What’s Natural wine?

A quick look into how, what and when

Words Samuel Moppett 
Patterns by Hugo

Bee Wilson points out at the start of ‘The way we eat now’, grapes are no longer the joyful pleasure they once were “grapes have become a piece of engineering designed to please modern eaters”. Consistent in flavour and texture like a bottle of mass-produced beer or Big Mac, everyone the same, a concoction of how we are supposedly inclined to love our grapes. 

Let’s begin to’ think of wine as food’ as suggested by Eric Asimov. Of course, wine cannot exist without grapes, and the soil in which ancient seeds are planted and harvested are part of the magical process of winemaking, but what comes after this is not always as it seems. Like food, many additives are bottled up not including the poisonous residues left from chemicals in some viticulture. It doesn’t mean these are bad wines, but in comparison, you could say unnatural. (It is still not necessary to add ingredients lists to wine labelling, a dishonest impression of purity perhaps). Fuck the name organic call the other stuff, ‘boring vegetables coated in chemicals’, ‘caged chicken in swimming pool water and maybe a bit of wee ‘, ‘i am not duck food plus 13 unnecessary things’ or ‘wine with headache-inducing sulphurs’.

Some chefs have told us organic, biodynamic or anything local doesn’t necessarily mean better tasting, but it does mean better quality, standards, transparency and authenticity. At first glance wine is cool, you can drink that with a cigarette, farming isn’t, that’s just fields with horse poo, but with all trends could farming and viticulture become attractive to a younger geographic. As always I long for some acres and horse manure to throw around, but I am now 30+, wait I still have time

The act of adding nothing, (though some add a tiny amount of sulphites in some wineries), yes you guessed it, is that thing called natural wine and is in fact, just wine. The natural fermentation of grapes or as the expert on this subject Alice Feiring explains ‘Made from organically grown grapes, with nothing added or taken away, these wines are no passing fad. They are a return to authenticity.’

For the birth of wine, we must travel back to Georgia c. 6000 BC for the earliest traces and 4100 B.C to plonk ourselves in Armenia to find the oldest winery on record. The next phase was the rise of the Pharaoh's power in Egypt 3100 B.C, passing on what was then a wine-like substance to Jews as well as the Phoenicians. Scientists recently discovered a 3,700-year-old cellar in northern-Israel, archaeologist Eric Cline of George Washington University explained: "It was a resinated wine, like the Greek wine retsina." The resin was added to keep air out (so not to spoil) while infusing the wine with resin aromas. Skip forward to 1492 and new world wine, over the next few hundred years its reach spanned the U.S, Australia, South America and Japan. In 1836 New Zealand had its first vineyard, in 1870 a French Basque immigrant named Don Pascual Harriague planted Tannat vines in Uraguay which became the 'national grape', in 1980 China's market opened up.

Krista Scruggs, a winemaker and farmer, based in Vermont and Texas, explained in Marian Bull’s article for Vox “It’s conventional wine that’s actually new.” However, additives in wine are not as Vashti Christina Galpin wrote in her assignment for her Cape Wine Master Diploma, ‘Since the earliest days of winemaking, the issue of preservation has been important, as well as how to improve wine and how to hide its faults. Additives have been used in wine since at least Roman times, if not longer’. Whether to preserve or hide, there are currently 60+ legal additives you can add in winemaking.

The ’60s arrive and so to the re-birth of traditional wine or origins of natural wine, Marcel Lapierre, Jean Foillard, Charly Thevenet and Guy Breton in the Beaujolais region of France begin making wine like their grandparents, back to tradition, nothing added. The most common belief in winemaking since the ’90s as Jancis Robinson wrote in The Oxford Companion to Wine is ‘“wine is made in the vineyard not the cellar”’.

I remember staying on a vineyard just outside Bordeaux a few years back (Château Lagarde, Cars I think), my French was awful and being remote, we spoke to the owner through wine. Up the road was an organic winery, our vineyard was an ex organic producer who still had no chemicals involved. His wine was better at that moment, more enjoyable while the sunset and the bbq roared under the stars, the organic stuff was more expensive and less impressive. In the end, it all comes down to our subjective tongues, and boy are they stubborn.

Small batch, independent, local, are often used for things from your butchers, general store, or coffee shop but try to think of this when buying your wine. The relationship between producer and product will talk to you of their patience, respect, connection, community, love and flavour. Natural wine can be delicious, all-consuming and make you float amongst the clouds, but it can also sting you in the bottom and soak you in remnants of sauvignon blanc. Every mouthful will taste different as the bottle flows, that’s the fun.

As Alice Walker wrote, “In nature, nothing is perfect and everything is perfect. Trees can be contorted, bent in weird ways, and they’re still beautiful.” If wine is to take me on a journey, bring me one that is alive and breathing. One that sings of its place, its time, it’s terroir.

List of additives primarily used in large production corporate wines, but rarely by small artisan producers