Natural wine: nice idea, shame about the problems

In the first of two articles about 'natural wine', Jonathan Hesford seeks to dispel a few myths about the movement

19 February 2017
By Jonathan Hesford

If you work in the wine business or hang out in hipster wine bars in any of France's cities, you will have come across the new craze for "Natural Wine". If you are a normal person, you probably have never heard the term before. But it sounds cool, so what is it?

Anyway, it sounds cool, so what is it?

Natural wine is basically an attempt to make wine with as few additions or manipulations as possible. The movement came about as an antidote to heavily manipulated wines, that have an international, homogenous style with very ripe fruit flavours, smooth tannins and oaky characters with almost no variation between vintages.

Most people would be surprised to learn how many things are added to a bottle of mass-produced wine. Acid or sugar makes up for ripeness problems, sulphur is used to clean damaged fruit and enzymes added to break down the pulp and get the maximum amount of juice during pressing. Laboratory-made yeasts are used to kill wild yeasts and give the wine commercially desirable flavours. Yeast nutrients and diamonium phosphate are added to make sure those yeasts ferment at refrigerated temperatures, which enhance fruitiness.

Agents like bentonite clay, isinglass and tannin powder may be added to quickly clarify the wine. Often oak-chips or oak powder is added to make the wine taste like it has been in a barrel and then casein, gelatine or egg-protein to remove any unwanted tannins. Micro-oxygenation and reverse-osmosis machines are used to soften tannins and concentrate flavours. More sulphites are added to mask any off-flavours and protect the wine from the harsh conditions of hot warehouses and supermarket shelves.

It's not only mass-produced wines that make use of these techniques. Some of the most expensive wines, notably from Napa Valley and Bordeaux, are manipulated to appeal to the influential US wine critic, Robert Parker, and his thousands of wealthy followers.

Natural wines attempt to be the opposite of these "spoofulated" wines. Their mantra is "Nothing added and nothing taken away".

Natural wines are made from hand-picked organic or biodynamic grapes and have not had any additions of acid or sugar to adjust the must. They should be fermented at cellar temperature with only "wild" yeasts and not have any oenological products added. Flavour-enhancers like oak-chips or reverse-osmosis are a no-no. In addition, they should only have very small amounts of sulphites added, if any. Some Natural wine proponents even reject traditional methods like filtration, barrel ageing or lees-stirring.

Natural wine sounds like an appealing, wholesome idea and closer to the image people have of how wine is made. However, the winemaker is also restricted from preventing problems developing.
Hence Natural wines are prone to cloudiness, high volatile acidity, oxidation, yeast or bacterial spoilage and reduction. This means they may smell and taste vinegary, oxidised, yoghurty, funky or rubbery. They are also less stable and therefore often unsuitable for cellaring or even transporting.

To be able to label a wine with an Appellation d'Origine Protégée, it has to pass a tasting panel to make sure it conforms to the regional style and isn't faulty. Natural wines are often rejected from AOPs because of noticeable faults but also because they simply do not taste like the standard wines of the region. Therefore many natural wine producers have decided to label their wines as "Vin de France", which has no controls.

The best natural wines display their "faults" only in a slight way, and are often more complex, tasty and interesting than their conventional counterparts but many simply taste like badly-made wine. For this reason, among several, the movement has attracted a lot of criticism. Next month I will discuss the criticism of natural wines, their producers and their proponents.

  • The second part of this column about 'natural wine' will appear in the next issue of Connexion. Jonathan will also explain more about biodynamic wine in a future column

Jonathan Hesford is the owner, vigneron and winemaker of Domaine Treloar in the Roussillon.

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