I’ve just been to a natural wine fair. That is, a tasting of “natural” wines. Natural wine is a controversial term in the wine business. The term is controversial because it has a built in superiority. It immediately implies that other wines are unnatural in some way. So what is this natural wine thing all about and is it a valid movement?
To answer that I think you need to ask what makes a good wine. To me the first criteria is that it should be delicious to drink and keep you coming back for more. That’s the entry requirement. Beyond that I want it to have some characteristic that makes it recogniseable as coming from a particular place, from a specific grape or just being made in a recogniseable style.
This is where natural wines come in. The idea is, that by growing super healthy grapes, then making the wine in the simplest way, with the least interference, the least intervention, the wine display some sense of origin.
So, having spent four hours tasting heaps of “natural” wines, does it work? Well, to me the answer is, sometimes. Today I tasted; raw, vibrant, exhilarating wines that did indeed express a sense of place. But I also tasted some shockers.
Let me give some examples. Sorry, but I’m going to be politically correct and not name the shockers. I may meet these people again after all.
Shocker No 1. This was a white wine that had been made by simply pressing some grapes and allowing the juice to ferment naturally. I don’t think much effort was made to control how and when it fermented as the wine maker would have considered that intervention. The result was murky tasting and oxidized. Think of something a little bit like sherry but without the clarity. Not good.
Shocker No 2. A red made by foot treading in an open room, the resulting juice collected and fermented in open vats, again without temperature control. This was cloudy to look at, lacked fruit and just lacked cleanliness in general. It tasted fuzzy and clumsy. The method used to make this wine system has been outlawed by the EU as unhygienic, and having tasted the wine I can see why.
Now for a couple of winners.
7 Fuentes. This is a wine from Suertes del Marques, a producer on Teneriffe. It is made from grapes you have never heard of and a deliciously vibrant, tangy, raspberry-fruit style. It comes from a windy, parched, sun kissed island and you can imagine you taste that windy, fresh, salty zing in your glass. The wine is fascinating, unique and says something about it’s origin.
Verdicchio di Castelli di Jesi “Le Oche”. This is from the Marche region of Italy, inland from Ancona and it’s made from the Verdicchio grape. The wine has a lovely ripe, fruity, weight to it and lots of fleshy, peachy fruit but then a classically dry, herby, slightly smoky and nutty finish. This final rasp is so Italian and perfect with food. It is certainly delicious but again it delivers something unique.
The question that arises from all this is why are some “natural” wines so good and others so bad. With an apology to any winemakers reading this I’m going to give some suggestions on how to get it right.
1. Be as natural as you like in the vineyard. Growing grapes is inherently a natural process and the less done by man the better. Provided of course only perfect, healthy (ie ot mouldy) grapes are harvested.
2. Remember cellar hygiene. The people who really seem to get it wrong are the hippy winemakers who think that even good hygiene is a form of intervention. It’s not!
3. Ferments. Naturally occurring yeast does seem to work and to give a more complex and unique style. This is the winemaking equivalent of sourdough bread compared to using brewers yeast; you just get more complexity and more flavour.
4. You do need some sulphur. Nearly all winemakers add a little of a chemical called sulphur dioxide to their wines. This is an antioxidant and a preservative. Wines almost always need some of this if they are not to become undrinkable and spoiled by bacteria of one sort or another, particularly if they are designed to age. Don’t run away now, some chemicals are helpful!
So should you embrace the natural wine movement? Yes. But tread carefully, there are both gems and shockers out there.