What does “natural wine” actually mean?
Jane Masters MW is Opimian’s Master of Wine
In recent years, you may well have noticed an increasing use of the term “natural wine”. But what does this term mean? Unfortunately, there is no standard definition and means different things to different winemakers. Rather it is a philosophy for minimal intervention in the vineyard and in the winery and has much in common with organic and biodynamic wine production.
There is also an overlap between natural and orange wines. These are made from white grapes fermented on grape skins in the same way as red wines are made – in other words, a winemaking technique. Many orange wines are made naturally but not all. By the way, the name refers to the resulting wine colour – there is not a sniff of an orange or any other citrus in sight!
I actively support working in keeping with nature, but I do take issue with some of the myths and communications around “natural wines”. When I was last in Australia five years ago, a group of Mornington Peninsula winemakers insisted that their wines simply “made themselves”. This is hogwash. Wines do not and cannot “make themselves”. Someone has to prune and tend to vine, if not they grow wild and rambling and produce lots of vegetation and very few grapes. Someone must decide when and how to pick the grapes and someone has to decide what fermentation vessels to use, how long to macerate on skins, when to bottle and many other winemaking decisions. Man plays a role in the production of any and all wines, albeit to a greater or lesser extent.
For any wine, the most important qualities for me are its flavour, structure and balance. There are good natural wines but just because a wine is “natural” doesn’t mean it tastes good. I am sad to say that more often than not natural wines I taste are faulty with dominating aromas of cheese, vegetal notes or brown apples often accompanied by a thin sour palate.
It takes skill to produce good natural wines with the best natural winemakers are those that understand the fundamentals of winemaking. However, I am afraid there are others for whom the concept of natural is more important than the quality of the wine they produce, use it as an excuse for taking a laissez-faire approach to winemaking or who are reacting to a consumer marketing trend rather than a being a true proponent.
I suspect there is a perception that natural wines are better for us. But is this really the case? Wines do not contain large amounts of “nasties” – the most important one being alcohol (and if you overdo it there are consequences). Wines contain hundreds of flavour compounds produced by yeast during fermentation. Commercial yeasts are selected to ensure a smooth fermentation and enhanced flavours. Natural wines are fermented by native yeasts so the winemaker has no control and these can produce higher levels of biogenic amines such as tyrosine, histamine (although levels are still lower than certain cheeses, dried meats and pickles). True, organic and natural wines have lower levels of added sulphites but gone are the days of belts and braces sulphur additions. Sulphites protect wine against oxidation and microbial spoilage ensuring it arrives in our glass in tip top condition. Natural wines are not filtered or fined appearing cloudy and contain higher levels of microbes and proteins making them less stable in bottle hence prone to off flavours.
Minimizing our impact on the environment is important. Natural winemakers often use organically or biodynamically grown grapes and encourage biodiversity in the vineyard. But organic viticulture in regions with high humidity can be more harmful to the environment than conventional viticulture due to the amount of organic copper treatments required which can lead to soil toxicity. Increased numbers of spray treatments increase the amount of diesel used by tractors, hence carbon emissions and can lead to soil compaction. So once again it’s not clear cut.
I love the ideal of natural wine, but when evaluating any wine I take the same rigorous approach. An allowance is not and should not be made because a wine is “natural”. Having said that, I am pleased to say that there are some delicious examples. Indeed, in this Cellar Offering, Alvaro Espinosa at Antiyal is one of the most gifted biodynamic winemakers, Jean-Charles Villard is making some textured natural Orange wines from Semillon and Pinot Gris and there is a 2020 natural Cabernet Sauvignon produced by Roberto Echeverría.