The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

The Obscenity of “Natural Wine”

Posted on | July 8, 2013 | Written by Janice Cable | No Comments

Montevertine grows its grapes without intervention

Montevertine grows its grapes without intervention

Just what is natural wine? Nobody seems to know for sure. Last Friday’s WSJ published a piece by Lettie Teague attempting to answer this question, albeit with qualified success. In the course of her article, Teague consulted a few industry professionals (some winemakers, a few wine retailers, and natural wine maven Alice Feiring) and a few bottles (some whites with which Teague was “pleased” and some reds that she opted not to name with which she was “much less happy”). At the end of the article, however, we get no closer to a working definition of “natural” in wine.

Teague reports that natural wine can mean anything from made without intervention, to made with no intervention; from made with only natural yeasts to made without addition of sulfur. “Natural” becomes, in this respect, like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of “obscenity”: people know it when they see it.

Of course, when “natural wine” operates on the level of “obscenity,” some people don’t see it at all. Others see it everywhere. And Teague is pretty quick to acknowledge both camps. Charles Massoud of Paumanok Vineyards in Aquebogue, N.Y., not a producer of a natural wine, asks, “Natural as opposed to what?” Stu Smith of Napa Valley’s Smith-Madrone says that natural wines are “emotional reaction to an ever-changing world.” While Teague observes that Smith is sympathetic to the natural wine movement, one can wonder why, in this ever-changing world in which we live, we’ve not seen the rise of natural wines previously. Debate wine all you want, but we can all agree the world is always changing.

Il Palazzone grows its grapes and its olives naturally

Il Palazzone grows its grapes and its olives naturally

I’ve long been an outspoken advocate of natural wines, though I am guilty of not providing a clear definition myself. When pinned against the rhetorical wall, I consider a wine to be natural when producers grow their grapes without naturally occurring pesticides or fertilizers, and when they ferment, age and bottle their wines with minimal intervention. I can live with temperature control, I suppose, and I reluctantly acknowledge that even the great paragons of the natural wine movement (Paolo Bea, Querciabella, and Movia’s Ales Kristancic, for example) probably need to add small amounts of sulfur to their reds.

Inasmuch as I understand why the amorphous term “natural wine” garners so much nitpicking, I don’t understand why it raises such ire. There may not be a clear, cogent unifying definition for what makes wine natural, but it often feels like the opposing force martials just as muddy an argument against it. Opponents seem to be united by one main point: to call a wine natural is a marketing ploy.

Valdicava? Also organic.

Valdicava? Also organic.

To which I respond: so what? Producers who use natural winemaking protocol use more labor intensive practices; their harvests are prone to greater damage; their grape yields are lower; they take more risks in the vineyards—and if they carry these practices into the cantina, they also use more labor, run more risks and are prone to greater vintage variance. As far as I’m concerned, these people can say anything within reason to market their wine. Have at the term “natural” if it helps.

In the meantime, pour me another glass of that Porta del Vento Ishac Nero d’Avola It’s biodynamic Sicilian red made with only natural yeasts and bottled without sulfur. Lettie, you can join me for a glass. My treat.

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