5 Feb 2011

Why the term "natural" wine is absurd

Most people who read this blog from time to time (at least the wine pages of it) will probably realise that I love wine, and also that I have been around in this business for a few years. Apart from student jobs doing deliveries and organising stock in a London wine shop at Christmas periods back in the late 1960's, I finally started in the wine trade in 1983, and have never ceased working with this marvellous substance ever since, in various capacities. For the past 15 years I have been an independant writer, broadcaster, teacher and occasional advisor on wine and wine matters.

I have seen various fads and fashions come and go over the past 30 years or so. Words will suddenly appear out of nowhere, usually in an attempt to describe some new niche that has developed within the complex skein of currents that circulate within the marketing (wine people often hate this word in connection with their product, but that is what it is nonetheless) of wine as a whole, or as a series of sub-groups. The latest fad is so-called "natural" wines. Now the origins of this niche are not exactly young, but the term has developed and spread recently to the extent that it has now become fashionable, and therefore quite annoying to me, especially as the whole concept is based on a major philosophical error.

This error is the idea that nature is "good". I suppose this harks back to Rousseau and all that clap-trap about the noble savage. Nature is neither good not bad, and it makes no sense to place moral values on something that is not consciously controllable. I would love to see the reaction of some ardent protagonist of "natural" products if they were dropped into the jungle somewhere (or any inhospitable place away from mankind and his comforts) without a survival kit. And I doubt very much whether they would construe nature as being "good" the next day, if indeed they were still alive. I sometimes get the impression that the intensity with which such silly notions are held is directly proportional to the distance between those who hold them and something one could call "nature". In other words, it is an avatar of town-folks' nostalgia for what they think of as a lost paradise.

But of course one cannot just shrug off things as easily as that. I could find myself being accused of sophistry! There is often a silver lining, or at least some good intentions, behind misconceived ideas. One needs to start by getting rid of the absurd term of "natural" wine before looking at some of the questions that lie behind it. Why is the term absurd? Well, apart from the basic misconception outlined above, it must be said that wine production can never be a totally "natural" process. Has anyone ever seen a vine plant itself, cut its own arms and legs off in winter in order to be able to produce some decent fruit, curtail its inherently generous growth during the summer, fending off marauding animals as the grapes ripen and then plucking the bunches off and jumping on them in some conveniently placed hollow vessel before waiting around until a bottle or barrel flaoted by to contain the liquid that resulted? Obviously all wines are produced by men and use techniques invented by man, which resort to tools and materials of various descriptions that have been manufactured using more or less industrialised processes. So wine is NOT, and never can be, a "natural" product. It is manufactured, on a scale that can vary from the vastly industrial to the minutely artisanal.

So what are these other ideas that subsume this movement in wine towards what is purportedly "natural". Well obviously the main element is a growing rejection of what is seen as excessive standardisation through over-reliance on industrial and intensively technological procedures. Probably first and foremost is the fact that viticulture has been, over the past 80 years or so, an increasingly intensive user of chemicals to prevent (or hold at bay) diseases and pests in the vineyard, not to mention chemical fertilisers used for a long time to improve yields. This has now receeded, it has to be said largely through the pressure of various "green" movements, and reasonable vine-growers, and now this reduction of chemical overload has finally been sustained by governments. The growing niche of wines made from organically grown grapes forms the substratum of the "natural" wine movement, since all so-called "natural" wines come from organically farmed vineyards.

Two other elements that bear consideration are involved. The first is the use of indigenous yeats, as opposed to selected and cultivated yeast strains that are produced in specialised laboratories. Without getting too technical, all yeasts are "natural". What is at issue here is a supposed advantage, in terms of "individuality" and, I suppose, the "home-grown/home-made is better" myth (not always true, as anyone who cooks will admit) of indigenous yeats to be found in each winery and cellar over selected strains that are sold by laboratories. I think the jury is out on this issue and the answer will always depend on the circumstances and the type of wine being produced. There are positive and negative things to be said for both sides here.

