Talking point: Wine Au Naturel

I’ve been reading a lot about so-called natural wine recently and I’m trying to make up my mind about it. Some people think it’s a sales gimmick, others are quick to point out that all  wine requires human intervention, and still others draw attention to the shady “marketing by denigration,” which natural wine proponents seem to use in comparing their wine to “conventional wine.”

Some people who genuinely care about the process of making wine, the importance of not interfering and of letting the character or terroir  shine through are nonetheless up in arms against the Natural Wine Movement, which they see as extreme.

Benjamin Lewin makes a good point on his blog:

If by natural wine, we mean a wine that has the minimum of intervention – no synthetic treatments in the vineyard, no addition of sugar, acidity, or anything else during fermentation – then that’s fine; but recognize that the wine may not be so good as if some intervention had been allowed.

But then the French natural wine organization Better than Organic’s view is that:

“Natural winemaking will always produce a better, more individual wine than conventional methods used on the same site…A natural winemaker is a genuine artisan. Natural winemaking requires skill, patience, nerve, and hard physical labour. In most cases it brings small financial rewards. There is more money, less risk, and far less work in making wine conventionally.”

There are so many questions about what is natural and what isn’t. Barring the obvious herbicides and pesticides from the discussion, there is still the problem of sulfur, which is considered by many as an absolute minimum additive to prevent bacterial growth and subsequent conversion of the wine to vinegar. Another issue is yeast: should winemakers use only the naturally occurring yeast, which can produce unpredictable results in fermentation, or be allowed to add a pure yeast culture which will dominate the natural yeast but produce more reliable results? After fermentation, what is the most natural form of storage? Barrels or tanks, or neither?

At a wine tasting last night I spoke with the young Sara Martinez-Lagos, whose family owns Zuazo Gaston vineyards in Rioja, Spain. Making an effort to be discreet, and hoping she would elaborate on their winemaking philosophy, I asked her how they addressed the problem of weeds. Her brown hair danced in its loose bun as her arms flapped to demonstrate the use of a handheld tiller. “What’s the word?” she asked.

“By hand,” I said.

There is definite charm in knowing that there are people who are still committed to the land and the soil and to as little human fingerprint as possible in the making of their wines. At the same time, as Kermit Lynch says, in his experience many of the most lovingly produced wines seem to share certain qualities of their vigneron. Hardiness or finesse, roughness or delicacy, straightforwardness or coquettish mystery. There is something to be said for the mark of the craftsman too.

Take a look at the video above and let me know your opinion. What do you think?

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