A Spotlight on Natural Wine

Are natural wines ready for their close-up?

 


If you're more than a casual wine drinker, if you follow wine the way bookies follow horses and TMZ follows starlets, then you're familiar with the Natural Wine movement. How could you not be? In the last couple of years, it seems as if every cogent wine commentator in print from San Francisco to Sydney has seen fit to write about the phenomenon (and here I am, bringing up the rear).


Minimal intervention allows nature to do the work

"Natural Wine" is a somewhat squishy term referring to wines made with minimal inputs and minimal intervention. Its practitioners convert their musts with indigenous yeasts (disdaining commercial versions) and eschew the enzymes and other additives used to hurry along, shape or complete fermentation. They do not add fixatives, colorants, tannins, acid, oak (neutral barrels are OK); they do not add water if they can help it. They use sulfur minimally, if at all, believing that its prophylactic facility comes at the expense of the wine's more essential expressive properties. And they swear off scores of other practices to "correct" or otherwise redirect a wayward wine into something more desirable or critic-friendly. The idea is to make something as close to 100 percent wine as is humanly possible, more expressive of grape and place than of man. (See note below story.)

Photo: Alice Feiring. Credit: Annaïck Le Mignon

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This year a number of books have been released that deal with the subject directly, including "Authentic Wine" by Jamie Goode and Sam Harrop and "Naked Wine" by Alice Feiring. Still, other recent books, such as Katherine Cole's spirited survey of Oregon biodynamics, "Voodoo Vintners," and David Darlington's insightful analysis of the wine industry's last quarter century, "An Ideal Wine," touch upon the topic extensively. I'm also aware of at least three books being written, produced or contemplated on the subject. All of which seems amazing, since the number of actual natural wines in existence, in relation to less noble efforts, is microscopic by any measure, smaller than minuscule. Based on the attention they're getting, you'd think they were taking the wine world by storm. So why are these wines attracting so much notice?

I had occasion to contemplate this question at a natural wine dinner late last month at the Beverly Hills restaurant Saam, a private dining venue within “the Bazaar” restaurant in the SLS Hotel, where José Andrés conducts strange, wonderful, largely concocted (not to say unnatural) interpretations of iconic Spanish cuisine.

There a meal was prepared in honor of Feiring, the New York author whose impassioned book "Naked Wine" is perhaps the most unabashed of recent efforts in endorsing the cause of le vin naturel. Of all the recent books on the subject, hers is the most personal, the most agitated, the most illuminating voice in the din.

A 'Naked' voice rises

Feiring has been writing about wine for nearly 20 years; about a decade in, she realized the wines she loved and considered authentic, "the Leon Trotskys, the Philip Roths, the Chaucers and the Edith Whartons of the wine world," were receding into the background, as wines preferred by critics like Robert A. Parker claimed a very boozy, vociferous foreground.

When she investigated, she learned that to gain favor with the world's most powerful critic, wine production had morphed into a contortion of itself, marked by gaudily ripe fruit, its excesses corrected by various means in the winery: less-than-natural practices were not only accepted, they were being rewarded with high scores and market dominance. This Feiring found increasingly repellent.

Rather than concede the point, Feiring became a gadfly; she called out producers for their spoofulating ways, demanded accountability for egregious growing practices, sought to expose a winemaking praxis that had become craven, formulaic and contrived. In doing so, Feiring put the entire commercial wine industry on the defensive -- an extraordinary feat. Needless to say, the natural wine movement was elevated by all of the attention -- sommeliers especially took notice, filling restaurant wine lists with natural offerings.

"Naked Wine" is in part a history of the rebirth of natural wines and a personal history of how Feiring, you might say, "regathered" them -- helped to collectivize a group that might not be a group without her (and others') attention. The dinner at Saam featured six of her "discoveries," each of which played a part in the "Naked Wine" narrative. To taste the wines and hear Feiring speak of their creators was to catch a glimpse of the natural wine movement, in all its virtues and faults.

