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Natural Wine - Yes, No or Maybe?

The radio this week has been full of despairing parents complaining about unavoidably ubiquitous smart phones at primary schools and worried politicians debating how to regulate AI.  The generation gap between us Baby Boomers and the I-phone Babies could not be more obvious.

But it’s not just technology and social media that demonstrates the yawning divide, it’s drinking habits too. Whilst the (grand?) parents rummage around in their cellars for precious old vintages of Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Rhone, the younger generation has nowhere to store wines for decades and little interest in doing so.  Pleasure needs to be more immediate and more sustainable. Bordeaux is seen as corporate, old school, rich and more interested in bombastic architecture than the environment, and Burgundy, for all its ancient history, parcellated vineyards and biodynamics is too complicated and way too expensive. Consumption of wine in France, once almost as essential to life as water, is constantly dropping.

Fancy a cocktail anybody?

Meanwhile, trendy new wine bars spring up, (especially in Paris), messianic books declaim their organic sermon from the pulpits and large tastings are held of the new wave for the new era. I suppose if you had to sum up the new vogue in one word, all be it undefined, it would be ‘Natural’. In France there are three main gradations in greenness as regards viticulture. You start with ‘lutte raisonee’, defined by the IOBL (International Organization for Biological and Integrated Control) as ‘interventions decided after estimation of real risks at the plot scale, by the implementation of appropriate monitoring methods, and by reference to thresholds of tolerance or intervention, using pesticides chosen according to criteria of lower ecological impact with regard to the active ingredient, the quantity, the period of application, and respect for natural enemies.’ Got that?

Then you have Organic and of course, finally, Biodynamic when the lunar cycles take over, manure filled cow horns are buried overwinter and natural treatments used, with very limited allowance for non-natural protections such as copper sulphate. It can sound like mystical hocus pocus, ‘dynamising’ nettle potions by stirring clockwise or is it anticlockwise at certain times of the day (and phases of the moon), but if you put aside some of the stranger practices, accept the idea of getting back closer to Nature and actually look at the roster of biodynamic domaines, especially in Burgundy, you have to admit that it’s certainly not detracting from making many of the world’s greatest wines. I’m not going to attempt to explain let alone scientifically justify biodynamics and Rudolf Steiner, but taste the results.  This is a lot more than mere green marketing. DRC and Leroy in Vosne, Lafon in Meursault, Leflaive and Sauzet in Puligny, Bonneau in Charlemagne, and that’s just a snippet of the biggest names…

But what then is the last step ‘up’ the ladder? ‘Natural wine’. Of course as a term it’s a rather dumb misnomer as wine is, by its very essence, unnatural unless you wish to drink vinegar. Grapes don’t naturally ferment themselves in oak casks after being carefully picked, crushed and destemmed. But if the term is taken to mean an absence of chemical components and additives, and, above all, sulphur, then we at least have an idea of what it’s all about.

You find sulphur in tea, coffee, chocolate, quinoa, buckwheat etc, so it is not an immensely evil, toxic substance, though it’s obviously not good for you in higher doses. Nowadays wines generally have ‘Contains Sulphites’ warnings on the back label. I leave the rest to those with far more medical knowledge than I. The trouble is that if sulphur is the new enemy, it is also wine’s natural protector and without it you run the risk of your wine becoming a lot more natural than you originally intended. How much of the twenty yearlong premature oxidation crisis in white Burgundy is or hopefully was due to lower sulphur levels, who knows, but for sure it was a contributing factor. Less free sulphur, more risk of oxidation.

But sulphur free (or almost free) wines are becoming increasingly trendy along with terracotta amphora, egg shaped fermentation tanks and storage vessels and so on – the egg shape apparently encourages natural movement of the liquid inside, and clay removes the effects of oak. And the lack of sulphur, apart from rendering the wine more digestible and less toxic, is supposed to give an extra lightning flash of taste, a lift, and more excitement to wines. They ‘come alive’. Throw in ‘orange wines’ (whites made like reds, so with more than a tinge of colour and tannin) and the new wave presents many challenges to the old school, dyed in the wool palate.

I used to buy the wines of Domaine Gramenon in the Cote du Rhone long before the ‘Natural Wine Movement’ existed. They were anti-sulphur and their top, 100-year-old vine Grenache was indeed remarkable in that it tasted nothing like the sun-drenched, alcoholic wines of Gigondas and Chateauneuf and would make your thoughts wander a good deal further north, towards flowers, red fruit and elegance.  But, and it’s a rather large BUT, once I had tipped two bottles down the sink, I gave up on it. They were sparkling – secondary fermentation in the bottle, Grenache meets Champagne, not a winning combination.

And of course, one reason for the unintended re-fermentation would be the absence of sulphur. Take away your protection and you have zero margin for error, in winemaking or subsequent storage. And when you buy one, throw one away free, well, the price of what you actually get to swallow mounts.

