Comment - Wine - The Dangers of Natural Wine

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Chris Losh has had a rather unsavoury moment with a natural wine. Brace yourselves.

Last week I was leaving a hipster London restaurant when a friend of mine called me over. "Here," he said, thrusting a glass of red wine into my hand. "Try this." Never one to turn down booze, especially when I’m not paying for it, I gave the glass a perfunctory swirl, brought it to my nose, inhaled deeply in the approved manner… and almost keeled over.

It’s hard to describe the aroma, given that this might be a family website, but it reminded me most vividly of visiting the communal shower block of a campsite first thing in the morning. It was all I could do not to lose my recently (and expensively)-acquired dinner.

It turned out that the sommelier had given this wine to my friend unrequested. It was one he was particularly proud of, and was desperate to share – probably because it was a natural wine.

This left-field branch of oenophilia has been garnering interest and provoking debate within the trade for a good few years now. Put five winemakers in a room, and you’ll get ten opinions on the subject. 

But, even though I’ve met very few consumers who’ve even heard of it let alone understand it, there are signs that natural wine is becoming – if not mainstream then better known. 

Certainly, it fits well with the rise of artisanal products, from small coffee roasters to craft beers to hand-made bicycles, and here in London we’ve had not one, but two wine fairs dedicated to the subject inside the last six weeks. 

Two fairs on the same, highly-niched, subject that have taken place so close together is, of course, ridiculous. And, the fact that it used to be one fair that split into two (an ideological schism not seen since the Judean People’s Front fell out with the People’s Front of Judea) rather sums up this area’s problems. 

Put simply, while organic and biodynamic viticulture and winemaking have their own guidelines, there seems to be few hard and fast rules regarding natural wine, other than a general policy of non-intervention. As the Real Wine Fair website puts it: "The term ‘natural wine’ is not precise, but is intended to highlight growers who work in a particular fashion, with minimal mediation, ideally to obtain the purest articulation of terroir, fruit or vintage in the wine."

I don’t think anyone would argue that it’s preferable to work a vineyard without tonnes of chemicals. But, I’d say the assertion that a wine made in an entirely hands-off way is a better "articulation of terroir" than one that’s had a bit of judicious prodding along the way is highly questionable. And, can you really be taken seriously as a movement if you’re unable to articulate precisely what you are (and aren’t) all about?

Before my inbox is swamped with emails telling me I’ve missed the point of natural wines, let me just say that I am not against either reduced intervention or questioning the modern winemaking rule-book.

I think orange wines can be a great addition to restaurant wine lists; I’m excited by some of the wines made in amphorae; and the rule-breaking experimentation practised by iconoclastic winemakers in South Africa, for instance, is, in my opinion, producing some of the most exciting wines in the world at the moment. 

So, pushing the boundaries can be good. Equally, by its very nature, it can be a disaster. I’ve had natural wines that I've liked, but I’ve also had plenty that were faulty: cloudy, oxidised, fizzy – take your pick.

In my opinion, these wines shouldn’t be on the market. Natural wine acolytes disagree, though, claiming that such variability is part of their wines’ appeal. They use words like "alive", "individual" and "thrilling".

It’s arrant nonsense. Cynical even. Can you imagine if one in three bottles of Casillero del Diablo was refermenting or smelled of drains? Yet, are we supposed to think this is okay if it’s made by a small producer? That's utter rubbish. It’s like Burgundians justifying brett as terroir.

If you take a high-risk, non-interventionist approach in the winery/vineyard, you have to accept that you’re going to come unstuck sometimes. It’s the height of disingenuousness to claim (as many natural wine devotees do) that if you, as a customer, don’t like the wine, it’s because you don’t understand it. 

This is my biggest beef with the rise of natural wine: The easy way in which it has donned a mantle of moral superiority that allows it to dismiss naysayers. By banging on about its products being "real", "natural" and "authentic", it implies, ipso facto, that all other wines are somehow fake, unnatural and inauthentic. 

This is a dangerous route to take, and clearly not good for wine as a whole.

It’s also wrong. To me, the fact that someone elects to use SO2 or a cultivated yeast doesn’t make their wines inherently fake or unexpressive, any more than a wine being natural would make me want to drink it if it were cloudy and oxidised.

The purpose of any winemaking technique, surely, is to make the best wine possible. Yes, there will be acceptable levels of risk taken on in the name of principle, but to allow the means to become more important than the ends (or, if you like, the means to become the ends) is Alice in Wonderland logic. 

From the Francophile who refuses to accept that the New World can make good wine, to the price bigot who thinks anything over US$10 is a waste of money, there’s way too much snobbery in wine.

The last thing we need is a group of people apparently hell-bent on entrenching another set of prejudices.

So, for the hardcore natural wine fans, let me make three things clear: Faultiness is not the same as character; intervention is not the same as selling out; and if I don’t like your wine, it’s not my problem – it’s yours.

Sectors: Wine

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