A few weeks ago, an offhand dismissal of natural wine on Twitter (imagine that!) caught my eye. Paraphrasing, the tweeter mused: “still trying to decide if it’s all just marketing.”
I can answer that, actually. Yes, it is indeed marketing. So is “Gevrey-Chambertin.” So is “pinot noir.” And for the exact same reasons.
Inspired by the above, I admit continued bewilderment at a refusal to engage with ambiguity when it comes to the word “natural.” I’m glad that people have, from time to time, offered definitions, because it gives us something to argue about. But those are their definitions, not the definition. It’s quite clear that among both self-identified and externally-identified producers of natural wine, there’s little to no agreement on precise, regulatory-style meaning. And while a few ideologues are more than willing to fight about it, most are quite happy with the lack of rigidity. Alas that detractors (and advocates) can’t adopt the same attitude.
But aren’t “Gevrey-Chambertin” and “natural” different? Doesn’t the former have a specific definition? Yes it does, but it’s mostly about geography and content, a little about practice, and not at all about what the wine is actually like. “Pinot noir” is a specific grape, yes, but both a transparent blanc de noirs Champagne and an opaque hot-climate bruiser are pinot noir. The name is a datum, not a characterization.
“Natural” has no force of legal code behind it, but amongst its Gaussian distribution of producers that there’s a core set of practices that any hypothetical code would include (and practices it would exclude). And yet, this still tells us nothing about what the wines are like. A pretty little gamay for immediate slurping? A stately riesling made for (given sufficiently careful cellaring) long aging? Both exist.
In other words, there’s as much simultaneous meaning and ambiguity to the word “natural” as in many other wine terms. We embrace uncertainty elsewhere, using words that are not simultaneously prescriptive and descriptive. Why is it so hard with the word “natural?”
Perhaps it’s because the word – like so many others – gets entangled with value judgments. In this, “natural” takes up the burden that “terroir” used to carry. Some of the most passionate defenders of the concept can be regularly seen to have – maybe subconsciously, maybe not – entirely conflated the term with “wines they like.” When a wine comes along made exactly as they’d prefer, but far outside their stylistic preferences, they start protesting that it can’t be natural and looking for redefinitions that will exclude it. This is ludicrous. “Natural” is prescriptive, it has some limited ability to be descriptive, but it is not and cannot be qualitative. That’s not to say that one can’t prefer natural wines for reasons aside from the organoleptic. But “natural” is not a synonym for “good,” and it was never intended to be.
On a personal level, one of the biggest reasons I appreciate the growing presence of natural wine is the pressure it exerts on winemakers who’ve never met an intervention they don’t like. I don’t expect many of them to change, and certainly control-oriented industrialists never will. But others will. More might reconsider what they do, maybe making a little tweak here or there, perhaps experimenting outside the borders of “what they’ve always done” to see if quality can be achieved in a different way. The more important outcome, to me, is that producers are under increasing pressure to be more transparent about what they do. What did they add? What did they adjust? And why?
These very questions are themselves too often taken as value judgments. This, too, is ludicrous. I am in no way dismissive of the impulse and the frequent need to intervene, sometimes aggressively, to shepherd a wine from grape to saleable bottle. And some of my favorite wines are the result of intense intervention. But centuries of furtive meddling have served no one except the true industrialists, whose practices are thus fully legitimized. And the secrecy not only fails to increase knowledge, but leads to confusion and premature didacticism on the part of insufficiently educated wine folk…consumers, yes, but even sometimes those in the biz. If the obsessive focus on practice brought by natural wines serves to turn up the intensity of revelatory light, there’s not a single bad thing to be said about that.
Last year I penned an essay on the qualities and difficulties of the natural wine scene in Paris. I’m in the midst of another extended stay in that glorious city, and have as a matter of choice been rather immersed in the stuff. And so it’s been interesting to reexamine my former conclusions.
Has anything changed? Yes and no. There are even more natural wine bars and restaurants than before, which is a testament to their success (some of the old stalwarts have even expanded). That’s the first “yes.”
The “no” is that at such establishments, vinous apartheid more or less continues to reign. That’s a loaded term, so let me clarify that I mean it in a value-neutral sense. Natural wine lists mostly remain natural wine lists, full stop. If there’s a wine bar or restaurant that fully embraces naturalia yet allows their stock to be dominated by qualitative rather than definitional concerns, I haven’t seen it (which is not to say that it doesn’t exist; one can’t go everywhere, or at least my liver certainly can’t). And that, of course, is fine; I would no more criticize a restaurant for being exclusively “natural” than I would for specializing in crêpes. I still think an opportunity is being missed to broaden the concept, but I’m not a business owner.
It’s probably true that there’s more bad natural wine than there used to be. No surprise there. I don’t mean that the wines have gotten worse, I mean that there’s some trend jumping, and a quantity of product that appears to be more the result of fermented ideology than fermented grapes. It’s certainly true that there’s more similar-tasting natural wine than before, due to the leavening effects of semi-carbonic maceration and other asymptotic techniques. I like these cute, fresh little vins de soif, as they’re often called, but a steady diet of them across appellations and grapes gets repetitive and frustrating; I don’t want every grape, from every appellation, to taste like either gamay or pétillant orange wine.
There’s a second “yes,” however, and it’s a welcome development. It’s been a bit of a joke amongst wine geeks, over the years, that Lapierre has somehow found itself the sole representative of natural wine on hundreds of wine lists and store shelves ‘round the world. Good for Lapierre, and good for people who know and love the wines, but that’s no longer quite true. Major retailers here are now more or less compelled to feature natural wines somewhere in their square
footage meterage. Good restaurants have more and more options from the natural side of things, and they tend to be the better examples of same. That’s the merging of preferences that I’d hoped for; that “natural” not be an exclusive end in itself, but just another choice among a diversity thereof. Because only then can it directly influence the conversation outside a small circle of oenophilic obsessives.
And yet, despite all the above, it remains true that natural wine is a niche. A micro-niche. Given that its practices are highly unlikely to be scalable to the mass market, that’s all it will ever be. There is so much written, pro and con, about natural wine that it would be easy for a causal observer to conclude that the market was awash in the stuff. It isn’t, and in places that aren’t Paris (or, I’m told, Japan), finding more than a token bottle is like seeking an unsulfured needle in a volatile haystack.
So to our introductory Twitter skeptic, wondering if it might all be just about marketing, it might as well be if the argument in their favor is not in rich physical supply. The wines can be hard to find, harder to transport, and even when present are often unwilling to be the lap cats of the vinous world, curling up for a few hours of familiar and unconscious comfort. They are difficult wines for (judging by some of their fans, including myself) difficult people. Their very difference can be both flaw and virtue.