The second issue is that of added sulphur dioxide. This is "naturally" present in all wine, without anyone adding any of this compound which derives from one of the major components of the earth's crust, sulphur (a "natural" product by the way). Below a concentration level of 10 milligrams per litre, no declaration of its presence is required by the increasingly stringent legistalation that governs wine labelling in many countries. In Europe, wine is allowed to have up to 160 mg per litre, but usually used much less. The usefulness of sulphur dioxide is as an antibiotic disinfectant and an antioxidant, and so it is widely used in winemaking at various stages in the process. The problem is that it has, largely in the past, been used in excessive quantities to mask inadequate hygiene, as well as poor quality grapes at the start. Some peole can be allergic to high levels of suphur dioxide, and excessive use of it has come into justifiable disrepute and now been abandoned. But babies should not be thrown out with bath water. Sulphur dioxide does a very good job of protecting wine from undesirable bacteria, as well as from premature oxidation, when used corerectly and in reasonable quantities. Yet some wine-makers, probably disappointed with the "dumbing" effect of this substance on their more delicate wines, tried (and try) to make these without adding sulphur dioxide. Such wines can taste fruitier and "clearer" in their youth, but they do not age well and have difficulity in travelling as one must keep them at all times below a maximum temperature of 14°C. In principle this may seem to be a good idea, but in practice it is often catastrophic, apart from the limited case of wines that are drunk young , stored carefully, and consumed close to where they are produced. Amongst the adverse effects that are frequent on wines that have has no sulphur dioxide added are bubbles where there should be done, nasty barnyard-like smells that put you off entirely, and premature oxidation that turns colours brown and makes the wine taste flat. I have experenced all these defects on many occasions with wines to which insufficient (or no) suplhur has been added, and they do not make one enjoy wine!

The general line of argument used by most proponents of the "natural" wine movement is that they add nothing and substract nothing to and from what nature offers. This is not only inexact, it is also specious and beside the point. Of course one should sustain any movement that will help preserve the richness of the natural world, albeit largely re-arranged by man over the centuries. But a lot of the slightly paranoid and idealistic preoccupations of the "naturalists" are quite beside this point, and also, more dangerously, retrograde in the process of learning how things work. Wine has been hugely improved over the past 50 years by knowledge and technology. Why should we be forced back to the dark ages of hit-and-miss winemaking by a few misguided, although probably well-intentioned, people? (I didn't say a bunch of loonies, did I?) 



  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I think there's also another reason for not calling "natural wine" natural. Nature isn't good or bad. Ok, but does it have to be the Cartesian dichotomous Other? The naive definition of naturalness tells us that everything happening in nature is natural. Hence, everything that Man, as a part of nature, does is by definition "natural" (Frankenwein, GMO etc.).

    Still, this naive (and rather trivial) definition doesn't quite catch what we mean, when we're referring to something as being natural. When we're using the concept of natural, we're usually expressing some sentiments or attitudes (perhaps with a normative underpinning) about what we take as being normal, acceptable or even mundane. So, I'd say the meaning of the concept here is somehow culturally constructed.

    Is natural wine natural in this sense? No. (For the majority of people) the natural wine end of the spectrum (and above all the wine produced) might easily be perceived as being more unnatural than the commercial wine manufactured with cultivated aroma yeasts, oak chips, spinning cones and all that.

  3. Taken in this sense, one would have to conclude that all wine is "natural". But the underpinning thinking behind the use of the word "natural" applied to wines by the proponents of this movement is the reduction of additions and manipulation to a strict minimum and, ideally, to nothing, whatevere the risks to the stability of the resulting product and health may be. I believe they do (at least when I read what they sometimes write) consider nature to be "good". It is the latter fallacy that I wish to denounce, together with the impracticability of refusing to add sulphur dioxide to wine.

