Monday, September 20, 2010

Weighing in on Natty wine

Within a period of two years, no single wine term has been as galvanizing, polarizing and heavily debated as "natural wine." Communities of vignerons, starting in France and spreading to Italy, Spain and the United States, have been formed around the strong sense of purpose and aesthetic behind natural wine. Business plans have been formed around the idea of selling natural wine. Columnists have given plenty of consideration to the topic. Wine blogs have formed their raison d'etre around natural wines (here is one, and another, notable example).

Recently, it seems that many in the wine intelligentsia are concerned about natural wine as a category and as a means of defining one's wine. In his column today, SF Chronicle writer Jon Bonné spelled out his concerns that the term "natural" is only beginning to see the type of abuse which will pervade the marketplace by wineries looking to market a trend. During the second annual SF Natural Wine Week, there was a debate about the "naturalness" of certain participating California wineries. A clever video illustrating some of the frustrations inherent in the terminology went viral (well, viral by wine geek standards).

Those who work hard to make what they view as natural wine, more importantly those who do so and are vocal about their methods, would argue that farming organically, on a smaller scale, fermenting musts with native yeasts, minimizing or eliminating the use of sulphur dioxide, enzymes and other additives, yields a more transparent wine. A wine that is more reflective of terroir, vintage, grape variety and the true regional style. While this may be the case, some would counter that the personality of some natural wines trumps the character of the surrounding terroir. Carbonic maceration, for example, does impart a certain character anywhere it is applied. A wine with no sulphur is more inclined to have a higher count of yeast and bacterial populations. These cause flavors that some find appealing while others find unacceptable.

I choose to view natural wine not as a style in and of itself, not as a flawed term soon to be exploited by marketers, not as a radical outsider movement. Rather, I view it as just one school of thought, one means to achieve what a winery is looking to produce. I respect anyone who makes the effort to produce a natural wine; it is not easy. Particularly, I admire those who, through a combination of experience, diligence, lots of work and study, and yes, unique terroir, are able to consistently produce good wine.

Two Kinds of Wine

There are two kinds of wine: good wine and the other kind.