What’s wrong with natural wine? Essentially nothing. Except for the word, “natural.”
Natural Wines—the marketing category—implies that any wines not included in the category are…well…unnatural. It’s a misleading moniker and gross distortion of the truth. It’s also downright insulting to a winemaker (like me) who makes wines using native yeast and not much else. No commercial yeast; no commercial bacteria; no fining. Some are made from grapes grown in organic and biodynamic vineyards too. Are my wines “natural?” I’d argue that they are. Do we add SO2? Of course we do. This is called “responsible winemaking.” And yet SO2 seems to be a substance that disqualifies my wines (and many others) from being considered “natural” in the US market.
Small amounts of sulfur have been used in winemaking as a natural preservative for millennia. Sulfur dioxide (SO2) also controls unwanted microbial activity that might cause a wine to “pre-ferment” bacterially, or re-ferment in the bottle, oxidize or develop off aromas and flavors.
I’ve tasted many “natural” wines. And to be blunt, I have never tasted so many flawed wines from a single category as I have from the so-called “natural” category. I’ll buy six wines in a “natural wine shop,” and invariably more than half will be in some sort of weird state that makes them at best unpleasant or—worse—undrinkable.
I’ve also had delicious “natural” wines, beautifully balanced and exceptionally well made. (Typically, these “good” ones have been made with some SO2 additions.) Alas, more often than not, the “natural” wines I’ve tasted have been in various stages of premature decomposition. It’s a shame, too, because they possibly started out quite good.
So what is “natural” wine?
What exactly is “natural wine?” Make no mistake about it: It is simply a marketing term used shamelessly to promote a good idea—that is, making wine in a natural manner that highlights terroir and is ecologically sound. However, natural winemakers and marketing “influencers” promote these wines while simultaneously denigrating any wine that doesn’t fit the category’s rigidly ridiculous parameters.
The first of these is an unhealthy aversion to sulfur dioxide (SO2), which binds with free oxygen to become (SO3) or sulfite. In winemaking, the minute quantities of SO2 used to this end (20 to 40 parts per million) diminish steadily with time. Some people may be allergic to sulfites (which occur naturally in many foods). But not many. Do I need to remind the reader that sulfites also occur naturally in wine? Basically, you just can’t completely get away from them.
For a wine to comply strictly with “natural” wine standards, it must be produced from organically grown grapes. I think this is terrific! We should all strive to grow things organically. It’s good for us and good for the planet. But it’s not always possible. And when it’s not, sustainable agriculture is also a worthy technique. It just doesn’t make the cut for “natural.”
Commercial yeast is also frowned upon. Yet adding yeast to promote fermentations is hardly unnatural. I typically don’t do it, because I think native yeast highlights the truest flavors of terroir while creating more complex, interesting wines. But let’s not criticize the many winemakers who make fabulous wines with cultured yeast. Is bread made with commercial yeast less natural than, say, sourdough? Perhaps. But it hardly defines quality.
The commendable pursuit of making wine naturally doesn’t bother me. It’s simply the term’s negative, prejudiced connotation and the smug, self-anointing satisfaction I perceive among the champions of the genre. They’re sending a powerful message to the public. And I can’t tell you how many wine neophytes have asked me—long before they’ve tasted my wine— if I add sulfur. Does this really have any bearing on quality? A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.
Equally disturbing are the shameless marketers who have jumped on the natural bandwagon seemingly more out of greed than conviction. Lately, I’ve been bombarded with ads from an online retailer called Dry Farm Wines, which suggest that only their wines will keep you in good health. Here’s their schtick:
“In each order, you receive a unique selection of 6 or 12 biodynamic Natural Wines [sic] sourced from small farms around the world….Because we’re fanatical about health, every wine is lab-tested to be sugar-free (less than 1 g/L), low in sulfites, and lower in alcohol (12.5% or less).”
For the record: “Sugar-free” is not 1 g/L .Some winemakers consider white wines “dry” when they are less than 2g/L. (I don’t.) And reds (in my book) are dry when they are less than .4g/L. So “bone dry” is not completely sugar free; but it’s pretty darn close. These numbers apply to all wines—“natural” or not.
Dry Farm Wines also neglects to specify exactly what “low in sulfites” means.
And Dry Farm writes that its wines are “crafted for clean, pure experience to pair with food and wake up fresh.” [Sic] This is just weird.
The endorsements from satisfied customers (first names only) posted on their website would be hysterically funny if they weren’t so disturbing. They are reminiscent of the old snake oil ads from yesteryear:
“I can finally drink wine again! For the first time in over 30 days, I had a glass of wine. I’m now only drinking Dry Farm Wines. They’re amazing.
“I feel amazing this morning even though I indulged in wine last night… Thank you Dry Farm Wines! I’m amazed that I can enjoy a good natural wine that allows me to stick to my diet (no sugar/carbs).”
And there’s more! “So excited to have a wine option that I feel good about. These natural wines are all clean and pure, no sugar, low sulfites, no additives, and lower alcohol level. Sometimes I just want a nice glass of wine to enjoy without the ill effects.”
“A lot of wines have all these things added….they don’t have to disclose allergenic ingredients, like eggs…or that there’s trace amounts of pesticides. They don’t have to disclose that they’ve added food dyes…..”
Overindulging in any wine is unhealthy. You can still develop a massive hangover after drinking too much of a wine at 12.5% alcohol! The sugar issue, discussed above, is irrelevant. Also as discussed above, I’m not arguing with the benefits of organic agriculture: It’s good for the planet and for people too.
The media is also at fault. Articles like this one (below) from Bon Appétit (August 28, 2017) don’t help:
…But here’s what natural wine is really about: It’s Elvis. It’s the Sex Pistols. It’s N.W.A. It’s that thing your parents could never understand. Natural winemakers buck conventions and break regional rules. These wines have an undeniable energy that fills your belly and tickles your toes and sits in your soul. It’s not for awarding points. It’s for feeling—for feeling everything a winemaker put into it, for feeling where it takes you, and for feeling free to enjoy however you’d like.
Translation: It’s bullshit.
Many wine lovers realize that this kind of marketing and wine writing is disingenuous. But the message that only a select few wines are “natural,” exciting and “good for us” continues to be disseminated through the mainstream. And with well-known wine writers, wine professionals and major publications championing the natural wines cause, the positive part of their message is being overshadowed by negativism and misleading advertising.
So what’s to be done?
What’s the answer? Well, first I’d recommend so-called natural winemakers start using a little more SO2 in their wines. That would surely allow us to enjoy many more of them.
And second, I’d push for more honesty in their marketing. Perhaps they could come up with a more appropriate descriptor, like Slo Wines, for example. It’s something that makes a strong statement without proclaiming self-anointed superior status. And it doesn’t imply that the rest of us—regardless of our winemaking protocols—are doing anything “unorthodox.” Until then, their “natural” winemaking marketing is simply dishonest and unnatural.