. This diversity is what makes natural wines so exciting but is also what makes them so hard to pin down and box into one neat category, despite our human desire to do so. Those who know what they’re doing produce exceptionally beautiful, gluggable wines. And those who don’t produce some pretty awful stuff. But can’t that be said for the wine world as a whole?
I was initially flabbergasted (and now just bored) by the crimson faced knicker-twisting that goes on amongst natural wine’s critics; those who declare with such certainty what is ‘proper’ wine and what isn’t, who lump all natural wines together as one homogenised whole when many have only tasted a handful, and who liken all supporters of natural wine to television evangelists spreading false hope to the easily duped (they don’t seem think it’s ironic that their own proselytising sounds much more like Bible-thumping to an outsider); And finally, who believe that because natural wine lovers wax poetical about wines made with a delicate touch, we must therefore be damning all other wines to lab coat-wearing hell, like an insecure parent who believes that because the teacher gives praise to one child, it must mean she considers the rest of the students to be sub-standard. It’s really quite astonishing the level of fury and sweeping judgement that has been stirred up all because of a small group of like-minded winemakers striving to make chemical-free wines and to preserve their land in the best way they can.
Over the years I’ve been fortunate enough to visit dozens of these winemakers around the world. It’s been the best way to understand the wines themselves, by witnessing first hand the passion and craftsmanship that goes into them. What I’ve most taken away from my visits is that while it’s convenient for critics to paint an image of all natural winemakers being hemp-wearing hippies, in reality many of them are skilled oenologists trained professionally or at their father’s and grandfather’s sides. And they are also some of the bravest souls I’ve encountered. To make wine with so little additives takes a heck of a lot of guts and relies on a lot of skill and care in the vineyards to raise extremely healthy grapes which will more or less stabilise and preserve themselves. It would be far easier to chuck in a load of chemicals and additives to manipulate the wine into the form they desire, and yet they choose the more difficult yet ultimately more rewarding path (for both our health and our earth).
I know it isn’t realistic for most consumers to travel to the wineries of natural producers. Virtually none of them are set up to receive visitors. Which is why the myriad of natural wine events happening in May are such a brilliant opportunity for both consumers and trade to meet the winemakers in person, try their wines, and experience snippets of their culture and ways of working.
It’s time to put to bed these wearisome and petty arguments surrounding natural wines and to accept that while not all wines made naturally will be to everyone’s tastes (like, in fact, all wines), but that a natural winemaking philosophy is good for our health and our planet, and like it or not, is a sector of the wine world that is here to stay.
*Check out our list of winemakers who will be attending the Real Wine Fair and have a look at all the events happening during Real Wine Month all of May and find a participating restaurant or wine bar near you.