Is Natural Wine a Style or a Method?

natural wineI’ve just started exploring natural wine, visiting with several natural winemakers as we make our way through the Central Coast. I’m already a bit puzzled by what counts as “natural”. The most prominent promoter of natural wine, Alice Feiring, defines it as “nothing added, nothing taken away except a little sulfur if necessary.” So no cultured yeast, minimal SO2, no additives, no filtration, and no chemicals in the vineyard. That seems straightforward enough.

But I was talking to a winemaker (who will remain nameless) last week who told me his wines meet all those conditions but are not accepted in the natural wine community. His grapes are organic, his yeasts are native, there is no filtering or fining, he uses only neutral oak barrels, and adds just a little sulfur at bottling, well below the permissible threshold of 20 ppm.

So what sin has he committed? His alcohols are high compared to most other natural wines, coming in at around 15% for Syrah and Cab. He picks a little riper than some, around 23 brix, uses very extended macerations lasting several months so extractions are high, but the main culprit is evaporation from the barrels which eliminates water leaving more alcohol behind. His wines are powerful but elegant and well balanced with extraordinary complexity and life and no trace of excessive heat from the alcohol.

What puzzles me is why modestly higher alcohol disqualifies a wine from being natural. It is true that most of the natural wines I’ve tasted thus far have been on the light side, restrained and balanced, with prominent acidity and minerality. But that is a stylistic consideration. Some people enjoy power, some enjoy restraint but this decision has nothing to do with whether a wine is made without additions.

If natural winemaking is a particular method of making wine driven by moral and aesthetic imperatives to allow a purer expression of the grapes, I don’t see why modestly high alcohol is disqualifying. On the other hand, if it’s a style that requires lighter body and less power then it’s just a preference that loses whatever claim it has to be morally and aesthetically distinctive. There is nothing new or particularly noteworthy about light bodied wines.

It will be interesting to see how this issue plays out as I gain more understanding of how this community works.

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