Thierry Allemand in Cornas in the Northern Rhone uses as little sulphur as possible and makes fantastic wine, some of the world’s best Syrah, though I have never drunk (or seen) his rare and legendary no sulphur cuvee. In Burgundy, the Domaine Prieur-Roch sells for outrageous prices and has a controversial reputation – you can see the opposing views on Instagram – slightly cloudy, funky wines that you either love or hate. I can’t comment as they are way beyond my pay grade, but they obviously have a recognizable stamp which is presumably due more to the winemaking than terroir.

There are very mainstream, established domains in the Jura that use very little sulphur and we have drunk a few well known Chardonnays, again with somewhat mixed results, one bottle will be impressive, another just a little too odd. You can put this down to one of two things: either an ancien regime palate that is too used to drinking conventional wines and unable to appreciate new, challenging tastes, or a wine that is in fact partly faulty. The more cynical might even muse upon the emperor’s clothes?

Wine Folly has an amusing description of what they call ‘the darling of sommeliers’:

Think of it as wine unplugged. Natural wines are known for their funkier, gamier, yeastier characteristics and a cloudy appearance. They are often much less fruity and much more yeasty in their aroma profile than a typical wine, smelling almost like yoghurt or German Hefeweizen. Of course, some natural wines are quite clean and fruity indeed. But if you taste a few, you’ll discover most lean towards the sour, yeasty end of the spectrum.’

Not sure if that puts you on or off, but from my very limited experience it’s pretty accurate. (Hefeweizen by the way is beer – I had to look that up).

In Italy we drank a white wine from Sicily that was ‘natural’, trendy, much appreciated and, for us, off. Well, maybe not off, but not nice enough to bother drinking. Cloudy and yeasty – wine meets cider rather than beer? Thinking we needed to try harder, and going up the scale, I got a bottle of cult winemaker Emidio Pepe’s Trebbiano d’Abruzzo, as well as his even more lauded red Montepulciano. This surely would be a good test – famous wines that retail for a hundred euros apiece and receive oceans of applause.

The story is utterly compelling, a hero born in 1932 with over 55 vintages under his belt, a family that believed in a region and its local grape varieties, and eschewed the siren calls of modernist wine making, French grape varietals and fashion. The vines are trained on pergolas not far from the Adriatic Coast, ie horizontally up in the air like a roof – you can get underneath them. The foliage creates a protective ceiling to give shade to the grapes hanging underneath and the earth below has plenty of circulating air after any heavy rain. Everything is done by hand, (or foot), the crushing of the white grapes, the destemming of the reds, even the rebottling of every red bottle over ten (now twenty) years old in their cellar that contains 350,000 bottles. They like their wines to age properly, and sediment is a given, though rebottling by hand seems both a lot of manual labour and a risk (adding more oxygen into already mature wines).

Crushing the white grapes, from their website

But the pride, the family history, the belief in the region and its grape varieties, the typicity and the monumental amount of work, well, I love it. I was excited to get the wines and very keen to become a believer. The story was too good, the people too real, the tasting notes too ecstatic.

The white. Like the Sicilian wine from Cos, it was reminiscent of cider, with strong hints of fermentation (yeast). It had nettles and rich fruit, and yes there was a lot of flavour, but for the four of us who tried it, the taste was too weird and frankly not very pleasant. We left it for the next day, but the result did not change. We really did want to like it.

And so to the main event, the Montepulciano. The colour was a brilliant deep red, the nose full of hedgerow fruit and sour cherries, but – there is always a but – with an edge. And herein I think lies the issue. Just like the other wines, there was a hard green edge and a bit of a ‘prickle’ and hints of fermentation, as if the bottle wanted to start quietly bubbling again. It reminded me of tasting Burgundies in the spring before their malolactic fermentation has been completed, before the hard bitter apple malic acid has softened to lactic.  I never enjoyed the tastings (all be they at some legendary domains) and I could never get past that hard green taste and touch of yeasty ferment to the fruit. How experts can judge wines in cask ‘pre-malo’ I do not know.

Here I had the same feeling. Beautiful aromatic fresh fruit, but dominated by that ‘natural’ element. It was too edgy, too green, too yeasty, the fruit lovely but a bit lost. The two of us managed half a glass and then poured it back into the decanter, in hope.

And the next day? The fruit was there but the aromatics a bit dulled, the beauty a bit blurred, the texture now sour creamy, lots of sour cherry fruit. The hangover of fermentation seemed to have gone, the hard green edge was still there but softened, the wine enjoyable and the decanter emptied. Confusing and to be honest at the current price, too unreliable.

You cannot possibly judge a wine from one bottle, and perhaps ours was slightly subpar, but I can’t help wishing that a bit of extra sulphur had been added maybe at bottling just to preserve and stabilise the wine.

I have a suspicion that the ‘electric’ ‘lively’ taste that Natural wine afficionados so love is what I would call post fermentation prickle and I would place in the ‘faulty’ camp. And with the prices of many of the top names today, fault is just not acceptable, even in the name of something new and challenging.

Anyway, we need to try more and, in the end, chacun son gout…

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