It's time we defined natural wine. How hard can that be? Apparently it's very hard. It's a concept that was badly named from the start. We started off calling climate change global warming and now every time it snows in an unusual place some nut declares that global warming is a hoax. Climate change means many things and the tenets of chaos theory prevail. A butterfly flaps its wings in Brazil and it ends up snowing in Miami. Chaos prevails in the natural wine world too, but with no theory to back it up.
Natural wine is natural in the eye of the beholder. Industrial wineries are now certified biodynamic and vie with the smallest artisan for the natural mantle. At the other end of the spectrum are micro-wineries where “winemakers" without the chops of serious home winemakers claim possession of The Holy Grail as they sell their funky wines loaded with brett, VA and every fault you can imagine to sommeliers, media and consumers addicted to difference for its own sake. As usual, you find the real deal somewhere in the middle.
At the same time, all this confusion is liberating. It means that every winemaker can define the term themselves. So this is what it means to me.
Sustainable Vineyards - organic and bio nice but not required
There is no doubt in anyone’s mind I know that farming your vineyard using sustainable (low input) farming makes for better wine grapes. In many ways sustainable certifications like LIVE are actually more rigorous than organic certifications, which only look at your applications while LIVE reviews your entire property and method of operation. However some sustainable certifications (each wine region tends to have its own) still allow limited use of things like RoundUp so what qualifies as 'certified sustainable' varies from region to region. In Oregon, LIVE is a tremendous organization that takes its certification process very seriously. As a result, I don't feel getting organic or biodynamic certifications are required for what I consider natural wine. I remember talking to one organically certified grower that was using forty pounds of sulfur per acre a year. Certainly that's not sustainable or natural.
Indigenous Yeast - to a point
Cultured yeast is evil. Anyone who has any extensive wine tasting experience knows that statement is ridiculous. I've had extraordinary wines produced from cultured yeasts and undrinkable ones using native yeasts. Still, I believe that native yeast fermentations allow dimensions of terroir to show through that the more aggressive cultured yeasts overwhelm. However, it makes a huge difference depending on what variety you're fermenting and where it was grown. Native yeasts don't have the same impact on cabernet sauvignon from the Napa Valley that they have on varieties like pinot noir or tannat grown in Oregon. There is no winemaking recipe that can be applied to all varieties grown in all regions. All yeasts are natural so using what is best suited for each region and variety is the real natural choice.
Minimize sulfur - to a point
Using any sulfur at all is evil. Another ridiculous idea. Anyone who has gone out of their way to taste large number of "natural wines" understands that the rigid banning of any sulfur in winemaking all to often means severely faulted wines that offer no pleasure. What is also clear is that sulfur is not only overused by most winemakers, but used with little thought. This topic circles back to the cultured vs. native yeasts debate as winemakers using cultured yeasts whack their new fermenters with sulfur to kill off the native yeasts. Here is a point that you can argue truly separates 'natural wine' from conventionally produced wines. I believe it is during the very early part of the fermentation that native yeasts make their statement. Even in a native ferment, eventually the more aggressive Saccharomyces yeasts kill off the other yeast strains and finish the fermentation, just as they do from the start when cultured yeasts are used. In a native yeast fermenter many different strains are at work early in the fermentation and it is during this time they make their mark. So I believe adding sulfur in the fermenter is not a natural decision, but adding some during aging and bottling is a natural choice, in fact, it's simply good hygiene. Obviously these additions need to be minimal, but very low level additions of sulfur greatly enhance a wines stability and therefor its enjoyability.
No new oak - most of the time
There are varieties and regions that love new oak and those that are ruined by it. Unfortunately there seems to be little recognition of this by winemakers and consumers that think the flavor of new oak barrels define quality wine. Obviously in Bordeaux and Napa new oak barrels can elevate and add character to the wine. Whether they use too much new oak is an argument for a different article. However, most varieties and regions have their entire personality overwhelmed by the use of new oak barrels. Oak is not wine. Trees are not grapes. I tend towards wines with flavors uninterrupted by oak. The real reason barrels are important is that they allow controlled amounts of oxygen into the wine, which keeps it healthy and allows it to develop. Logically, flavors imparted from the wood of the barrel itself should not be considered a positive thing. For some reason, as I've been getting older I find new oak flavors unpleasantly intrusive in wines. One thing for sure, new oak is a flavoring in a wine, an additive and that's not natural.
Clean wines without faults - but not squeaky clean
Natural does not mean dirty. Faults are faults and they are not pleasurable unless you talk yourself into it. I remember in the early 80s reading about the delicacy and freshness of Fino Sherry, but the wines I tasted in the United States were anything else. We talked ourselves into liking them. Then I visited Jerez and lo and behold they were fresh, fruity and more like rich white wines than fortified wines. The same for Burgundy, which thirty years ago were mostly so funky you could not recognize them as pinot noir. They were not fine wines, they were classroom examples of wines destroyed by brett and winemakers in Burgundy today would be horrified by them. Wines, natural or not, should be bright, fresh and devoid of basic winemaking faults. That is not to say squeaky clean is best, squeaky is normally boring and industrial. A bit of funk - brett, VA and so on can be extremely interesting and make a wine compelling. A hint is a good thing, but a wine dominated by these characteristics is just plain badly made.
Wines that taste good - all of the time
A good wine always tastes good. Bad wines do not magically become good with time. Every top quality wine I have been associated with always tasted good. The vines looked good, the grapes tasted good, the fermenting juice tasted good, the press wine tasted good, the barrel samples tasted good, the blending samples tasted good, it tasted good right off the bottling line - good wines always taste good - they just keep getting better. That's natural.
Equal amounts of pleasure and intellectual stimulation
What is truly natural about wine is that good wine delivers equal amounts of pleasure and intellectual stimulation. That's a broad concept as it applies to $10 wines and $100 wines, but in different ways. The simple pleasure parts of wine come from its color, aromas, flavors and, yes, the alcohol. The intellectual part comes on different levels. Often a good simple wine can improve our conversations and our relationships as we spend time together at the table. Then there are wines that are so complex they literally transport us to a state of introspective mediation as we engage with the many layers of experience they offer as they expand our consciousness. Each of these experiences naturally makes us more thoughtful and enlightened human beings.
Wine did not come naturally to me. I had no experience with it as I grew up. I don't believe I ever saw a bottle of wine on a table until I was almost twenty years old. My first real experience with wine came when I was a student studying in Europe when I was in college during the 70s. The wine I first experienced never saw a bottle. Served in a carafe at the winery it was fresh, clean, lively, refreshing and most certainly natural. Naturally, I could not resist and for over three decades wine has been my life.
What is natural about wine is that it is inherently natural. Anything that is not natural about wine is probably something that wine does not need. Grapes are natural, yeasts are natural, sulfur is natural, wood is natural and it is natural that we enjoy wine. Spinning cones, enzymes, concentrates, additives and reverse osmosis not so much.
What is natural wine? Naturally, I believe I have the answer. That's how nature works.