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Even a “natural” winemaker can’t define “natural wine”

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I haven’t been the most sympathetic guy out there when it comes to natural wines. My position all along has been that I care more about deliciousness than being politically correct, so if a winemaker has to do things to his wine that are inconsistent with being purely “natural,” then go for it.

I realize that a lot of people feel differently, though. Sometimes it seems like a red state versus blue state thing: the naturalists really dislike the “interventionists” (or whatever they’re called), while the interventionists pooh-pooh the naturalists as being driven by misplaced ideology. That’s why it was so refreshing and interesting to come across this article by a pro-naturalist winemaker, Fabio Bartolomei, who admits that the natural “movement” is really blurry and hard to define. It appeared online in the April 5 issue of the Organic Wine Journal.

Fabio’s winery is Vinos Ambiz, in Spain, which his blog describes as “Producers of natural, organic, healthful, sustainable wine.” We therefore can assume that Fabio is serious and genuine when it comes to natural wine, but he also is honest and humble enough to concede that “there’s a whole grey area” when it comes to defining what’s natural and what isn’t, and that any particular wine “may or may not be ‘natural’ depending on your definition.”

This absence of a proper definition, Fabio asserts (and I agree) may upset some people, but not Fabio. “I personally don’t [care]!,” he writes. “Life is short! Let’s just all get on with it and stop fretting.” This doesn’t mean Fabio doesn’t care how he makes his wine. All it means is that he doesn’t care about technical definitions of “natural” wine, as long as he’s free to make wine the way he wants to. Which he is.

Fabio’s last two lists–“It does/doesn’t contain the following” and “I did/didn’t do these things to it”–are the best short course in winemaker interventions I’ve ever seen. I salute his honesty and commitment. The question he raises- whether his statements would be legally permitted on the back label of his wines in America–is something I can’t answer. If he could, then would consumers demand to know what all other wines have in them, or have had done to them? We’ve already seen the beginnings of this, as for instance in this New York Magazine article.

I myself think it would be very stupid to carry this idea to its logical conclusion. For one, it would make for very big, clumsy back labels on bottles of wine. For another, it could startle a sizable number of wine consumers into shunning perfectly fine wines, just because they think that anything that sounds vaguely “chemical” must be bad for them. (People who get upset about chemical additives to food, such as preservatives, forget that food itself is nothing but a collection of chemicals.) I realize that, in this Age of Transparency, it’s probably inevitable that sooner or later wineries will be pressured into full disclosure; or perhaps the government will make them do it. However the question is, and always will be: What does the wine taste like? If it’s good, nobody should care what the winemaker did. If it’s bad or mediocre–despite being politically correct in being entirely “natural”–then would you want to drink it? That would be carrying ideology to the point of ridiculousness.

Anyhow, I really do thank Fabio for such a well-written and provocative article. I hope to someday taste his wines and then blog about how good they are–despite being natural!

  1. Steve,

    I posted this over on Fabio’s blog with regard to the list he proposed for the back label:

    Here’s where I think you might run into problems (at least here in the United States, not sure about other countries) on the back label:

    Traces of Pesticides, etc. — You’d probably have to test for it and show that specific Pesticides are not in the wine (didn’t blow in from other areas, etc).

    Industrial Yeasts/Bacteria — Again, you’d probably have to test for it. And, a recent NZ study showed that the most prevelant yeast in an uninnoculated fermentation came from the barrel (the same yeast was found in those barrels in France) so that might not be the case. Same goes for bacteria.

    Acids — Doubt you could list that the wine doesn’t contain acids because it does, of course. It may well contain more acid than a wine which has acid added to it.

    Sugar — Same thing….the wine does contain some sugars.

    Sulphites — occur natural during fermentation…so they’d have to below 10ppm to say that the wine doesn’t include them (and they do act as a preservative which would effect that).

    There are probably others on the list as well.

    In all of these cases, I would think you could say that you didn’t add them — but you couldn’t say (correctly) that the wine doesn’t contain them.

    Cheers,

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  2. Adam’s comment is on point – as usual. Dissertation on how a wine is made is something for the website, not for the label. Put it behind a QR code or something.

  3. I know that sorting grapes across a moving table, crushing and de-stemming them through a electric powered, whirling mass of metal, fermenting them under thermostatic control and circulating glycol, and racking and pressing to separate out wine are all natural processes. And I know that taking that wine and straining it through a mesh or fabric to remove particulates is un-natural. And I know that what is natural and un-natural is ultimately what God has in his design and plan for all of us. But what I don’t know is what particular God this is and where these rules are written. Some say he goes by the name Yahweh, others say he is known as Parhkher.

  4. @Morton, the ancient Sumerians worshiped the god Parhkher. As best we can tell, the term referred to a small mushroom, or perhaps a pregnant sea otter.

