Give me a word beginning with “N”

Is there a single word that’s caused more controversy and argument amongst wine connoisseurs/geeks/lovers than “natural”? At least recently, I doubt it.

The debate about “natural wine” has raged for a good few years now. During that time, zealots and detractors have nailed their colours to the mast so frequently in some cases that it’s a wonder there’s anything left to nail.
Just when it all seemed to be dying down, ex-Wall Street Journal writer Bruce Palling posted a crass piece of lazy journalism entitled “Why ‘Natural’ Wine Tastes Worse Than Putrid Cider”. Why lazy? Because this was the same argument that we’ve had for over four years now – “there’s no such thing as natural wine” or worse “all natural wine is faulty wine”. Both statements are questionable if not laughable, and in any case the wine world has moved on.

slurp-back-labelMy own recent experience writing about this rather cheeky supermarket wine packaging showed that few can agree on the definition of that pesky word. The comments in particular threw up an array of possibilities: “nothing added”, somehow related to organic, “a feeling”.  The question in my mind was “is there a textbook definition that applies to wine?”.

Merriam Webster gave me this:

nat·u·ral adjective \ˈna-chə-rəl, ˈnach-rəl\
1. existing in nature and not made or caused by people : coming from nature
2. not having any extra substances or chemicals added : not containing anything artificial
3. usual or expected

Well, number 1 can safely be ruled out. Natural wine clearly can’t be defined as vinegar – no matter how much its detractors might want. But number 2 is pretty accurate – fermentation occurs naturally, so no selected yeasts, no fining or filtering agents, no added tannins or grape concentrate. Technically this would also preclude the addition of any added sulfur – a perilous path which some winemakers are nonetheless learning to tread in an accomplished way.

Number 3 is the problem area. Here’s the reason that processed food or soft drink manufacturers will argue that its OK to use the word for their “basic” or “unflavored” products – even if they are as manipulated as hell and light years away from definition 2.

Why should anyone care about this? Does it really matter if marketeers or wine producers play fast and loose with terminology and with the “n” word? I think it does, for a very simple reason.

Consumers have a right to know what they are buying. Even if they choose not to exercise that right. Even if they don’t care.

The 21st century consumer is engaged in an unwitting battle with retailers, advertisers, marketing and PR agencies – who erect effective obstacles to that right. If you really want to find out how the liquids and comestibles that you ingest are produced, you have to go head-to-head with one of the world’s most powerful industries – one that is increasingly engaged in restricting access to such information.

Most of us give in with nary a whimper. So what if your “farm fresh eggs” actually come from a horrific battery facility with crates barely bigger than the hens, or if a ready meal claiming “low salt” and “low sugar” turns out to be anything but. Tough luck if a mass marketed wine utilizes the same “natural wine” buzzword as a small artisan producer. Can we do anything about false and misleading claims? Just roll over and buy what the food and drink giants want you to buy?
Actually, people do complain, and sometimes things change. Danone tried very hard to launch a probiotic yogurt under the brandname “bio” in the 1990s – but since that term carries very strong associations with organic production in most European languages, the corporation was forced to rebrand it as “activia” to avoid litigation from the EU.

It might be too much to hope that the word “natural” will ever be legally protected in the same way as more concrete terms such as “organic” or “biodynamic”, but that needn’t stop the wine industry from developing its own standardization.

But what does it all mean?

An argument I hear a lot is that “the consumer doesn’t understand or care what goes into wine” – as if this is the justification for abandoning all hope, for shrugging our shoulders and accepting that we can’t protect what goes into our wine any more than we can stop banks stealing our money or governments making poor decisions.
Once upon a time, consumers didn’t know or care about free-range eggs, pesticide residues on their vegetables or GMOs in their food. Many still don’t, but there is a sizeable segment who do, and a corresponding market sector that services their needs.

Wine shouldn’t be any different – the emergence of “natural wine” as a category for people who share a similar concern for how their beverages are manipulated is, well, perfectly natural. But, it only gains real weight if its integrity can be protected and guaranteed.

