I write a lot about natural wines, which leads to two frequent occurrences:

1. People rib and pigeon-hole from time to time. I take it with good grace, occasionally pointing out that my interests and drinking tastes go beyond funky smelling cloudy swamp-juice.

2. A need to defend the positive aspects of the natural wine sector, to those who childishly brand it merely as an excuse for faulty wines.

Importantly, there are good and bad natural winemakers (substitute your own preferred term, eg: “minimal intervention winemakers”, if you’re not down with the n word.), just as there are good and bad “conventional” winemakers. Stating the obvious maybe, but the zealots often tend to forget this.

The bad

Things get troublesome when acolytes start to defend wines and producers just because they are “natural”, forgoing any kind of quality control in favour of idealism. Some of you may be suppressing a yawn and wondering if this article is a throwback to the bad old days of 2009. If only it was, but those “naturalistas” are still out there. Well-meaning and enthused they may be, but in truth they are quite poisonous to the natural “niche” as a whole, because they give the flawed impression that no-one in the sector has any skill or selectivity.

The ugly

I had the misfortune to attend a “natural wine” tasting a couple of weeks ago where almost half the nine wines served (to an interested audience of Dutch wine trade professionals) were close to undrinkable. This is abnormal, especially for a sit-down tasting where someone has presumably selected the wines in advance, with a view to optimising satisfaction and sales.

Three wines were destroyed by a bad case of mousiness – something which is fast becoming the scourge of natural or low/no sulphur winemakers. Excess volatile acidity and unpleasant reductiveness also contributed to the visible gagging of audience members.

Alice Feiring has written about mousiness at length in her excellent subscription-only newsletter “The Feiring Line”. I’ll summarise – it’s a bacterial infection involving lactobacillus, not brettanomyces as was once suspected. It’s killed dead in its tracks by a very modest sprinkle of SO2, thus the prevalence in recent years tends to be isolated to no sulphur wines. The slightly rancid, feral odour only becomes apparent on the finish of a wine, as it needs saliva to make it volatile.

Simon Woolf registering his displeasure of a natural wine

The good

What then are the ground rules for a good natural wine? Here’s my personal hitlist:

1. Balance. I don’t care if there’s a bit of brett, or VA, so long as it works in harmony with the wines’s other characteristics, and doesn’t override them. Fruit is optional – if there’s enough else of interest, it won’t be missed. Mature Rioja is testament to that.

2. Palatability. This is personal to a degree. In my book it excludes wines with bacterial infections, extreme mousiness or brett, where the smell or taste of cowdung/mouse pee/vomit is overwhelming. Cry “umami” all you want. I’ll go down the road for a nice clean lager thanks.

3. Character. If I wanted a squeaky clean supermarket wine with every last bit of interest filtered and fined away, I probably wouldn’t be writing this article.

4. Purity. Trumpable by 1,3 or 5 to an extent, but the joy of a well tended organic or biodynamic vineyard is often the intensity and focus of the fruit. Similarly with a well made low-sulphur wine. These methodologies are supposed to increase definition, not cast a murk over it.

5. Challenge/Adventure. This almost overrides everything else, but point 2 prevails. I love adventure, and I don’t mind a challenge. Tannins in a white wine? Unusual herby or vegetal flavours? Fine if they create harmony and complexity. Even better if they speak of a place, not of a winemaker’s hand.

Luckily events like the tasting mentioned above are getting rarer, but it’s a grim reminder that there are some slack winemakers out there. The natural wine world ought not to tolerate them, but it does. Sometimes the message is more important than the medium – OK in film and politics, not OK in wine.

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 www.themorningclaret.com. Simon contributes regularly to Decanter magazine, Meininger Wine Business International and other publications.

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10 Responses

  1. robbin_g

    Thanks so much for this! I have tried to tell people not all natural wine tastes like sweat socks and they don’t believe me. 🙂

    • Simon Woolf

      Just open one of Sandi Skerk’s wines for them. Or if you need to prove the no sulphur point, head for Jef Coutelou (Mas Coutelou). Ever reliable, clean and joyful.