  4. Spotted an interesting comment by one of the contributors to Berthomeau’s blog. He suggested the appearance of various types of “odd” wine categories, a recent phenomenon, was the expression of the anxiety the profession feels because it is faced with the loss of significance of the “appellation” system (whether in France or elsewhere), with the need to gain an appealing image (distinctive from the others) and with the quasi-death of the associative professional links. I have not got the educational skills of a sociologist, but I think there’s some truth in this view.
    It is especially relevant to “natural” wines. I, as much as you do, resent the denomination “vin nature” (or “naturel”, for that matter), and hate the idea of “pas de soufre du tout” just for the sake of not adding any. But I have a lot of sympathy for all kinds of wines which try to escape the ever increasing grip of chemistry, fake and the gimmicks of agro-industrial marketing.

    @ Antti-Veikko: I went through your comment thrice and am not sure I clearly see what you mean, but it is not of great importance. One question though, why are you singling out Frankenwein? Is it a positive selection (a kind of “Auslese”?) or a heavy criticism; it can be read both ways ? I’d like to know.

  5. As far as “good nature” is concerned, David, you know the French better than any other “alien”. They still think JJ Rousseau was a great man and a thinker. I hold him for a nutter of the first category.
    On top of that, “la meilleure fille de l’Eglise”, as this country used to be called, cannot depart from a large dosis of manicheism. There is nothing wrong with that, as such, but it is difficult to reconcile with fervent Roman Catholicism. This indeed expressed itself throughout their history, from the Cathar Crusade (“Cædite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius. ») to the present time pathetic oversimplified left-right politics, at the level of both state and family.

  6. Luc, we are clearly in agreement on all the points you mention. JJ Rousseau was indeed a class one nutter. Some of the "natural" wine fervents would qualify too. Not long ago, I was served a glass of wine on the counter of a Paris bistro. As I was talking to my neighbour, I left the glass with wine in it for maybe 10 minutes. When I returned to it it seemed darker in colour (it was supposed to be a white wine)and tasted and smelt horrible. When I complained to the man behind the counter, he said "you should have drunk it faster. This is a "natural" wine with no added sulphur." I told him that it dodn't make me want to try one ever again. Another nutter. You are of course also right about the excesses of playing around with wines. And about the French tendancy to manichéisme. Left-right clivage (I like left-right cleavage) is so ridiculous, and yet it continues!

  7. Glad to read that. As far as “familial cleavage” is concerned, most of my siblings and relatives are medics or paramedics. Therefore, nudity is not much of a taboo in my set of values. But for “political cleavage”, I have only this to say:
    “Quand les hommes vivront d’amour,
    Il n’y aura plus de misère,
    Les soldats seront troubadours,
    Et, nous serons MORTS, mon frère ! »

  8. Oops, perhaps Frankenwine makes more sense. As in here: http://www.naturalnews.com/021333.html
    Frankenstein - Frankenwein/wine
    So, nothing to do with the lovely wines of Franken. :)

    All I'm trying to say in my argument is, that in a trivial sense all wine is "natural". And in a non-trivial sense the different wines seem to have a different degree of naturalness. This degree then depends on how people (both consumers and professionals) feel about different processes in making the wine.

    Adding sulphur to the wine is natural, if the consumers do not resent the policy and do not feel it to be unnatural. On the other hand a glass of cloudy wine might come across very unnatural to most of the consumers.

    Natural wine movement has an agenda that makes minimal human intervention a virtue in winemaking. This doesn't mean they can decide, what it eventually means for a wine to be "natural". None of us can do that.

  9. Antti ... I LOVE this misunderstanding.
    Blogging is fun, but sometimes, one gets nasty surprises, people confusing things, misinterpreting formulas, and getting ideas mixed-up. I’m a lover of Franconian wines (Wirsching, Juliusspital, Bürgerspital, Bickel-Stumpf, Castell’sches Domäneamt, Fürst Löwenstein, Horst Sauer, Brennfleck, and a few more I surely forget). Therefore, I couldn’t make the connection between them and “natural” wines.
    I’m not sure this is the region in the world where people will tend to be very sensitive to a “nonsensical approach”. By the same token, I fear it is not here either one has to look for wines with “minimal” or “limited” human intervention, what I’m actually advocating as well. Never forget grape juice will turn into very poor vinegar indeed, and apple juice into the worst cider ever, when left standing alone. Still, Julius-Echterberg’s beauties, Stein’s treasures, Lump’s Auslesen, Kappellenberg’s juices ... “That’s the way, aha, aha, I like it ..... Please, do it!”