It’s quite possible that more rigor around the term “natural” would help improve overall standards in the sector – there are always bandwagon-jumpers who deserve to be outed. This brings me back to my seemingly irrelevant and obtuse first point – definitions are worth fighting for, worth hammering out, worth pushing past those whose only response to emerging trends is to mock.

About The Author

Simon J Woolf

Simon is an award-winning English wine and food writer, currently based in Amsterdam. He writes mostly, but not exclusively about organic, biodynamic and natural wines. Fermented grape juise has been his muse for the last 15 years. Originally he just drunk the stuff, then started studying, and finally got the urge to communicate in 2011, starting with Simon contributes regularly to Decanter magazine, Meininger Wine Business International and other publications.

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12 Responses

  1. robertejoseph

    I really love this part of the debate. A group of winemakers get together, co-opt a term – “natural” – for wine produced in the way they happen to favour, decline to introduce any rules – and then complain that their term is being abused by some and attacked by others.

    Those of us who believe that “precluding the addition of SO2” or fining is not necessarily intrinsically more desirable than forbidding cooks to add seasoning to their steaks, are legitimately allowed to resent having the wines we enjoy being implicitly termed “un-natural” and “manipulated” and even – in Isabelle Legeron’s recent Financial Times interview “not wine”.

    Maybe the naturalistas might pause to consider precisely why their little niche of the wine world has been subject to immeasurably more controversy than biodynamics.

    The solution is staring them in the face: print “Zero SO2: or “25g SO2” or whatever and “natural yeast” on the label, along with an organic certification. Stop slagging off others who choose to make their wines in different ways. Hey presto, the controversy will quieten overnight.

    • Monty Waldin

      I agree that “ingredients” labelling, for want of a better term that Robert (and others) have suggested, makes complete sense. If this is applied to the whole wine industry so much the better as long as
      – it helps consumers
      – it is enforceable by allowing reasonable margins

      I am tempted to set up an oenology lab in the corner at the next natural wine fair to analyse wines on show to see what has been added in terms of sulfites, and to ascertain which wines are legally faulty (brett for example, there are no rules on that) and which are illegally faulty with excess VA (levels are controlled in all wines, not just “natural” ones).
      The aim would NOT be to point fingers, but to help consumers, commentators and producers so we can all move forward. The early organic wines were pathfinders in the sense that many were worthy but poorly farmed and made. Biodynamics profited from that by arriving a generation later, although I am not saying all BD wines are perfect. But standards have improved. Consumers, of course, are key. They should be free to drink what they like. But consumers should not be sold a false premise when potentially unverifiable claims are being made even if these claims are made with the best of intentions. Most of the time/

      • robertejoseph

        Ah, but Monty, you are falling into the conventional/industrial/manipulative trap of assuming that brett and VA are faults. They’re not! They reflect terroir. The more horse shit and urine you smell, the more natural the wine. Obviously. All those wines whose “standards have risen” simply reflect the sad way that their producers have slipped back into trying to please normal consumers’ tastebuds rather than challenge them: the normal role for any self-respecting natural wine.

      • Monty Waldin

        I see your point Robert but I would look at it slightly differently in the sense that perfection is a laudable but often unattainable goal. Given that wine is a “natural” product by virtue of the fact it is made by living organisms – fungi, yeast, bacteria, humans – a balance can be struck. Is a bit of brett or VA in an old old Northern Rhone which is still recognizably Rhone + Syrah a big deal? I am not sure it is. Is there a qualitative difference in terms of pleasure when having sex without someone who reeks of soap, perfume, make-up and so on or with someone who is mare ‘natural’, whose unwashed skin is the dominant aroma? My real issue and one you and I share )I think) is being sold wine on a false prospectus, whatever than prospectus may be. The wine industry was slower to address the cork taint issue than consumer writers (of which you were one). Consumers were being ripped off, lied to and deceived by a complacent industry. I admire the challenge that natural wine has thrown down to the industry as a whole – which is ‘more for less’. More wine, less manipulation. What the movement risks failing to address is consumers who should be its cheerleaders being alienated by being told either directly or implicitly that for example red wines should still be refermenting in bottle (unless they are Lambrusco). That is the way to puch wine drinkers to other sectors of the drinks market, a market which is undergoing huge changes and improvements not all of which are predisposed to increase either wine’s market or margin share (cider’s rebirth, super-premium spirits as icon, Prosecco v Champagne).

