Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Naturally stark raving mad

I'm honest. What about you?

I'm also clean. Can you say the same?

And polite.

And modest, of course.

Or should I have said 'naturally'?.

As for the wines I'm involved with making and most of the wines I've ever enjoyed drinking - well, they're all regrettably unnatural. And inauthentic. Or maybe, to be a little kinder, 'not quite natural' or 'somewhat less than authentic'.

Those are rather tough words to use about 99.99% of the world's wines including the Figeac, Pichon Comtesse and Haut Bailly 2011 I tasted last week in Bordeaux - not to mention the 1934 Beaune and 1953 Chateau Margaux that are, quite possibly the finest wines I have ever drunk.

But, if the Natural Wine brigade are to be believed, that's what they logically have to be because they were all produced in ways that the Natural Wine producers do not approve of. (Precisely which methods they do approve of are not absolutely clear, of course, given the fact that no rules have been agreed between them.)

When you raise this issue with the Naturalistas, they claim not to understand why I'm offended at my wines (even the ones with organic credentials) being called unnatural. and ask whether I would prefer them to be called 'manipulated' (as opposed to the unmanipulated, natural, authentic fare they favour). And I respond that, thank you very much but no I wouldn't really like that, and that I would like those wines to maintain their previous happy existence - outside any pigeon hole.

But one thing that no one seems to have done is compare the Natural wine saga with the story of Biodynamic wines. Producers of these - usually 'unnatural' but, in my opinion, often sublime - efforts have managed a) to draw up a set of rules to which they have to comply and, more importantly in my view, b) to adopt a name that does not set them on a podium above their neighbours.

Which makes me feel naturally far more warmly towards them

(PS apologise to any dishonest, unclean, impolite, immodest readers I may have offended)

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  1. I agree with some of this, but not all.

    First, just because some wines are "Natural" does not, in my mind at least, mean all others are "unnatural", just as "Executive Class" in air travel doesn't automatically make us think of a terms like "unexecutive" - they've segmented their market and come up with a positive term for each category. Just because wines that are more manipulated to increase consistency and decrease spoilage have not come up with a decent category name is not the fault of the "naturallists".

    On the other hand, I too thought it interesting that we attach Natural Wine much more aggressively than Biodynamics. Here's a point I made on FB a few weeks ago:

    "We need to recognise that the key "problem" for the Natural wine movement is that it is still largely about EXCLUSION rather than inclusion. It says what it is NOT rather than agreeing on some sort of common basis of what it IS. It doesn't necessarily do this to attack the other wines, but simply to define its borders. Anything that does this is open to abuse from the sidelines.

    I'd say that Biodynamics is much more questionable from an outsider's perspective than the Natural movement, but it has been able to more or less agree on a set of principles that it stands for, and can defend, and that wine producers can agree (or not) to follow. It is consistent. We stopped laughing and started buying.

    I'd reckon that only a small fraction of producers who produce wines that *could* be called Natural would accept the categorisation, so it is left to outsider's to attempt to group them, and thus it is much less consistent, and therefore arguable.

    As always, I wish the wine industry would find ways to support each other rather than in-fighting like this, because consumers look upon us like a dysfunctional choir, arguing amongst ourselves instead of cooperating, thus failing to make a pleasing sound. Are we surprised they turn away in confusion?"

  2. It's just another approach to vinification. Base level. If you like them, buy them, if you don't....well don't.

    It's getting quite boring really.

  3. I agree with almost all of this, and you make the points well. I have huge questions over the validity of the biodynamicists' cow's horn and homeopathic doses of witches' brew but, as you say, they have always been happy to be considered as following an alternative rather than a 'correct' path. For the Naturistas to adopt terms like 'natural', 'authentic' and 'real' is contentious, whether they like it or not.

    As you say, there are plenty of producers who use as little SO2 as possible and thus qualify for some as 'natural' but would have no interest in being pigeonholed in that way.

    My only point of difference is over your choice of 'executive'. My parallel would be 'comfortable'. Would you prefer to sit in the Comfortable section of the plane or the other bit..?

    1. But Robert, the airlines or trains do not have a "Comfortable" section. They used to have First Class, Second Class, etc. but realised that saying Second was negative. So they kept First, then created Business or Executive - because that emphasises the positive aspects of the category, and Economy (once again, an important positive characteristic).

      To contrast Natural wines, why not have "Responsible" wines (responsible to environment AND consumers) or "Dependable" / "Steadfast" wines that guarantee a level of consistency?