For those of you who haven't met Feiring, she hardly seems like a person to lead a global initiative. Small and ginger-haired, she speaks with a diminutive, almost quavery voice and is prone to dramatic displays of apprehension and self-doubt. (Early in the book a shrieking encounter with a scorpion in a French bedroom adds the impression of her being somewhat "girly.") It is easy, then, to underestimate her conviction, not to mention her feistiness.

Feiring spent part of her career writing fiction, and like most fiction writers (I include myself here) is attracted to good stories, and the characters who provided them. Over and over in "Naked Wine," Feiring relishes in the eccentricity of her subjects: Eric Texier is "a searcher;" Patrick Desplats is "erratic and volatile" (so too are his wines, apparently); Jacques Néauport, a consultant of sorts who becomes something of a quest-figure in the book, is at first spectral and grail-like, with a reputation as "an unsung saint."

Natural winemakers, in short, amount to some of the industry's most identifiable iconoclasts -- they're antic, energetic, seditious characters going against the grain of a multibillion-dollar global enterprise. Their efforts, too, are often less than commercial; La Clarine Farm winemaker Hank Beckmeyer, describes his winery as "an art project with commercial leanings." Most writers can't help but be seduced by such grandly romantic efforts, and seduction may help to explain a certain level of myopia, when it comes to evaluating or forgiving less than sound wines and winemaking.

Natural wines put to the test

Which brings us back to dinner. Sommelier Maxwell Leer has paired six wines with six courses: most of the wines had been explored within the pages of "Naked Wine." All expressed, to one degree or another, the natural aesthetic, from the sublime -- Lopez de Heredia's breathtakingly soulful 2000 Rioja Rosado from Viña Tondonia, for example -- to the downright weird.

The wine from the Andrea Calek, for example, was ostensibly a sparkling wine -- it had no effervescence that I could detect, just a haze of tropical flavors; the Mendall Macabeu "l'Abuerador" from Spanish naturalist Laureano Serres bore the off-grey color of a dirty T-shirt, cloudy and thick, with flavors just as vague. But I was most affronted by the fifth wine of the night, a Loire red made by Christian Venier called la Gautrie, bearing the concentration of a rosé and sweet, strawberry-like aromas. It was agreeable and nondescript, unremarkable until Feiring informed us that the wine was cabernet franc, adding, "I can identify this as a natural wine before I could identify the varietal."

By this she meant that a portion of the winemaking method -- carbonic maceration -- was easier to detect than the varietal itself. This was absolutely true, but in that moment, it seemed like an astounding admission. What self-respecting natural producer would be content with a method -- however natural -- that obliterated the wine's typicity? Why make a cabernet franc to taste like something other than what it was? How was this not an act of will upon the wine?

Feiring counters that within the natural movement there are vins de soif and vins de terroir -- the former meant to be drunk without forethought, to be charming and convivial; they serve a different purpose than more "serious" efforts; the "la Gautrie" was certainly such a wine.
But I remained troubled that the wine's purpose -- a commercial purpose, after all -- came at the expense of its varietal identity. That indifference to type and place didn't seem all that different from a wine altered to target a commercial flavor profile -- the very thing that Feiring was railing against.

It reminded me what some West Coast sommeliers had been telling me in the last half-year or so (sotto voce, of course: coming off as contra-natural wasn't to their advantage). They'd admitted they were wearying of natural wines, because, they said, the wines all seemed the same, no matter what they were made of, or where they were from. That seemed grave to contemplate. In fact in this particular corner of the wine world, it seemed like a crime against nature.
 
Zester Daily contributor Patrick Comiskey is a senior contributor for Wine & Spirits Magazine, where he serves as chief critic for non-California domestic wines and contributes articles on the wines of California, Oregon and Washington.

*Note: While the term "natural wine" was coined to describe winemaking practice, it's assumed that the fruit is grown with analogous restraints, e.g., without the use of chemical additives, fertilizers, pesticides, and fungicides. Organic and biodynamic viticulture fall comfortably into this realm; naturists, however, might give pause at what some of the sustainable growers must resort to.

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Comments

  • Snooth User: it2daddy
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    622990 50

    had only vaguely heard of this concept - seems like an odd approach as Mr. Comiskey points out. That said, my interest is peaked re: Alice's "Naked Wine" book.

