On Defining Natural wine

amphoraMy Twitter feed has been lit up for several days since Oliver Styles posted his rant against the Wine Spectator’s James Molesworth—the topic of course was natural wine. Is there any other topic of controversy in the wine world these days? I posted about the Styles piece on Monday so I won’t revisit that. But, as is usually the case with debates about natural wine, the controversy comes back to charges that natural wine is so ill defined or poorly conceived as a wine category that the term is meaningless.

Tom Wark got right to the point:

Natural wine: sulphur or no? Can a commercial yeast overtake the fermentation or no? Fermenting to dryness manipulation? Is pruning manipulation? Is planting a cover crop manipulation? What about spraying fermented cow sh*t? Give a definition & then we can talk “meaning”.

This charge that natural wine is poorly defined has been around since the early days of the natural wine movement. I think the charge was true years ago but no longer. But before saying more about how natural wine is defined we need some clarity about definitions.

The demand that definitions be precise and create clear conceptual categories in natural languages is misplaced. Words are defined according to how they’re used and that seldom creates clear conceptual distinctions. Is a bean bag “chair” a chair? Yes, because we sit in them but they don’t satisfy any other condition for being a chair—no flat surface, back, or legs. Yet, we sit on rocks but don’t refer to them as chairs. We just have a habit of calling bean bags “chairs” because in the context in which we encounter them it’s useful to do so. Is a golf cart an automobile? Well, an automobile mechanic might work on it but don’t try to get a license for it. There are clear cases of “chairs” and clear cases of “automobiles” but also ambiguous cases like bean bags and golf carts that fit one category for certain purposes but not others. Yet no one would claim the word “chair” or “automobile” is meaningless.

I’m making two points here. (1) Words are defined by how they’re used and to know the meaning of a word you have to look at the practice in which the word is embedded. And (2) even after gaining a good working definition of a term there will always be ambiguous cases where we don’t quite know what to say about whether a usage is proper or not.

Both points apply in the case of natural wine. You can’t discover what counts as “natural wine” by looking at the definition of “natural” in some other context. You have to look at the practice of making natural wine to determine how the term is used in that context. And even after seeing the practice whole there will be ambiguous cases that we can’t quite categorize. This is not peculiar to the word “natural”. It is how language works.

When we look at how natural winemaking has evolved there are two components to a definition. In the vineyard, largely for reasons having to do with ecology as well as human health, no chemical pesticides are allowed. If leaf pulling, pruning, planting cover crops, etc. have no ill effects on human health, vineyard health, or ecology there is no reason to forbid them. If it turns out that spraying fermented cowshit is harmful then we would expect natural winemakers to stop the practice. In the absence of such evidence why would this be an issue?

In the winery, Alice Feiring’s definition is helpful:

The category of natural wine is a somewhat slippery slope except predicated by the tenets of nothing added nothing taken away, a touch of sulfur as needed if needed.

No filtering or fining, no cultivated yeast, no enzymes, no acidification. These are strict criteria and relatively clear. But even with these criteria there is ambiguity. What is meant by “as needed, if needed”? There are many points in the winemaking process in which sulfur can be added “if needed”. That could add up to quite a lot of sulfur. But in talking to natural winemakers it seems to me something like 20-25 ppm is now a rough standard, and is usually applied at bottling to prevent storage or refermentation issues. And when we say “nothing added” does that include oxygen? That of course would be absurd. Pump overs introduce oxygen but they are needed to release carbon dioxide. No one thinks adding oxygen by moving the cap is an unnecessary intervention.

As to the issue of yeast, it is a well established fact that yeast strains in the winery and on winery equipment can take over the fermentation from vineyard yeast. That winery yeast colonizing the fermentation could be a cultivated yeast strain introduced years ago by previous occupants of the winery. But since that yeast is now part of the winery ecology, why would that be problematic? The point of natural winemaking is to allow the wine to develop according to its own trajectory, to allow the internal structure of the wine and it’s environment to determine how it will develop. The distinctive features of the winery are part of that environment; not an intervention.

Again, when you look closely at the practice of natural winemaking and what it’s point is, these apparent conceptual issues get resolved. It’s not about some abstract meaning of “natural”—its about what winemakers who practice natural winemaking do.

Which brings me to my final point. Winemaking is a process, a series of changes that the grapes and the wine undergoes. When we define natural wine we are defining a kind of production process. Like all artisanal winemaking, it is a process that involves interactions with a changing environment that profoundly influences the wine. Winemaking is about constantly reacting to those changes. Thus, winemaking is not a set of rules. There is no recipe for artisanal winemaking because the wine and the environment are changing in unpredictable ways. It seems to me what defines natural winemaking is not a set of rigid criteria but a commitment to minimal intervention. When there is a problem, the least intervention to solve it is the right one. But of course what counts as minimal intervention will change from vintage to vintage, from vineyard to vineyard, from region to region. Neither the problems nor the solutions are universal or even generalizable.

So how can we know if a wine is authentically natural? You have to look at the producer’s practice over several vintages, and know the challenges, problems, and her solutions to those problems in order to judge whether interventions are minimal. That is a complicated matter but wine is complicated.

What is the point of natural wine? The point is that there are expressive possibilities inherent in grapes—a potential that is not solely the result of human intervention, an inherited constitution. Natural winemaking is an attempt to isolate that potential and respect it.

You may or may not like these wines. They can be peculiar. But there is nothing incoherent or meaningless about respecting the inherited constitution of something.

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