      This is the real wine disease, we argue over small differences rather than accentuate commonalities. Surely the combined brains of the great and good of the wine trade could come up with a term that emphasised what makes the vast majority of wines attractive ... and for that matter, separates them from the other end of the market of bulk wine juice.


  4. Stu, we wine twitterati may all have grown bored by the discussion of Natural Wine; we forget that the vast majority of wuggles - normal wine drinkers - have either never heard of it or are just beginning to stub their toes on it.

    My post was inspired by conversations with a couple of just such people who asked me to explain the difference between Natural and other wines...

  5. Robert, you and I both deal in words. Yes, the airlines chose words with positive connotations to describe the premium parts of their aircraft, but they deliberately did not choose words with undesirable negatives (non-business; non-executive) because those same airlines want to sell seats at the back of the plane.

    My issue with the Naturalistas is that they do not see themselves as part of a larger whole. Or not a whole they want anything to do with. 'Natural', 'authentic' and 'real' are all undeniably contentious. As is 'responsible' and, you might argue, my own use of 'Sustainable' for Greener Planet. However, I will argue that the Sustainable rules our growers and winemakers follow are pretty simple and common-sensible and in line with most modern-era wine production.

    Not using any SO2 and producing wine that is cloudy and/or oxidised is a deliberate step on another path.

    I have no problem with that - indeed I welcome any experimentation and innovation. All I object to is the adoption of terms that imply higher moral qualities.

    Why don't you and I and a few like-minded souls unilaterally decide to publish our tax returns online and describe ourselves as 'honest'?

  6. Robert, re-reviewing your point about coming up with cleverer ways of segmenting wine, I think you are onto something interesting here, but it's something that probably doesn't and will never matter to most of the people who count: the consumers.

    Music is a good example. Norah Jones is classified as jazz, and was actually the biggest selling jazz artist in the US at one point, despite the fact that no Coltrane-loving jazz fan would give her house room. The Three Tenors WERE singing opera at the World Cup, but not in a way most opera lovers would have felt happy with...

    My comment is informed by my experience pouring blind samples of Yellow Tail to middle aged attendees at a wine tasting. People who drink Chablis and Bordeaux loved Australian red with 11g of sugar. And why not? It's a tasty drink.

  7. Robert and Robert,

    Great discussion, and I'd like to contribute my 2 cents worth.

    I think that most wine writers have a view of natural wine that is not really consistent with the reality on the ground. This is quite normal I suppose, as their only source of information would be from the most vocal naturalistas who have a significant public and internet presence. Bear in mind that many natural wine producers dont even have a webpage or participate in debates (like I do!); we're just working hard trying to produce the best wine we can. Most natural winemakers would in fact be astonished to discover that there's a debate about the word 'natural', for example.

    I personally am quite happy with the word 'natural' and I believe that if anyone gets offended by it, then it's their problem. When we refer to our wines as 'natural wines' we're NOT claiming any moral high ground, or
    implying that other wines are somehow worse. I think that those connotations are self-imposed by the people concerned. As Robert (MacIntosh) says it's just a label that focusses on the positive, like Executive, Luxury, First, etc. 'Natural' ,for me, means organic (or similar) viticulture, minimum interventions and minimum additives.

    Some writers even seem to imply that the word 'natural' was actually thought up by someone, along the lines of Executive, Luxury, etc, and foisted on an unsuspecting public, but this is not the case. Surely this is evident? It's not as if was anyone's deliberate plan that these wines be called 'natural wines'; the expression has been around for decades, long before they became popular. I feel like I'm stating the obvious here, sorry.

    Another thing, which is really not all that important to natural winemakers, but which wine writers focus on, is the current lack of an official or legal definition of natural wines. There are in fact plenty of definitions! Each natural wine association has its rules and definitions and if you are a member of one you have to abide by them. There are at least three in France, two in Italy, and one in Spain that I know about. And anyway, I don't think we (naturalistas) need or want any more definitions! It's the non-naturalistas who are uncomfortable. And consumers can find out about what's in a natural wine and what's not in one, a lot easier than they can for a conventional one.

    What I still don't understand is the level of aggression and strength of reaction against natural wines.

  8. Fabio, thank you for your contribution. And I'm sure that you - like other "natural" and other winemakers are, as you say "just working hard trying to produce the best wine you can". But so are countless producers who have not chosen to join the "natural" gang.

