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Monday, 9 May 2011

My Reply to Oliver Styles’ Post “It’s Not Natural to be Wine” via Catavino

The first part of Oliver’s post focuses on the meaning of the word ‘natural’ and its meaning in the phrase ‘natural wine’. Basically he says that if something is in its … er, natural state (eg, tomatoes, onions, garlic, crude oil, etc) then it’s ‘natural’; while if something is manmade or manufactured (eg, bottles, oak barrels, factories, etc) then it’s not ‘natural’. Similarly with processes, eg planting vines in rows, pruning, winemaking in general and cooking, etc are all not ‘natural’.

Well, yes, that’s perfectly correct! It is in fact the dictionary definition of the word ‘natural’. But where does that leave us? It leaves us with a completely useless and impractical definition of the word ‘natural’ as applied to winemaking in general and for the definition of ‘natural wines’ in particular.

What we need is a useful and practical definition, not a literal, dictionary definition.

Ultimately, until ‘natural’ is legally defined by a government agency (as has been done with ‘organic’) then we can all talk forever about it, making analogies and comparisons but not really getting anywhere - though the acts of reading and writing about it is of course great fun, sometimes it’s very instructive, and it either helps clarify peoples ideas on ‘natural wine’ or confuses them even more!!!

I don’t think there’s any practical point in using the dictionary definition of ‘natural’ or asking “Where does it all end?” because it ends somewhere meaningless and nowhere useful! Once we get away from the dictionary meaning of ‘natural’, it all becomes simpler and more sensible and practical.

Oliver also gives an excellent definition of natural wines: “Natural Wines are made with a philosophy of little-to-no manipulation…”. I would simply add “with no additions of any substances” and “ using grapes from chemical-free vineyards”.

Personally (and I can’t speak for other natural winemakers) if I ever had to add any substances to the must or wine, then in my mind it wouldn’t be natural any more, and I wouldn’t call it ‘natural wine’ or sell it as such. I would state on the label and in my literature what it contained. But that’s just my own personal definition.

Oliver asks how the natural wine fraternity views the use of fertilizers. Well, that’s an easy one! I can safely say that we all believe that organic fertilizers are OK, but that chemical ones are not. The oak question is more difficult: some, perhaps most natural wine producers, in fact view oak as an unnecessary addition or manipulation.

I suppose that a lot of people are upset or confused or critical of the fact that there’s no legal definition of ‘natural wine’, and of the fact everyone and their aunties all have a different opinion and definition. Well, to that, I say the following:

1) So what? Drink, taste, enjoy, write/blog/tweet about your experience!

2) What do you need a legal definition for anyway? Maybe you’re worried that some unscrupulous winery or intermediary will sell you wine as ‘natural’ when it isn’t. No doubt that will happen, unfortunately, but it happens right now all the time with regular wine from Appellations, Denominaciones, DOCs, etc. C’est la vie!

3) Natural wines are ‘fringe’ and close to the edge! If you can’t enjoy all that that entails, then go to a supermarket and buy your wines there! These are happy days for natural wines – when the legislators legislate us it’ll be a lot more boring (though no doubt there will be advantages too!)

4) Live fast, die young! The worst than can happen to you is that you get a glass of wine, that you don’t like! Surely that’s not too traumatic?

I agree with Oliver where he talks about the semantics of the phrase ‘natural wine’; I also think it’s a bit unfortunate that it’s called ‘natural wine’ because it raises so many hackles and generates so many unproductive sound-bites. By implication, the word ‘natural’ implies that conventional wines are ‘unnatural’ and of course that word has very negative connotations. But what to do about it? All possible alternatives share the same problem, eg ‘authentic’, real’. (I wonder why ‘real ale’ doesn’t make beer-drinkers upset?). I’m afraid we’re just going to have to live with it.

I also suppose that that people are upset or confused or critical of the fact that not even the natural winemakers can’t agree among themselves on what exactly constitutes ‘natural wine’. And to that I say the following:

1) As mentioned above, at least we are united by the philosophy of minimum intervention in the winery, no additions of substances and use of quality chemical-free grapes

2) My personal advice to wine-lovers who want to find out about and try natural wines is to do a bit of due diligence. Get onto the internet and check out the producers, both on their own webpages and on wine sites. And my personal advice to other natural winemakers is to ensure that all the relevant information about their wines is available to potential consumers

Oliver also mentions a supposed natural wine ‘dogma’ in his post, but I have to say that no such thing exists! A ‘dogma’ for me means a body of literature or rules that is handed down from on high (either by a supernatural being or by some kind of authority) and that everyone has to abide by and believe in. As we all know, there is (as yet!) no governing body, no legislation, no nothing! Maybe I’m being too pedantic here and what he really means instead of ‘dogma’ is the rules and statutes of an association of natural winemakers? Well, in Spain such an association exists (PVN) but it only has eight (8) members! Why haven’t the other hundred or so producers signed up? I’ve read the statutes and they seem very reasonable and sensible to me. There’s an association in France too (AVN) with about a hundred members (I think).

