One of my stated intentions of my trip to France was to really get under the skin of the natural wine movement.
As I see it there are two main thrusts to natural wines.
Firstly there is the ethical and philosophical argument that posits the viticulteur as the guardian of the soil and preserver of the uniqueness of the local terroir. There is a lot to be said for parts of this argument, however from a strictly consumer led point of view it is in a sense less than pointless. Good intentions do not necessarily a good taste make. There may well be a large group of people who argue that the practices involved in organic and biodynamic viticulture contribute to better quality wine, however there are equally those who reject the dogmatic adherence to some faintly ridiculous practices as being unnecessary, so long as there is a proper consideration of the effect of each treatment.
The better end of modern viticulture is a long way from the maligned industrial producers of old pumping their soil full of pesticides and fertilisers. For a start the chemical products are all rather expensive, profligacy really doesn’t pay.
Now, looking from the other side of the fence, that of the consumer brings other issues into play. What if there are certain elements to the natural wine making practices (and here I am now talking almost exclusively about the zero/minimal sulphur end of the spectrum) that influence the final taste of the wine. As a wine drinker, if I’m happy with slightly raised levels of volatile acidity, if I can cope with the low levels of wine-making faults as being symptomatic of a certain type of wine that I happen to like, then surely there is no real problem. The question that follows is how many of these characters are intrinsically linked with organic/biodynamic farming. Could I take conventionally farmed grapes, process them in such a way as to allow a chunk of wild yeast to arrive in the must, then bottle with a small level of dissolved CO2, no added SO2 and simply watch as the wine became ‘natural’. Now many wine makers would argue that conventionally farmed grapes will be lacking in the necessary micro-floral to initiate and sustain fermentation. However I’m of the view that unless their wineries are cleaned to a CDC approved aseptic level then there are going to be wild yeasts present in the winery, merely waiting for the right sugar rich solution for them to fall into and wake up in. As Wayne Stehbens of Katnook estate once pointed out to me, to get a reliable ‘wild’ ferment every year all you need to do is make sure you don’t quite clean your winery after fermentation.
This leads me to another, slightly more disturbing, question. The style of wines that many of us in the UK have come to know and appreciate as being part of the ‘natural’ wine movement, are often (to put it gently) a trifle funky. When I compare these wines with wild ferment examples from wineries with immaculate winery hygene, such as Schiopetto in Fruili, there is a much ‘wilder’ and varied set of aromatics present. Are we in fact fooling ourselves with the idea that the vineyard micro-flora has anything other than a minor role in the very early stages of fermentation? It is at this point worth remembering that there are many different yeast species that are present during a ferment, with different strains having population explosions at different points during the ferment depending on variables such as sugar concentration and alcohol concentration. Also the dormant yeasts in the winery are likely to be the ones that were most successful in the previous years ferment, implying that they are best adapted to the particular environment of the fermenting must, a very different environment than the skin of the unbroken grapes in the vineyard.
So, to recap, how much of the vogue for natural wines is an emotional and philosophical response to the environmental questions posed by monoculture vine viticulture, and how much of it is related to an appreciation of the particular aromatics and flavours that a slightly dirty wild ferment provides?