Why is everyone in such a tizzy about something that does not exist: natural wine. Robert Parker in The Wine Advocate thinks it is a scam perpetrated on the consumer. Eric Asimov in the New York Times defends it.
If you allow yeast to ferment crushed grapes, you get wine. Natural, in fact completely natural, wine. But it is scarcely stable long enough to drink: rapidly enough it becomes infected with bacteria and converted to vinegar. Intervention is needed to keep it as wine: the addition of sulfur to prevent bacterial infection at a minimum. But it’s going to have to be kept in a container: an animal skin? an amphora? a wooden barrel? stainless steel or glass? Its flavor will change depending on the container – is it still natural?
Perhaps this is a reductio ad absurdum, but it makes the point that every stage in wine production, no matter how seemingly innocent, reflects a human intervention or decision that affects the character of the wine. If by natural wine, we mean a wine that has the minimum of intervention – no synthetic treatments in the vineyard, no addition of sugar, acidity, or anything else during fermentation – then that’s fine; but recognize that the wine may not be so good as if some intervention had been allowed.
The issues become more difficult post fermentation. Is it more natural to allow or not to allow malolactic fermentation? If the wine is going to be matured in oak, the producer has to choose the source of the oak, whether it’s new or old, how it’s toasted, how long the wine stays in it: what’s natural?
The concept of minimalist winemaking is surely associated with natural wine. Nikolaus Moser at the Sepp Moser Weingut in Austria’s Kremstal valley makes two different wines from the Grüner Veltliner he grows in the tiny Schnabel vineyard. Most ferments in stainless steel for about two weeks, rests on the lees for seven months, and is bottled. A smaller part of the wine ferments in 300 liter barrels of old Austrian oak; fermentation takes three months to complete and the wine also goes (spontaneously) through malolactic fermentation. No sulfur is added, the wine is left on the lees for a year, and bottled the following May. This is called MINIMAL to indicate minimal intervention. The two wines taste completely different. The question is what’s really the “minimal” treatment? There was less intervention for the MINIMAL wine, but actually much more happened to it: oxidative exposure during prolonged alcoholic fermentation, malolactic fermentation, and a long exposure to the lees in the oak barrels. At Schloss Vollrads in Germany’s Rheingau, Rowald Hepp has a different view of the requirements for minimalist winemaking. He believes the wine should be transferred to stainless steel as soon as possible so that it is created and matured with the minimum of influence from its environment. What is the natural wine?
Natural wine has such different, even opposing, meanings that it has limited usefulness as a subject for debate. The concern that wine is becoming more of a manipulated product is real enough, but as the comparisons above show, it’s not always so easy to decide what is manipulation and what is protection against manipulation.