  10. (This was originally written as a comment for another blog that had linked Cobbold's post for interesting wine for thought. Thus the text explicitly comments only the original post by Cobbold.)

    One could also make the claim that Cobbold himself in fact pertains to the “naturalists’” concepts of pure nature “out there”, and humans with or without proper knowledge and methods to make something out of that nature. I would like to try to tell a different story of what makers and proponents of “natural” wine might be trying to achieve with all the ballyhoo which apparently makes Cobbold and many others so livid. If Cobbold apologises for a hint sophism in his points, there is a heap of it to come in the following.

    Cobbold, and the "naturalists" he accuses of embellished viticulture/vinification/marketing fads, both seem to insist on a monolithic nature that is out there and reachable by scientific method, or in this case, by winemaking. Plus, the role of the human is reduced to that of a distorter, intervener or, at best, an arbiter of why "Wine has been hugely improved over the past 50 years by knowledge and technology." In this sense, the use of the term ‘natural’ does in fact refer to something opposite to human taint – technology, ideology, industry, economics etc.

    But, to conceive of nature and human/culture as intertwined entities, existent in every artefact and "process of learning how things work", makes the dichotomy sound ridiculous (”cultural wine” as opposed to ”natural”). The (Kantian) line of reasoning is fairly similar in both the naturalists’ and Cobbold’s arguments: the monolith of Nature is only to be discovered through savvy human manipulation and discovery (i.e. science); or, there is, by definition, no access to the transcendent Nature, only valid or invalid cultural accounts of what Nature is. By this trail of thought one can, with the might of science, claim the moral high ground and state that ”[w]ine has been hugely improved over the past 50 years by knowledge and technology” or “[s]ulphur dioxide does a very good job of protecting wine from undesirable bacteria, as well as from premature oxidation, when used correctly and in reasonable quantities”. The morality of nature is in the hands of the knowledgeable human; nature has improved in the hands of woman; there is reason and desire to be extracted from nature, from an artefact called wine (which was not supposed to have morality or inert goodness, as Cobbold also insists but takes the argument even further and makes the “proper method” of winemaking the standard by which to evaluate naturality).

    What if “naturalists” were instead to be seen making the methods of bringing together human endeavour and the stuff of nature (grapes, soil, climate, weather, fermentation, yeasts etc.) visible, forcing to the fore that the ways in which wine is made make up what becomes enacted in a bottle of wine; or, as Cobbold himself impeccably puts it, presenting the “process of learning how things work”? The “thing” is what is at stake when viticulturists and winemakers claim to “naturality”. The thing, the wine, is a tangled object in which viticulturists and winemakers have to coax “nature” out of Plato’s cave and make attachments of human and nature, knots of practice in which they become inseparable and irreducible to either of their extremes.

    By following “naturalist” winemakers around in their work, I would like to argue, a very different understanding of “naturality” might arise than the one suggested by Cobbold. In trying to underline and accentuate their practice, naturalists fight and test, fail and succeed to produce a bottleable and an enjoyable object out of available material (grapes, vines, soil, slopes, yeasts, yields, fermentation temperatures, vessels, and durations, sunny and rainy days, forms of sulphur etc.), and knowledge woven into these materials and methods of making them matter.

  11. I must say that have found it hard to follow Tapio's long comment. This probably is explained by the fact that I flunked out of philosophy studies at University at an early stage. I will try again when I have more time, because I am sure there are some good points that require thought and answer here. In general, I do not doubt the sncerity of these people, but I feel that they are naïve and misguided.

