Natural wine: does this description have meaning?

Author: Brian Croser
Source: Tapanappa
Review Date: Jun 2011

This post was originally in response to a question raised by a magazine editor on what is natural wine, and does this description have any real meaning.

DirtThis is a subject on which everyone is correct.

It is only relevant to fine wine at the very top end of quality and intellectual interest.

Branded commodity wine is made to a risk controlling set of manufacturing protocols of which the aim is to produce consistency and uniformity as key attributes.

Chemical and physical (fining, filtration, osmosis, ion exchange, spinning cone etc.) adjustments to compensate for grape composition deficiencies and to achieve consumer preference tested colours tastes, flavours, and balances are all legitimately used for the manufacture of commodity wine. This can be called quality control and at its optimal execution controls quality and cost within narrow limits to provide a safe choice for consumers who are using the product on a day to day basis with minimal intellectual interest and maximum expectation of quality consistency and a high satisfaction to cost ratio. Mechanisation and high productivity in the vineyard and scale and technology provide an optimal (not maximum) quality and a low cost that is the key to profit for the producer and mass distribution allows the consumer easy and cheap access.

Leaving aside the many variations which are exceptions to the rule and drilling down to the core of the globe’s fine wines, they are about place and the synergy between the variety (ies) chosen for the place being reflected in the wine style and quality.

The holy grail for the fine wine vigneron is to find a place where the geology, soil system, aspect and climate interact to elicit the best response from the chosen variety. John Gladstones’ book, Wine, Terroir and Climate Change becomes a compulsory read here.

The vigneron’s aim here is to produce a unique wine consistently reflecting the synergy between the variety and the place even through the likely inconsistent vintages that are a feature of the most suitable climates for the “great wine varieties”.

The vignerons dream is to find the site and so construct and manage the vineyard that the composition of the grape at harvest requires no amelioration, having the moderate sugar, adequate acid and low pH, the the high level of the right phenols and colour in red varieties  (perhaps the opposite for whites) and most importantly the concentrations and ratios of the tertiary flavour and aroma compounds that produce a unique site driven variation of varietal expression.

That is the vigneron’s holy grail, to be able to harvest the grapes knowing that those attributes are in place and the winemaking process is then about extracting and preserving those grape given qualities through the change from juice to wine without the need for any amelioration. Arguably this produces the clearest and purest expression of the terroir which is the initial aim.  

In the vineyards which by definition are mostly small and intimately managed, eliminating the use of elemental fertilisers (N,P, K), manufactured insecticides and fungicides and the greater the reliance on organic (compost) nutrition and non systemic elemental  protections from fungal infection (Cu and S) which wash off and or disappear during fermentation (admittedly not so in the soil) the less chance of perverting the site elicited growth habit of the vine and therefore the best chance of preserving the unique site expression of wine quality and style.

Vineyards tended to these aims and standards have a right to be called “natural” versus those that for a different purpose are managed for convenience and economy and from which the grapes require amelioration and the wines are manufactured. The latter are not by implication “unnatural” which implies nothing natural, but reflect a greater interference to the natural vineyard composition.

Organic, biodynamic and IPM all have this objective at heart but are adorned with more or less religious like beliefs that are important to the real and market place persona of the producer but have some potential negative implications for the consistency and absolute quality of the wine. In a sense what organic and biodynamic have at heart for the producer’s persona and the consumer’s expectation is an aura of “purer” rather than more natural. I am not sure this translates to fact.

The question of where the pure expression of the terroir ends, whether the indigenous yeast and the village traditions are part of it is a subject of contention but my personal view is the plain or vanilla version encapsulated by Gladstones who defines it as

“The vines whole natural environment, the combination of climate, topography, geology and soil that bears on its growth and the characteristics of its grapes and wines”

Fini. BJC. 

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