      • robertejoseph

        Er Monty, I fear you missed my irony… (And so, I guess will everyone else). I REALLY don’t want to drink horse shit. And I DON’T think brett has anything to do with terroir. If there are faint traces of it in the background, or there’s a touch of balsamic, that might be fine in the context of an otherwise appealing wine. But not upfront. And nor do I think we should sweat over challenging the poor consumer. He has plenty of other things to worry him without the bother of why he should enjoy a cidery, cloudy white Loire that – to him – tastes downright peciuliar.

      • Monty Waldin

        I agree about faults not being dominant. If faults which are dominant become the new normal then why bother making wine? We can just add extract of brett to some coloured alcohol and drink that instead rather than waste time pruning, ploughing and picking stupid old grapes. My point about consumers was not that we should convince people to drink or not to drink natural wine, but to allow the very clear differences between a wine which has not been infected by rogue and dominant microbiology and wines which have not, with or without some technological help (something as “evil” as sulfur or something as simple as a water hose and a clean brush). Perhaps a tasting is in order to compare wines from the same regions/grapes with no intervention v those with expert and reasonable intervention and see what punters think?

      • robertejoseph

        Interestingly, Monty, as you’ve probably found, there are consumers who actively like some of the characteristics you and I think of as faults. Most strikingly, there are the occasions (rare admittedly) where an unknowledgeable consumer has declared a preference for a plainly TCA-tainted bottle when invited to compare it with a clean one. I also come across people who actively look for “earthy”, “animal” wines, just as some people like their pheasant to be hung until maggots are crawling over it. (Not forgetting the taste some have for very strong cheeses).

        Watching the visitors at RAW, I was struck by the lack of evident difference between reactions to wines with high levels of brett that I found offensive and the clean wines being poured at the next table. My own instinct is that many of these visitors treat events like this as learning exercises. When an obviously sincere young Frenchman pours a grubby wine he’s obviously passionate about, it’s all too easy to +want+ to like it; to treat it like a first encounter with, say, Guinness or Campari or olives.

        All of which is to say that a tasting with consumers at which there are no passionate young Frenchmen – or fault-conscious critics – woulds be very interesting. What I do know anecdotally is that there are a number of customers of restaurants and bars that favour natural/primitive wines who complain about the wines they have been served and the unwillingness of serving staff to understand their point of view.

    • Simon Woolf

      Great comment Robert (and we are in violent agreement when it comes to labelling – I am very pro that solution). But you missed my point.

      First – I don’t believe that it was “a group of winemakers” who coined the phrase “natural wine”. I’d need to research this properly, but as far as I’m aware the original Beaujolais pioneers (chauvet et al) talked more about “vin sans souffre”. I’m not sure exactly when the “n” word started to be popular, but I was under the impression that its use increased organically over the last decade. I’d guess it was the Parisian “vins naturelles” wine bars that popularised the term first. Perhaps you have better information to hand?

      Second – My point is that the term is problematic, and needs better definition or better legislation – something that Isabelle also supports by the way.

      We cannot uninvent a term that has already gained popularity in its own small but nonetheless significant niche – we’re stuck with it. Therefore the only way forward is to try to agree on what it means.

      At least that’s my conceit…

  2. Split infinity | Matt Walls Wine Blog

    […] has no definition does create discussion, but it also makes genuine communication difficult, and breeds ill-feeling. And what is the definition of ‘conventional wine’ anyway? There’s lots of energy and […]

    • Simon Woolf

      Thanks for this Damien. Very good to have the winemaker’s voice in this debate, and a what a great set of videos.