    Sep 13, 2011 at 2:53 PM


  • Natural wines were those wines produced by the early Greeks, Romans, Georgians, Iranians (before they found Mohmaed), and such. These wines were low alcohol (8% or so), not so good to taste but much better than the water, and usually faded out fast, turning to vinegar and rancid. If the natural wines of today look like Ms. Feiring, then please pass me the Marlyn Merlot. Natural wines are a pure fad with no intrinsic value other than to show you that our winemaking traditions have transitioned from the ugly to the beautiful. Man has learned to work with Mother Nature to provide even better quality wines. Higher alcohol does not mean better wines. Quality and pairability are the course of action for legitimate winemakers. The makers of natural wines show no talents in their winemaking capabilities since they only reflect the average of what Mother Nature can do. Make my wines quality wines that are food-friendly regardless of how you make them. The French learned how to make great sauces and dishes because their food venues were rodents. Winemakers have learned to progress to higher levels, directing and helping Mother Nature to provide quality wines true to their varietals while being food friendly.

    Sep 13, 2011 at 3:12 PM


  • Snooth User: luvgrapes
    168407 14

    I had Andrea Calek's Blonde last summer after reading Alice Freiring's comments about his approach to wine making. I was intrigued...but to this day my husband and I can't decide if what we drank was wine or beer or a combination of the two. Very unique, but not unlikable. If his style of natural wine is representative of most I'm not sure I understand the need or attraction. But, after an n of 1, it isn't fair to judge. I will keep an open mind until I have an n of 2. Still fun to read all people have to say.

    Sep 13, 2011 at 9:36 PM


  • Snooth User: pincjott
    280799 0

    In the med we call these wines Mass wine, since catholic celebrations were held using unadalterated fermented grapes. I make these wines for personal cons, with chardonnay brix ar 25, ditto for merlot and petit verdot. Use only 100% mould free berries, no additives wharsoever,wild yeast, the secret? Small quantities max 1000 lts, perfect temp control . The sole problem is... you will never drink anything else anywhere. Mar Casar, malta, Eu

    Sep 14, 2011 at 3:32 AM


  • Snooth User: DJ Katie
    787252 8

    There are many excellent natural/organic or naked wines, from my recent tasting experience with mostly the reds and I've been drinking wine on a daily basis for about 30 years now. I'm talking about the traditional grapes that go into cabernet & merlot as well as red zins & syrahs. When the naked wine producer forgoes the fancy & the bizzare, I have found some truly enjoyable organic red wines. I have also found that my fingers & ankles no longer swell up like they do compared to the sulfite laced wines. Although I still indulge in some amazing wines with sulfites, I find myself doing this less & less since I am a daily wine drinker (mostly with dinner) and my body has now begun choosing these alternatives to those laced with pesticides, fungicides & fertilizers. As I have been adjusting my diet to contain only organic or natural foods as nature intended it to be, I am now choosing to do the same with my wines.

    Sep 14, 2011 at 7:41 AM


  • The concept of 'natural wines' has been stealthily percolating through the wine world for at least the past decade. Some of the finest producers of Burgundy (e.g. (Leflaive, Leroy and Comtes Lafon) have been producing wines which fit under the loose definition of 'natural' (but better defined as biodynamic) for years but have chosen not to shout about it and have made a conscious decision not to incorporate it into their marketing. 

    Why? 

    Because they have decided that this is the best way to produce excellent wines and they choose to market their wines on quality and excellence; not by being produced 'naturally.' Wines like these not only command excellent reviews from critics like Parker but also consistently high demand and prices.

    Like all things, some 'natural' wines are excellent and others are poor. Please don't confuse a fashionable lunch in a Beverly Hills hotel with a movement which encapsulates the essence and importance of making amazing wine. Surely, the key is in being a discerning drinker and rewarding excellence with your consumption choices?

    I personally admire the skill and philosophy of producing great organic and biodynamic wine. Wines from the likes of Nicholas Joly and the team at Mas de Daumas Gassac will always have a place in my heart...and my decanter!       

    Sep 14, 2011 at 1:59 PM


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