  2. HHGeek

    I don’t give a hoot as to whether a wine is “natural” or not. I care deeply if it’s any good & at a price point I’m able to meet. Unfortunately the vast majority of people attempting to sell wines which happen to be natural – whether sommeliers or independent retailers – seem to think that they should lead with that descriptor. And if that’s the most exciting thing someone can find to say about a bottle’s contents, it’s also the fastest way to make me lose interest, because there’s got to be a better hook than that.

    • Simon Woolf

      I’d tend to agree, with the second part at least. I do care about organic/biodynamic/minimal intervention, because I prefer my wines not to be too mucked around with, and with as few chemical residues as possible.

      I was on high alert when I went to the tasting above, merely because it was billed as “a natural wine tasting”. It was really like the guy (an importer, no less) had discovered the concept last week, and felt like he had to share it with the world.

  3. robertejoseph

    Nice balance piece, Simon. My main cavil is that a wine with moderate (and to some, pleasantly complexing) brett today may well have a shovelful of stable-floor faeces and urine in a year or so. Brett can and does grow in the bottle. As does VA.
    And second, it isn’t surprising that unpalatable wines are still to be found when some of the leading proponents of ‘natural’ wine are so relaxed about ‘faults’. (Watch Alice Feiring’s conversation with Jancis Robinson on YouTube, or read Isabelle Legeron’s assertion that mousiness clears up over time (not in my experience).

    • Simon Woolf

      Thanks Robert. I hear this comment about Brett growing in the bottle a lot, but I’ve yet to substantiate it in my own tasting. I guess it depends on the definition of “moderate”. I can bring to mind vintages of Musar that I’ve personally cellared for a decade, and which haven’t increased in their brettiness. Then again, they probably also have a slug of added SO2 which keeps things at bay.

      We have talked a lot about mousiness, and I’ve researched it at some length over the last two years (partly on your advice, which I appreciated). It is clearly a very complex issue, and whilst I tend to agree with you that I think Isabelle over-simplifies and is wildly optimistic about whether mousiness can disappear in a wine, there appears to be more to it.

      Whether it develops in barrel/tank or later in the bottle is one factor. Klemen Mlečnik asserts that if you get an infection in the barrel “You can throw that wine away. If a winemaker doesn’t throw it away, something is wrong with him.”. Franz Strohmeier gave me a fascinating demonstration of how it can develop due to oxidation, as we tasted from a bottle that had been open for a few days – and which had gone over to the dark side. I complained, and he opened a fresh bottle which was totally clean.

      As noted in my Decanter piece, one of the issues is that the compound develops very slowly, so the winemaker could bottle a wine when its clean, but then mousiness can develop over a period of years in the bottle.

      Paradoxically, Alice has compiled one of the more complete dossiers on the subject, together with material from Eric Texier and Gordon Shepherd (who authored “Neurogastronomy”). I recommend reading it. Note that she is completely intolerant of mousiness, as am I.

      I haven’t seen the Alice/Jancis video. Going to hunt that down now!

    • Peter Bell

      Robert, I am a big fan of yours since we met in Wagga Wagga in the late ’80s. I have to challenge your assertion that VA will increase in the bottle, since the bacteria involved are obligate aerobes. So unless O2 is getting into the bottle (in which case the wine is undrinkable), levels of acetic acid and ethyl acetate should remain constant. Right?

  4. Peter Bell

    Mousiness has to be one of the most disgusting flavors in wine, and I’m shocked to read that wine business professionals either don’t notice it or are not bothered by it. (For me, ethyl acetate is almost as horrid, and I see it in most ‘natural’ wines.) Perhaps more serious is the correlation between mouse taint and high levels of biogenic amines, which are known carcinogens. We invented modern winemaking so wines no longer had to taste like they used to. I have no truck with the fake nostalgia that proponents of flawed wines love to evoke.

    • