24 Apr 2015

Plenty of people are weighing into this discussion so I thought I could too….

What is natural wine? For that matter, what is unnatural wine? The hot topic these days on the blogosphere, amongst those who share more than a healthy interest in wine is this so-called “natural wine”. Its proponents claim it is the only way to make authentic wine and that any wine not made this way is “industrial swill”. Pretty strong statements, as I am sure you will agree so let’s have a closer look…..first by trying to figure out just what we are talking about.

Can we come up with a definition? I don’t believe you could define “natural wine”, nor should you. The way I see it,  “natural” wine is a state of mind, not a set of rules. It is the alcoholic version of the trend to organic foods, farmers markets, green energy and so on.

I can accept the argument that modern consumers want closer connection with producers who share their values of authenticity, low intervention, artisan, hand-made, free from corporate interference and all that. So winemakers can respond by producing wines that “subvert the dominant paradigm” as it were. They call such wines “natural”.

Depending on your point of view, these “natural” wines can be a stairway to heaven or simply oxidised p*ss. You choose. And your choice says plenty about your worldview. For, at the bottom of all this, is a philosophical debate. It’s about how we judge, how we discriminate, how we value.

For those of the old school, the traditionalists who hang on to their belief that there must be some attempt at objectivity in the assessment of wine, this post-modern world of relativism is very confronting. To these traditionalists, there are such things as faults in wine–things such as excessive volatility, oxidation, cloudiness, bacterial spoilage. They argue that wine should be (relatively) free from such faults in order to show its true character. The Australian wine show sysem has operated with this viewpoint since its inception in the nineteenth century.

But in the modern worldview, such ideas are outmoded. It’s all gone relativist–just as post-modernists will not acknowledge the primacy of any particular cultural viewpoint, so it is with wine–it’s what YOU like and if the message is louder than the medium then that’s the price to be paid in the new world of natural wine. A key point about natural wine is that it is a reaction to a perceived industrialisation of winemaking. The ability of large wine companies to produce millions of bottles of clean, well-made at a price people can afford is somehow seen as ripping the heart out of wine. Such wines are despised as having no soul, whatever that means. They are also accused of being chock-full of nasty chemicals and additives.

I am not going to enter this debate. You can probably guess my views on “natural” wine already. Every winemaker I know takes the responsibility of making a product that people will drink very seriously. I have never met one who did not want to make wine with the least intervention possible. For some, that intervention goes further than it does for others, but all of them want their wines to be safe, healthy and as pure as possible.

But back to “natural” winemaking–we really have subverted the dominant paradigm when wines that might be oxidised, acetic, cloudy, unstable, bacterially challenged and more can be praised for their authenticity, their life-affirming attributes, their purity, their all-round goodness.

With the advent of “natural” wine we are approaching an inflexion point in how we view and value wine. Just what you make of it all may depend on whether you think activated almonds are for real or not.