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What are 'natural wines' and are they a good thing?

Anyone interested in wine can't have failed to notice that the term 'natural wine' has become rather a hot topic. It's also seriously controversial with strong, and sometimes heated, opinions on both sides of the debate. Caroline Gilby MW takes a look at what it means and whether going natural is a good thing for the world of wine.

What are 'natural wines' and are they a good thing?

What do we mean by 'natural' winemaking?

The first question is what 'natural' means when it comes to winemaking? Unlike terms such as 'organic' and 'biodynamic', there is no legal definition nor certifying standard. So really it's a self-proclaimed movement of winemakers who want to make wine without 'chemicals' or additives (personal hobby horse here - you often hear the word 'chemical' thrown around as signifying bad, but where would we be without chemicals like dihydrogen monoxide or good old H2O I wonder?).

Natural winemaking is a philosophy of low intervention, probably driven by reacting against what is seen by many as the industrialisation of wine. Shiny stainless steel, computer controls with banks of flashing lights, cross-flow filters, centrifuges and electrodialysis take the romance away from wine for many. However, there's no doubt that all this technology has made wine much more consistent and generally a reliably drinkable product. Some readers might recall the minefield of buying wine back in the 1970s and 1980s.

Gérard Gauby doing what comes naturally in the Roussillon.
Gérard Gauby doing what comes naturally in the Roussillon.

Gérard Gauby doing what comes naturally in the Roussillon. He has been a trail-blazer for the pursuit of a more natural approach to winemaking.
It may also be a shock to realise quite how many permitted additives and processing aids can be involved in winemaking. One bizarre quirk of EU law is that wine is exempt from having to list ingredients on the label, apart from the recent requirement to declare certain potential allergens like sulphites if over 10mg/l or, since the 2012 vintage, eggs or milk products used for clarification if residues are over 0.25mg/l.

Wine can contain additives (look away now!!)

However, the full list of additives is too long to mention here but includes things like tartaric and citric acids, gum arabic, potassium sorbate, vitamin C, tannins, sugar (to boost alcohol), carboxymethyl cellulose (helps prevent crystals forming), dimethyl dicarbonate (used to kill microbes), those sulphites already mentioned, and concentrated grape extracts like the infamous Megapurple used to boost colour and mouthfeel.

Processing aids, which shouldn't remain in the finished wine, include isinglass (from fish swim bladders) albumin, casein, gelatine (from eggs, milk, animal carcasses); PVPP (Polyvinylpolypyrrolidone) and activated charcoal (all used to clarify and adjust colour); Potassium ferrocyanide (used to correct excess copper or iron in white and rosé); copper sulphate (to prevent reduction problems); lysozyme and pectolytic enzymes; bentonite clay, plus yeast and yeast products. And much more.

Grapes almost never arrive at the winery in perfect shape

Grapes almost never arrive at the winery in perfect shape. S
Sorting syrah at Domaine Jones

While winemakers would all love to be able to put grapes in a vat, let the fermentation get going and bottle the end results, grapes are a direct agricultural product and almost never arrive at the winery in perfect shape. So much depends on the weather, disease pressure and problems with pests like birds or insects, and technology has done a huge amount to allow winemakers to make something drinkable and even enjoyable in less than ideal conditions.

'can wine ever be natural'?

The other thing to consider in this debate is whether wine can ever be 'natural'. If you pick grapes and leave them in a container, they will ferment as there are so many microbes around. (For more on this see my article on The Secrets of Fermentation.)

Wine without humans would not exist!

However, wine as we know it is only an intermediate stage on the path to vinegar, and without human intervention, wine would not exist. First of all, in taming wild rambling tree-climbing vines into a vineyard that will give a crop, and then in stopping the fermentation process while wine is still wine, and keeping it there until it reaches the end consumer. This is where the almost universal additive, sulphur dioxide comes in (sometimes described as sulphites because that is the predominant form found once it has been added to wine).

Sulphur dioxide (or SO2 for short) exists in nature and indeed is produced as a by-product of yeast fermentation at low levels. It has also been used in winemaking for a long time. It is hard to pin down exactly when use started routinely but ancient Greeks certainly knew about sulphur dioxide's useful preservative and fumigant properties.

SO2 does several useful things in wine: it mops up oxygen, reducing chances of oxidation; it kills microbes and can be used to help control which yeast species dominates fermentation (luckily Saccharomyces cerevisiae has a higher tolerance of SO2 than most yeast and bacteria) then later to protect wine from further microbial damage. And for good measure, it works against certain enzymes from rotten grapes that can damage colour and flavour.

SO2-free wine is possible but risky

It's possible to do without using additional sulphites in wine - but very hard and very risky. Utter attention to hygiene is required along with removal of as much air (and hence oxygen) as possible from tanks and pipes and everything needs to be kept cool to slow enzymatic reactions (though another danger is that oxygen becomes more soluble at low temperatures). Certain styles of wine are more robust - low pH, no leftover residual sugar and red wine tannins all help to keep wine more stable. Even organic standards recognise the universal usefulness of SO2, and permit its use, though under tighter limits than normal.

Imposing controls on natural wine producers could be tricky

While there's no law that controls 'natural' in winemaking, there are moves to impose standards such as the RAW wine fair charter that specifies organic or biodynamic growing, use of natural yeast, no gadgetry and only low levels of sulphites (with no other additives). This specifies a maximum of 70mg/l compared to EU limits of 150mg/l to 400mg/l depending on wine style. I suspect agreeing standards and imposing a paper trail will be difficult in a group of winemakers who are rejecting formal industrialised winemaking.

But what about the end results?

All sounds good so far - but it is when it comes to tasting what's in the glass that I start to have issues. Too many natural wines are just not pleasant and can be downright undrinkable - hazy, funky, cidery, fizzy and oxidised are all characteristics I don't enjoy and faults like these obscure the taste of actual grapes and terroir too. Farmyard aromas from rogue Brettanomyces yeast or ethyl acetate and vinegar from Acetobacter or Gluconobacter are no fun either.

Serge Hochar of Lebanon's Chateau Musar
Serge Hochar of Lebanon's Chateau Musar

The late great Serge Hochar of Lebanon's Chateau Musar, a non-interventionist winemaker before the term was fashionable, who famously said, 'I once produced a wine that was technically perfect but it lacked the charms of imperfection.

The best ones can be fantastic - but it's such a minefield to find them and hope that they hang on long enough to be still drinkable when you finally pull the cork. And actually many great winemakers already take an approach of using the minimum intervention they need, rather than using the maximum just in case, and don't feel the need to jump on any bandwagons. Having said that, if having a philosophy like being natural or biodynamic or organic helps producers put in the extra hours and care they need, then that may be no bad thing.

If being more 'natural' means taking more care, then I'm in favour

In the end, I firmly believe that the first duty of wine is to give pleasure, but as it's a luxury, I also want it to be produced sustainably and responsibly. I may not entirely agree with the full on 'natural wine' philosophy, as I have often found the end results to be simply too nasty to put in my mouth. However, where taking a more natural approach means more sustainable wines, without excessive intervention (but almost always with a judicious bit of SO2), that are enjoyable and reflect where they come from, then I am in favour.

Caroline Gilby MW

Guest Writer

Caroline Gilby MW

Caroline Gilby is a Master of Wine and a scientist by training. She is a wine writer with a passion for the wines of Central and Eastern Europe and contributes to several wine books, magazines and websites.

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