My diatribe against “natural” wine

by Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)

jeff-smI don’t like “natural” wine.  I don’t like anything about it.

My disgust with the whole thing came to the fore as I was reading a post by Jamie Goode, someone whose writings I generally respect.  You can find the post at:

Natural wine, a primer

jamie goode’s wine blog

http://www.wineanorak.com/wineblog/natural-wine/natural-wine-a-primer

So where do I begin?  First, I want to take exception to the premise, somewhat unstated, that “natural” winemakers make better wine because they make it “naturally”.  Let’s put aside the issue of what “naturally” means and assume, for the moment, that it means something.

I would even grant, for the sake of argument, that those making “natural” wine make better wine than their “commercial” brethren.

But to assume that, granting all of the above, “natural” winemakers make better wine than others is a far cry from saying that they make better wines because they employ “natural” winemaking. There’s that old Latin phrase, “Post hoc, propter hoc”, or “after this, therefore because of this”.  It’s points out the fallacy that simply because one thing comes after something else doesn’t mean that it was caused by it.  Or put another way, a correlation doesn’t mean causation.

I would be pretty sure that as a whole (with many exceptions) those that self-define themselves as “natural” also do a whole lot of things that translate into making good wine that you can do without being “natural”.  Things like sourcing good grapes (whether grown “naturally” or not), taking care to not screw up the winemaking, etc. etc.  Just showing up in the sense of not screwing up goes an awfully long way towards achieving a good wine.

“Natural” winemakers again, as a group, are going to eschew some of the more manipulative winemaking processes that megawineries employ routinely.  But does avoiding excessive fining or filtration mean your wines are more “natural”?  Many would say yes, but you can certainly employ those techniques without being in the “natural” camp.

But I guess my biggest problem with “natural” winemaking is that it’s more of a marketing concept than anything else.  There’s no regulation saying what “natural” means, and it can really mean almost anything.  And I guess it’s a pretty good marketing slant.  After all, who wants to advocate “unnatural” wine.  Haven’t seen any Gallo ads lately making that pitch.

I’m all in favor of many of the things that the “natural” clique favor—I believe in more or less sustainable farming, and less rather than more intervention in the winemaking process.  I think a lot of “commercial” winemakers feel the same way, even if the really big wine companies generally (though not invariably) favor a more sanitized, standardized product.

But if you take the things that probably most people loosely associate with “natural” wines, I think they are not the reasons why wine is good.  In many respects, they are things to overcome.

Let’s take just a couple of examples.  “Natural” fermentation.  This means that the fermentation is allowed to take off without the introduction of commercial yeasts.  Like everything in the wine business, this issue is not as simple as it might first appear.  In many cases, the winery is inhabited by a yeast (or yeasts) that jump into the fermentation vat and start the fermentation.  But did those yeasts really come in initially from the vineyard, or are they the descendents of commercial yeasts used in times past?  Hard to say.  Even assuming they are from the vineyard, do they make for a better wine?  It’s really a crapshoot.  There are yeasts that really don’t do very good things for the ultimate product.  Others may impart some level of complexity (though probably not).  Using a commercial yeast certainly gives one a level of assurance that nothing really bad is gong to happen.  One thing I know for sure—wines made with commercial yeasts can be awfully good.

A second point is so2.  This chemical is almost universally used in winemaking.  It inhibits microbial taint and oxidation.  I keep being told that you can make good wine without so2.  But I just have a hard time buying that, since the so2-free wines I’ve had just don’t pass muster.  That’s not to say it can’t be done.  But it’s a battle.  For what purpuse?  Are so2-free wines “better” in any sense?  I don’t think so.

Conscientiousness in winemaking goes a very long way towards making a good wine.  If “natural” winemakers make good wines, I suspect it’s primarily because they are conscientious, not because they are “natural”.  And conscientiousness is a trait that’s not limited to “natural” winemakers.

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