    You say it wasn't anyone's "deliberate plan" that these wines be called "natural", and that's probably true, just as no one chose to call one kind of music "jazz" and another "folk". But "natural wine" was not an expression that was already in use, as you seem to imply.

    To use your term. I've been "around for decades", including spells living in Burgundy and travelling across the globe and frankly, until the recent emergence of the movement, I'd almost never come across the expression and nor, apparently, had the authors of any of the books I consulted while writing books of my own.

    But once terms like these start to be used promotionally by organisers of wine fairs and by sommeliers, they take on a tribal value. Some people are choosing to be part of the Natural tribe; others are not.

    By joining the tribe, you and other Natural wine supporters who are vocal in this debate effectively started the discussion and - in my view - by choosing the terms you have done and with some of the statements that have ben made - effectively picked a fight with the rest of the winemaking world.

    "If anyone gets offended by [your use of the term "natural"] then it's their problem.

    Ok, let's see what would happen if non-natural producers started describing "natural" wines as "faulty" which, by the standards laid down by the OIV for its tasting competitions, many of them actually are. Are you really saying that none of the Naturalistas would take offence?

    I wouldn't personally actually use that term collectively, just as I'd prefer it if people like Christina Pickard in her latest post (http://therealwinefair.com/natural-wine-philosophy-non-philosophical-musings/) did not imply that "un-natural" wines contain "dozens of allowable additives". I'd also prefer it if Isabelle Legeron MW did not generalise as she does on her blog, saying that "the vast majority of wine produced today... is an industrial product that should be called wango or woca-wola".

    Is she "claiming any moral high ground, or implying that other wines are somehow worse"? I'd say yes, that's precisely what she's doing.

    And on behalf of the growers with whom we work on producing Greener Planet Sustainable and organic wine in Languedoc Roussillon, I feel that I have every right to take offence.

    I have absolutely nothing against "natural" wines and heartily enjoy drinking some of them. But when, for whatever reason, the more vocal people behind them groundlessly attack wines and winemakers in whom I believe, yes, I'll aggressively rise to their defence.


    "The birds did not understand Snowball's long words, but they accepted his explanation, and all the humbler animals set to work to learn the new maxim by heart. FOUR LEGS GOOD, TWO LEGS BAD was inscribed on the end wall of the barn, above the Seven Commandments and in bigger letters When they had once got it by heart, the sheep developed a great liking for this maxim, and often as they lay in the field they would all start bleating "Four legs good, two legs bad! Four legs good, two legs bad!" and keep it up for hours on end, never growing tired of it.
    (Animal Farm. A Fairy Story by George Orwell)

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  10. Robert,

    Re: the origin of the term 'natural wine'. I've done a bit of searching on the internet and found this information: the first documented evidence dates from 1907 in the Languedoc region of France. See here: http://www.winespectator.com/webfeature/show/id/Vive-Le-Vin-Nature-_1000 for example (there are many more).

    I don't think it's surprising that you never came across the term during your travels, as only recently has the category gone mainstream and become visible and audible; before that, natural wine producers just produced for their own consumption and maybe sold locally. The rest of the world either didn't care, or considered those wines to 'rustic' or 'for peasants' or whatever; there was no commercial interest in them and of course no media coverage. (I started producing wines in 2003, but I didn't even realize that they were 'natural' wines till 2010, when I discovered blogging and SM!).

    In any case, once words in the English language are adopted by a critical mass of people, there's little that anyone can do to change the situation, no matter how illogical the word or phrase may be. I think that if writers keep insisting on how wrong or inappropriate the word 'natural' is, firstly they're just wasting their time (though of course they're free to do what they like with it); and secondly, they'll be reduced to the same status as those annoying prescriptive language mavens who have columns, in which they hector the public on the use of who/whom, not to end sentences with prepositions, not to split infinitives, not to use double negatives, etc. If I had the time, I'm sure I could find many words that mean something other than their primary dictionary definition.

    Re: ‘faulty’ wines. This is a topic that really does interest me and I think that it could be interesting and useful to the entire wine world in general, naturalistas and non, consumers and trade alike. I believe that the criteria of many critics and writers and tasters are too narrow and strict to judge certain natural wines properly. This is not to say that they are not competent critics of their specialty or that they ‘don’t understand’ or are ‘narrow-minded’ or whatever. It’s just that they’ve been trained for and have experience of tasting standard commercial wines in a given area, which have well-defined and widely accepted criteria. And that’s fine. I have no problem with that. I can’t speak from experience here, because my own natural wines are pretty well indistinguishable from conventional ones in terms of standard criteria, but I don’t think other producers (of funkier wines) would take offense either; I think they would just laugh and call the taster narrow-minded!!! And then the taster would (rightly) take offence, and lo! the flame-war has started! But some natural wines are not to everyone’s taste, especially the ones with high VA, the oxidative ones, or the Bretty ones for example. Where is the line between a characteristic and a fault? That, for me, is the question!

