28 April 2011


“Why don’t you,” suggested an email, “offer your own definition of ‘natural wine,’ if you’re so sure everyone else has it wrong?” It’s possible that slightly different and marginally more aggressive words were used, and thus I’m paraphrasing for the sake of clarity, but this is a family blog I’ll stop at nothing in pursuit of a joke the paraphrase will have to do for now.

In any case, I pretty much already have. But OK: here’s a short* version. Laminate it if you wish. (Biodegradable laminate, please.)

*Why are people laughing?

Natural wine is the result of a winemaker given a chance to intervene and always choosing otherwise, except as necessary* to achieve a drinkable product recognizable as wine.

*And sometimes, not even then**.

**On the other hand, bad wine is bad wine, and incompetence is incompetence, and neither really invalidates the definitional divisions between natural and other types of wine. After all, a freely-intervening hand does not preclude biological instability, though it’s certainly true that that hand’s absence can make instability more probable.

What I like about this definition is that it doesn’t attempt to swim upstream against the currents of example vs. counter-example. While it’s true that I can’t think of a natural winemaker who adds cultivated yeast, the standard claim about few or no sulfur additions is rather fiercely challenged by one natural winemaker, who submits bottle after bottle of self-described naturalia to a test that finds most to have surprisingly high levels of sulfur. Thus, I can’t even adjudicate the truth or falsehood of one of natural wine’s core tenets. And pretty much all the rest is debate, argument, philosophy, and/or religion.

This definition also doesn’t require tiered value judgments. One needn’t weigh one intervention against another, trying to discern which is more deformative and which is less…an argument presented time and time again by the contrary and the disbelieving…because the point isn’t some inherently obvious anti-natural value to a given intervention, it’s the motivation behind and purpose of intervention itself.

That last bit is why I prefer a less-prescriptive definition of “natural wine.” It’s not a papal bull. It’s not even a recipe. There really isn’t a perimetered group of wines within and external to the category. There’s just a continuum between wines made with more or less intervention, and a vague and highly malleable circle drawn around the lower-intervention end of that scale encompassing what would be called “natural” by everyone, by most, and by some. There is not, it should also be reiterated, a wine at the endpoint of that continuum; insisting that there must be one is a straw man argument by the pro-intervention crowd, not something that any actual natural winemaker believes.

When debates get heated, I often think that I would prefer to talk about categories of “more” and “less natural,” rather than just natural as if it had a set meaning. On the other hand the word does mean something. To deny this is to attempt to win by semantic pedantry what one cannot demonstrate in reality. There are natural wines that are different in identifiable ways from other wines, and there are enough common denominators within that category that generalizations can be made.

And yet, the “definition” is nebulous. It pretty much has to be. Now, if someone wants to launch a Natural Wine™ certification program, they’re free to set rigid guidelines and commence purging the heretics and apostates. Until that grim day, we’re just going to choose to live with, and even embrace, ambiguity.

In other words, choose to not choose. Just like natural winemakers.


Thomas said...

The only way one could call a wine natural or unnatural is, as you suggest with negative undertone, that we define rigid parameters and standards and then live or die by them.

Until then, I'm afraid what's natural and unnatural remains largely interpretive. Then of course there's the view that all viticulture and winemaking is by definition unnatural activity, natural being that which happens without intervention of any sort.

Thomas said...

On second thought, may I ask the naturalia crowd, what's natural about grafting onto rootstock?

For that matter, what's natural about pruning, trellising and tying a vine to control its fruit crop size when that vine, if left alone would naturally want to spread wherever in can reach, and produce as little fruit as possible in order to continue to produce wood to spread it reach even farther?

Finally, what's natural about sorting fruit, subjecting it to controlled temperatures, and anything else that the winemaker decides to do to produce the wine, even if those decisions do not include additions of various kinds?

Hint: nothing is natural about any of those interventions, at least not to the vine.

So tell that to the person who emailed you. ;)

thor iverson said...

Well, if that's the best you can do, you haven't been reading long, or carefully. Certainly not drinking subject to either modifier, either.

No one who makes or knows natural wine thinks it means what you're attempting to make it mean.

Specifically in regard to the latter set of points, natural wine isn't and hasn't ever been about viticulture. That is, in fact, one of the things that bothers me about it. But you can't refute it by wild gestures at something it has never claimed to be.

Thomas said...

No, Thor, You are misunderstanding me--or I didn't explain myself--or both. ;)

The word "natural" is the problem.

"Natural" to apply to a movement or to a way of production was likely selected (by whomever, I don't know) for its connotation and not for its accuracy. Maybe good marketing, but certainly useless information.

Still, on the subject, we are in the same camp. Having been a grape grower and a winemaker, I'm used to wanting things as "untouched" out there as possible. But I'm also used to what nature provides with which to work, and it isn't always pretty. Dogma is useless in the face of that reality.

Lucky you, however, because this time I will spare you my usual dissertation on armchair naturalists...

thor iverson said...

Apologies, but the comment got too long, so I'm taking it upstairs in a new post.