The case for natural selection

18 February, 2011

The future of wine or a heap of hooey? Just like biodynamics – Dr Rudolf Steiner’s so-called “spiritual science” – the subject of natural wines tends to provoke extreme opinions. Listening to a discussion between a strong advocate and an equally passionate unbeliever can be a frustrating experience. What about those of us who are agnostic? Where do we fit in??He might not appreciate the description, but Doug Wregg, director of sales and marketing at Les Caves de Pyrène, can come across as a bit of a natural wine fundamentalist. He’s given to making outrageously provocative comments about the failings of “conventional” wines, accusing them of being mass-produced and fashioned to meet the requirements of the supermarkets, when there are tens of thousands of exceptions. Blossom Hill and Château Lafite are both conventionally produced wines but they don’t have a lot in common.?And yet Wregg talks a lot of sense too. I was lucky enough to attend a tasting of 15 natural wines he hosted at Vagabond Wines in London last week. The fact that half a dozen of the country’s best sommeliers also turned up to hear what he had to say speaks volumes for the growing importance of the natural wine movement.

Or lack of movement, according to Wregg. “There’s no group, no charter, no rules,” he said. “People who are opposed to natural wines are fighting with thin air. They’re trying to create a counter-movement to a movement that doesn’t exist. Natural wines cover a rainbow of styles; they are incredibly diverse.”?So how do you define something that’s so nebulous? Wregg believes, rightly in my view, that a natural wine has to be made from grapes grown in a biodynamic, organic or sustainable vineyard. The producer needs to start with healthy grapes that reflect the place where they are grown or the term means nothing. “Rubbish in, rubbish out,” scoffs Wregg.

Natural wines tend to tick other boxes, too. Most of them are fermented with natural yeasts, are unfined, unfiltered and light in body, use little or no sulphur dioxide (or additives in general) and eschew new oak and the flavours it imposes on a wine. Generally, they are made on a small, artisanal scale: a few barrels, rather than a stainless steel tank farm, is the norm.?Critics might add that all too often they are chemically unstable, oxidised and cloudy: “vinous cider”, as one detractor put it. Indeed, the very term “natural” annoys some opponents of the movement-that-isn’t-a-movement. Anyone, they argue, can throw a few grapes in a tank and leave them to their own devices. As one New World winemaker told me: “The job of a winemaker is to intervene at the right moment, not to leave the wine to make itself.”?Even Wregg concedes that the word “natural” is a hostage to fortune as much as a point of difference, and a convenient way of marketing such a broad array of wine styles. But he also thinks there’s something more visceral going on. Like Hermann Goering, who said that “when I hear the word culture, I reach for my revolver”, critics are the victims of their own prejudices. “Why is it that when we hear something is natural,” asks Wregg, “we look for the bad in it?”?How seriously should we take natural wine? Something that started out in a very small way 20 years ago has begun to develop critical mass, with producers in Australia, Spain, Italy, Chile, New Zealand and mostly France. It’s hard to come up with an exact figure (to some, that frustrating lack of precision again) but there are now approximately 400 natural winemakers worldwide.

The bigger question concerns the quality of the wines. There are undoubtedly some fantastic natural wines: the late Marcel Lapierre of Morgon was a genius, Anton van Klopper is one of the most exciting winemakers in Australia and I was blown away by the 2007 Alta Irpinia Fiano, Don Chisciotte, Il Tufiello from Campania that we tasted at Vagabond Wines. But there is a lot of overpriced crap, too.

To be fair to Wregg, he acknowledges this too. “There is no uncritical freemasonry of natural wine aficionados,” he writes in his Natural Wine Manifesto, “and its devotees will happily diss a wine that deserves it.” And yet natural wine lovers do seem to be indulgent of faults, particularly oxidation, volatility and brettanomyces, that have nothing to do with good winemaking or terroir. It is highly debatable whether “natural winemakers are better winemakers than conventional winemakers”. They just do things differently.?Natural wines tend to be fairly expensive (there is next to nothing that retails for less than £15 a bottle) so they are never going to appeal to the average consumer. But I think they’re an interesting counterpoint to some of the more egregious, mass-produced, could-come-from-anywhere wines. I’m glad there are more of them, but for now I’m still an agnostic.

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