    Do you really think that Isabelle Legeron was “attacking” your winemakers who are organic and sustainable? I can’t believe that!

    This comment is too long already so I can’t really address your other points.

    1. Thanks for continuing the thread Fabio.

      To address the points separately. First, "natural wine" has not yet reached a critical mass. Most normal wine drinkers have yet to hear of it.

      Second, without legal definition, the term is worse than useless - and not just when referring to wine. Organic food producers in the US are getting angry with the abuse of the term by food manufacturers at the other end of the scale from "natural" wine producers. As this article in The Packer reveals. http://www.thepacker.com/fruit-vegetable-news/marketing-profiles/Marketers-fret-over-confusion-of-natural-organic-136815068.html.

      Re "faulty", I guess it's quite possible to tear up the rule books and accept that anything made from fermented grapes is acceptable, however volatile, bretty, cloudy or whatever it is. And I'm sure that there will be a coterie of people who will embrace these efforts, just as there is a coterie that embraces free jazz and certain kinds of contemporary art.

      However... One of the uncomfortable truths that the naturalistas have to swallow is that most people seem to enjoy unnatural wines. the countries most associated with the growth of these have seen the greatest growth in consumption, after all. When I started out as a wine critic in the early 1980s, there were lots of what I would call faulty wines around and most consumers hated them. What they liked was clean, modern, easy-to-drink wines that I suspect Isabelle Legeron would detest with all her being.

      Having done many tastings with consumers since then, I have seen no change in their reactions. They generally want something that is agreeable to drink - and that usually excludes brett, VA and oxidation.

      Few of them really want to pay wine prices for wines that look and taste like cider.

      And while we are on that subject, if natural wines are all so unmanipulated, how is it that some of them are so much edgier (cloudier, more volatile) than others. It would seem to me that some human input has to be involved. Or should we simply call these examples "supernatural"?

      Do I think Isabelle Legeron was attacking the growers with whom I work. No, of course she wasn't aiming her arrows at them specifically; no, she reserves her venom for ANYONE who isn't marching to the beat of her drum. (Bear in mind the comments she and others make about the use of chemicals by organic and biodynamic producers).

      Finally, just to show that I can be constructive, I have an honest suggestion.

      If you really must create a tribal identity, why not dump the terms like "natural", "authentic" and "real" which are all both meaningless and contentious (to others if not to the people using them) and instead adopt "artisanal"?

      It may not have as sexy a ring to it and it may not have the marketing advantages of the other terms, but to my mind it describes the principles of the producers and the style of the wines perfectly without making any negative implications about anybody else.

  11. Robert,

    Critical mass. Yes, I agree that it has not yet been reached if you count in normal wine drinkers. But it's the term that used by all naturalistas (producers, trade and writers) and by all non-naturalista or mainstream writers, eg Eric Azimov (NYT), Victoria Moore (Telegraph), etc, etc. So I'd say that the tipping point is approaching, and as the normal wine drinkers get to hear about it, the term they're going to hear is "natural wine",
    not any of the other suggestions that have been proposed. I'm afraid it's a bit like the tide coming in.

    Legal definition. Yes, again I agree that without a legal definition, there will be a lot of scope for abuse. But what can I or any other producer do about it? We don't have the resources (budget, time or knowledge) to be able to lobby for legislation. No doubt eventually legislation will be passed, if the natural wine phenomenon continues to grow and it becomes necessary. In the meantime it's 'caveat emptor'. I do my bit to help the consumer by making as much information as possible available to the potential buyer of my wines (on my blog, labels and printed material).

    Faults. No need to tear up any rule books. Good analogies - free jazz and contemporary art. You said it! Some natural wines are not for everyone, or to everyone's taste. I think we have to distinguish two different markets of wine drinkers. I believe that the great majority will always be happy with clean, modern, easy-to drink wines. And a minority will enjoy the Brett, VA and oxidation, etc. But it's not that simple. You seem to believe that all natural wines are Bretty, oxydised, high in VA, or otherwise funky. I assure you that this is not the case. Many in fact are clean, modern and easy-to-drink! But they're not cheap! Anyway, I'm sure that most people will continue to enjoy mass-produced wine or conventional fine wines.