  12. Don’t David, don’t.
    I dared exactly the same comment concerning Steiner’s followers in In Vino Veritas some 10 years ago, using your very words. I was besieged by telephone calls on behalf of “Les Amis de Rudolf Steiner” afterwards , warning me “... et on ne vous lâchera pas!”; stones were even thrown at my windows, anonymously of course.
    One of them finally knocked me out by an impeccable: “Et je ne suis pas un idiot ; la preuve : ma femme est médecin”. I don’t see the connection, but he apparently did.
    This being said, if my ethereal body ever goes in search of purification thanks to cowshit, and if there is a free seat in your side-car, maybe you’ll accept me on board your Guzzi or your Commando, to make a revitalizing trip to the world of Akasha.

  13. I fairly admit that I didn't express myself as lucidly as one could hope.. Hopefully You'll find the time to get around to it again, and force me to clarify the point I was trying to make.

    In short, sincerity or naivete is not, in my view, the case. Why the term natural might actually be just, could be due to the fact that its proponents make an issue of the methods of winemaking (which always involve both the influence of human on nature/matter, and vice versa; this is what we agree on, I think).

    By accentuating certain practices in, and introducing certain dogmas (the use and form of sulphur, for instance) into winemaking, "naturalists" are presenting a polemically different aesthetic to wine than the "technologically improved" winemaking of the past decades. Further, I don't think that "naturalists" denounce technology altogether, they rather coin "wine technology" differently in their practice. They allow "nature" and matter to present their recalcitrance. (That said, I admit that I have seen more statements about how "the wine makes itself" than I would have cared.. Here we share the outrage for sure.)

    And this issue formation seems to be working, judging by the debate and uproar it is causing...

  14. I read somewhere else that this tendency to “new” forms (categories, clans, sects ...) of wine may be the result of the winemakers’ doubts about the classical “appellation” system, the development (and success) of new viticultural regions and their financial/economic worries, all of this leading to anxiety of course. It is a claim to some form of recognition, to their individuality and “raison d’être”. I’m no sociologist and not well equipped to judge, but it sounds correct.

  15. Yes, I think this could explain some of this. There is, to many people, a sense of security to be gained in numbers, in being part of a "clan". The behaviour of the "naturalistes" (I didn't say nudists, did I?) with their specific wine fairs and wine bars where they all gather like sheep does remind me of this. The French also seem to have a strong tendancy to create labels (étiquettes) for all kinds of groups of things, people and forms of behaviour. This clearly provides them with some intellectual confort and avoids more complex thought processes. For example, for many people in France, and for a long time, only wine from Bordeaux was to be considered as wine. Now things have changed, thankfully, but the tendancy to stick labels everywhere remains. "Natural" wine seems to partake of this tendancy. I find that there are many winemakers who experiment, like with trying a cuvée with no added sulphur and then either keeping on with it or abandoning it, according to the results. The same with people who pick out some interesting aspects that have been explored within the "bio-dynamic" approach and leave all the quasi-religious rubbish behind. I respect such people, but I cannot abide the rabid dogmatists who play the hard line on such things. There was even one winemaker in the Loire who said that he didn't want to have his wines sold in a shop that would handle any non-bio-thingy-natural wines in that shop! I hope the guy has a large thirst as he will probably end up drinking all the stuff he makes.

  16. Une traduction française de cet article serait salutaire pour beaucoup de journalistes, vignerons et amateurs!
    C'est si difficile d'expliquer toute la complexité de certains choix techniques au sein d'itinéraires culturaux qu'être "raisonnable" devient inaudible en France. Le marché nous force à choisir un camp: bio ou "conventionnel". Et cela deviendra je pense dommageable pour notre savoir-faire et notre capacité à créer autre-chose que du discours marketing.

  17. Je n'ai pas une traduction complète de cet article sous la main, mais voici un article sur le même thème que j'ai écrit voici quelques temps pour le site Ecce Vino, qui, lui, est entièrement en français (le site et l'article). Vous verrez que le sujet se poursuit dans la partie commentaires via ma discussion avec un internaute qui ne semble pas aoir bien compris mon propos.


    J'espère que cela répondra un peu à votre demande