  5. Robert C says:

    I am waiting for someone to take everything up to “11” and just put bottles under the grape clusters and have the juice naturally drip into the bottles and let nature take it’s course in the bottle to ferment it. The only intervention would be corking it.

  6. Peter T. says:

    Like living a “perfect life,” I think making “natural wine” is indefinable, unattainable, and completely worth a life-long commitment to.

  7. Joseph Zakon says:

    I have been making wine since I was a teenager, I have experimented with many different styles of wine making. One sure way for making good natural wine is using the simple carbonic maceration method, allowing the grapes to turn into wine naturally, without the intervention of the wine maker. The winemaker only needs to separate the pulp and later the sediment from the naturally clarifying wine. The quality of the wine will be as good as the quality of the grapes fermented.

  8. Joseph Z., you’re right about CM being a simple way to make wine. But it does give the resulting wine a particular aroma and flavor that not everyone will like.

  9. Steve, Thank you for writing such a nice sensible post on natural wines! and thank you especially for not going off on a tangent and focusing on a boring and unimportant side issue, like the dictionary definition of the word ‘natural’, which by now must be boring the pants off of everyone both in and out of the natural wine world; and thank you also for not providing yet another list of amusing examples of how un-natural it is to grow grapes and make wine; and also for not focusing on the ethics of some natural wine promoters’ marketing strategies who are in no way representative of anyone and which is probably also of zero interest to readers looking to learn about natural wines.

    Although I was amazed (and honoured!) that you’d based a whole post on what I had to say about natural wines, I’m wondering if this is part of the “problem” that mainstream writers/bloggers have with natural wine. I mean that I am actually no-body! My production is tiny, even in natural winemaker terms, I’m not a member of any natural wine association, and I don’t even know if my views and opinions are representative of other natural wine producers! Yet, thanks to your post, my views and opinions have just had a huge exposure to your many readers. And the same applies to other natural wine players who, for whatever reason, get quoted in a widely read media. I wonder if it’ll ever be possible to know what the “natural wine movement” really stands for, says or thinks? I believe that the thousands of nat wine producers and other players are all very very individualistic and have their own agendas, but mainstream writers are necessarily restricted to only hearing/reading the opinions of those individuals who happen to have an internet/public presence and/or those who make the biggest soundbites.

    As a result, there’s an excessive and skewed focus on, for example, the use of sulphites – but only because the ‘sans soufre’ winemakers are generating the loudest soundbites! Are they really representative of all natural winemakers or are they just a tiny but vocal minority? Another example is the ethical/unethical marketing strategies thing. I think that most nat wine producers don’t even have a marketing strategy and wouldn’t know what one was even if they tripped over one in the vineyard! Yet somehow a whole ‘debate’ has been created around this issue! I think a writer would have to travel the world and interview all natural wine producers (or at least a large sample of them) to get a proper idea of what the “movement” is all about and to know which issues really are of interest to us.

    As far as I’m concerned, these side issues only distract from real topics that could be interesting and useful to ALL wine-lovers, especially those in the ‘conventional’ non-natural sector: I thinking of things like the expression of terroir, grape quality, environmental concerns, definition of wine faults, etc, as applied to natural wines.

    Delicious vs Politically Correct. Well, natural wine is just another organic product, and consumption of organic products has been growing steadily for decades. So I think that more and more people are beginning to care about HOW their wines get to be so delicious. Their concern for the environment and their health is real and important to them. No doubt there are a few hard-core eco-warriors out there who will force themselves to drink and enjoy a disgusting wine just because of the ideology, but surely the majority of ‘normal’ wine-lovers wouldn’t go to such extremes? For me personally, making wines that are drinkable, lovely and delicious for ‘normal’ wine-lovers is a given, but the HOW is also equally important.

    Labels. Yes, my future back-labels need a bit of work still, especially on the legal side, and on specifying that it refers to “added” substances, as opposed to the ones that occur naturally during fermentation. But I don’t mind at all if the label is big and clumsy – It’s BACK-label after all. The whole point of the exercise for me is in fact to startle the consumer into thinking about what is in their wine. If this tendency to label ingredients ever goes mainstream and conventional wineries also start to list the ingredients, for whatever reason, it can only be a good thing. All other foodstuffs are labelled! And there’s a difference between scary-sounding chemicals that are innocuous (sodium chloride = salt; dihydrogen oxide = water!) and those that are synthetic and possibly risky to health and environment and maybe not even necessary for producing quality wine.

    According to my sources, a Parhkher was originally an ancient Sumerian device used by the high priests for sealing/unsealing the royal beer pots; over the course of time it came to refer to the high priests themselves, and over the course of more time it came to refer to the god of beer, and by extension to the god of wine!