    I don't think there's any evangelical desire on the part of natural wine producers to impose their wines on an unsuspecting public! In any case, the funky wines, just like free jazz, will never become mainstream. The natural wines that are indistinguishable from non-natural ones will compete both on their own intrinsic merits (expression of terroir, grape variety, winemaker's hand, etc) and also on their other attributes, eg environmental impact, absence of additives, not subjected to excessive manipulations, etc.

    I think there's room in the global wine market for natural wines to carve out a niche, and perhaps a slightly bigger niche than at present, but it will always be a niche, not mainstream.

    Manipulations. Of course some manipulations are necessary. I can't speak for other winemakers, but what I do to clarify a wine is to leave it sitting in a tank over the winter; time, low temperatures and gravity clarify the wine for me. VoilĂ ! The top 80% of the wine is crystal clear, the next 25% is acceptably clear, and the bottom 5% is cloudy. I personally don't like wines that are high in VA so I don't make them. In fact I have no idea how go about making high VA wines.

    Tribal identity. I'm not really sure what you're getting at with this. I don't have any desire to create a 'tribal identity'. I tend to use 'natural', 'organic' and 'artisan' most often to describe my wines. These terms are anything but meaningless! I don't like 'real' as it reminds me of Real Ale, and 'real Wine' doesn't sound so good to me.

  12. Fabio. You ask what you can do in the absence od a legal definition for "natural" wine. I have a simple answer. Don't join the gang (ie adopt the term) unless/until it's defined. The more people who adopt it without there being a definition, the more meaningless it is going to become.

    I emphatically DON'T think that all 'natural' wines are faulty. I'm sure yours aren't for example. But I'm not sure why anyone who makes clean "natural' wines wants to march in a parade alongside people who think that Brett etc are ok.

    If the 'natural' wines that are "indistinguishable from non-natural ones... compete both on their own intrinsic merits (expression of terroir, grape variety, winemaker's hand, etc)" they don't need the 'natural' handle, surely.

    Re tribal identity: 'Organic' is meaningful (there are rules) and 'Artisan' evocative - and by adopting either of these you are joining a tribe (just as I do with my Organic and Sustainable Greener Planet) whether you admit it or not. The question is whether you feel at home with other members of the tribe and its spokesmen.

    And that's a matter of personal choice.

  13. For a great addition to this debate, I've borrowed this from Andrew Jeford's 2011 Decanter article

    “Many natural wines are a dismal self-indulgence “, you state “No winemaker claiming to express terroir should fall back on the crutch of abusive acidification, chaptalisation, tannin-addition or de-alcoholisation of wines from unsuitable varieties in distinguished sites. Or claim that rough handling and crass filtration are good enoughto make wines of purity and precision. Nor, though, should they fold their arms and stare righteously at the ceiling while their wines turn malodorously delinquent through neglect. If this distinction seems complicated, I apologise.”

    And from an interview prior to his Keynote at EWBC 2012

    "I urge naturalness in wine creation, but deplore the fundamentalist perversion of that difficult ideal.

    So: I am wholly behind all those who are prepared to champion the ideal of naturalness with flexibility and intelligence, and I hope they sweep both industrial wine and fake terroir wine, which claims to ‘respect the vineyard’ but which in fact contains a battery of unlabelled ‘ameliorations’, into oblivion. The most beautiful wines in the world are those made as naturally as possible, and this approach is the only way to make true terroir wine.

    I just don’t want to drink the orange or murky red, heavily oxidised, under-ripe, cidery, rank, bretty, bitter-edged, mucky, muddled wines made by fundamentalists. I’m not a fault-Nazi, and love (for example) the subtle, controlled oxidation you find in some fine white wines made in the Jura tradition. (And in some burgundies — though not, of course, the chronic premoxones.) But you can’t abandon your palate entirely and claim that ideological purity equates to organoleptic pleasure, which is what many ‘natural winemakers’ have tried to do over the last decade.

    Wine is difficult, not easy! Everything worthwhile is difficult, not easy!

    I also support, by the way, any systematic campaign for full labelling transparency of all additives in wine. I don’t think there is one yet, but someone should be lobbying EU legislators to bring this about, or at least to put the labelling of wine additives on an equal footing with the labelling of food additives."

    For the full interview:http://ewbc.vrazon.com/keynote-speaker-andrew-jefford-a-short-interview/