Another thing that Oliver mentions and that puzzles me is this “notion of right vs wrong”. I think this must be a case of the most vocal, charismatic and eccentric personalities generating a disproportionate quantity of sound-bites and column-inches. I personally do not believe for a minute that ‘natural’ wines are in any way better than conventional ones, because:

1) It’s just silly! It’s like saying “Wines from region/country X are better”. Obviously, there are some bad natural wines out there and there will be some that you just don’t like – just as there are some bad Burgundies, Chiantis or whatever

2) I have no desire to have everyone drink natural wines! I don’t go around spreading the word and looking for converts! The world wine-drinking population is huge and multi-faceted and there’s plenty of room for both worlds to co-exist perfectly happily together (see my post on Catavino)

3) If you speak to a large number of natural winemakers (the larger the sample the better) I’m sure you’ll find that this right/wrong, good/bad thing is not at all representative of the opinion of the majority. It’s the equivalent of quoting , say, a Burgundy snob, who believes that Burgundy wines are the best in the world and that all others are inferior because they’re not from Burgundy!

Next, I have to totally disagree with Oliver when he says that natural wines are “difficult to taste” and “generally cloudy, funky, dirty or just downright bizarre”. This is just not true, and I can only assume he wrote that because he hasn’t tasted a wide enough variety or representative enough sample, of the true range of natural wines. Sure, some natural wines are funky and cloudy, but again they’re just the ones that generate a disproportionate quantity of sensationalist column-inches. I’ll even stick my neck out here and say that maybe about 10-15% of natural wines may be like that, and that the rest are completely normal in appearance and partially so in tastes and aromas. A good and practical (and timely) way of verifying this would be to go to the Natural Wine Fair in London and count! Any takers? Unfortunately I can’t go myself :(

I deliberately wrote ‘partially’ in the previous paragraph because it’s true that the range of “acceptable” tastes and aromas in natural wines is wider than it is for conventional wines. And I’m not being euphemistic or apologetic for funky cloudiness here. In natural wines you can taste and smell many things that are masked or eliminated from conventional wines by the excessive amount of additives and manipulations. And I don’t mean bad, off or weird tastes or aromas – I mean nice, pleasant, interesting tastes and aromas that express the grape variety, climate, terroir and winemaker’s hand. But it’s no use me just saying these things – you really have to go out and taste a lot of natural wines until you find the ones you like. It may take you some time because there will be some natural wines that you don’t like, but once you do find them, you’ll be glad you made the effort.

Another topic that Oliver mentions in his post and that I don’t identify with at all is “attacking corporate winemaking”. Is that the vocal, charismatic, eccentric minority at work again? I don’t know, but it certainly doesn’t reflect my personal opinion as a natural winemaker. Like I said before, the wine-drinking market is huge and I believe that the majority of wine-drinkers don’t care how their wine is made and what ingredients are in it. As long as the juice tastes good, is reasonably priced and has a good label, then that’s OK with them. And it’s OK with me too! I believe that the natural wine market will always be small and that it comprises people who do care about how their wine is made.

Far from attacking corporate winemaking, what I do sometimes is simply to describe the processes and list the ingredients that corporate winemakers use. And for some reason, people don’t like that! I suppose it’s because it bursts the illusion that all wines are made in bucolic, family-run wineries – as opposed to the reality of giant industrial factories churning out millions of liters per year. Well, OK, I confess that sometimes I use loaded, emotionally-charged words instead of neutral ones (like ‘adulterate’ instead of ‘intervene’ or ‘dangerous chemicals’ instead of ‘substances’); but hey, I have to give as good as I get sometimes, no? Or do I have to just sit back every time and ignore the stuff about “bearded hippies”, “burying cowhorns in the vineyard”, “drinking murky, funky liquids they call wine”, etc etc..? No way! Not every time!

And lastly, what’s to be “immensely wary” about? (A recent article in the UK’s Telegraph also warned readers to be wary). Come on, guys, is that not a bit of an exaggeration? It’s only a glass of wine!!! If you don’t like it, just try another one!!! Life is short! Enjoy while you can, go explore some new tastes and aromas! And if you’re feeling really daring, try a funky cloudy one while you’re at it!

But seriously, instead of being wary, I say be curious, be adventurous, do a bit of due diligence and read what the mainstream natural winemakers have to say, and taste some mainstream natural wines first. If you need to be wary about anything, be wary about what people (including myself) say about ‘natural wine’!!!


  1. A good riposte to a strong post from Oliver. Good to have the debate conducted at this level.

  2. I don't think these natural wines have hit Ireland at all yet, I never see them around.

    I never realised you were involved in natural wines!

  3. Fiona, thanks for commenting. I take that as a great compliment :)

  4. Paul,I never realized myself that I'd been making natural wines for 6 years until one day about 2 years ago I read about them somewhere!!!

    You want to import some into Ireland? I have some lovely 100% Garnacha 2010 left :)

  5. Sure! I only pay after 1,600 days though, hope okay.

  6. OK, at €500/bottle, I can wait ;)

  7. The only way to have a real opinion about natural wines is to taste, taste and taste again. For natural or for any wine. About to name "natural" it is the common use in all countrys. To people who don´t agree with this name, please suggest other one, but it could be in vane, all of us continue to name it "natural"


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