    I also hope you get to taste my wine one day, and would love for you to write a post about it – even if you like it :)

  10. Steve,

    Knitting together some disparate threads — terroir, Spanish wines, “championing” obscure grape varieties, low alcohol wines, “natural” wines, and the wine drinking descriptor “profound” — let me belatedly add these 2010 thoughts from winemaker Randall Grahm to the discussion.

    ~~ Bob

    Excerpt from Randall Grahm wine blog
    (posted November 19, 2010):

    “On a Mission: The Germ of an Idea | Been Doon So Long”

    Link: http://www.beendoonsolong.com/2010/11/on-a-mission-the-germ-of-an-idea/

    . . .

    So here’s one thing that happened not long ago to somewhat radicalize my perspective and to crystallize my current thinking on the possibilities of discovering terroir in the New World. I recently had dinner at Oliveto Restaurant in Oakland, a place that is very serious about presenting wines of real personality and originality.

    I asked my friend Bob Klein, who owns the restaurant, to pour me something wacky and wonderful. He brought out a wine that I instantly adored. It was elegant: perhaps 12.5% alcohol, fragrant, possessing great length, and presenting a clear, strong mineral aspect. I had absolutely no idea what the wine was.

    I ventured to Bob that it might be a Nerello Mascalese from Mt. Etna, [footnote 9] a wine stylistically somewhere between a Burgundy and a Barolo, but with an especially strong “gatheredness” in the mid-palate and a very persistent finish — this is how I tend to experience wines of minerality.

    “Good guess, but nope,” he said. “This may be a little tough.”

    “So, what is it?” Bob excused himself for a moment, trotted back to his office and brought me out a printed page from the winery’s website. The wine is the 2008 LOS BEREMJOS RED LISTAN NEGRO TINTO “MACERACION CARBONICA,” grown on Lanzarote in the Canary Islands of Spain.

    The picture of the vineyard was absolutely startling; it was a moonscape with palm trees. The vines were planted inside of what looked like craters and around each crater was built a tiny wall made of basalt stones. The island is quite windy and also receives relatively little rainfall. The vines’ situation inside the concave craters protects them from the drying winds; the basalt rocks, which are quite porous, trap the morning dew and refresh the humidity around the vine.

    These are grapes grown under the most extreme conditions: blessed with very high mineral content in the soils, but with minimal available water, the roots are looking everywhere to catch a sustaining sip. In the parlance of Spinal Tap, the amps that magnify the signal of terroir are set at “11.” But here is where it gets truly bizarre.

    I recounted to a local wine writer, Jon Bonné, my experience of the wine, how utterly knocked out I was. Jon asked, “Do you have any idea what listan negro is? Do you know that it is also known by another name?”

    I confess that I am a bit of a self-styled cépage maven, or perhaps an insufferable show-off when it comes to acquaintance with esoteric grape varieties; I fancy that I have heard of most of the interesting ones, but now here was one that I didn’t know, nor did I have the faintest idea what might be its synonym.

    “Listan negro is also known as the mission grape,” he declared. This revelation triggered a small implosion of my world-view.

    The mission grape was likely the first grape imported to California by the Spanish padres in the 16th century, and for several centuries a mainstay of California vineyards. I’ve tasted mission grapes at UC Davis, and observed the famous Winkler vine before its untimely demise due to tractor blight (and possible over-irrigation). [footnote 10] I’m here to tell you that as far as grapes go, mission is quite possibly the very worst extant vinifera variety. It has an absolutely giant cluster, with no color, no flavor, no acid, no nothing. [footnote 11]

    And yet … under these bizarre growing conditions in the Canary Islands, it produces a wine of absolute genius.

    . . .

    Footnotes:

    9: I confess to being somewhat smug with my own cleverness in this guess. The soils of Mt. Etna are, of course, volcanic, as are the soils of the Canary Islands. Volcanic soils, at least according to Claude and Lydia Bourguignon, are said to be the most mineral-rich of all, and presumably as such, are capable of emitting terroir’s most distinctive clarion call. So, not an unreasonable guess, but maybe a bit easier than it looked.

    10: The Winkler vine, named in honor of Dr. Albert Winkler, Chairman of the Department of Enology and Viticulture at UC Davis from 1935 to 1957, was an absolutely ginormous single mission vine, taking up approximately one-twelfth of an acre, and trained in the form of a pergola.

    11: Mission grapes have been used successfully to make Angelica, a fairly stylized fortified wine that sits so long in barrel that ultimately it becomes interesting by dint of its age.

  11. Another take at a definition of natural wines. Published some years ago, but anyway..

    http://www.gastropean.blogspot.dk/2011/06/natural-wine-outlines-of-definition.html

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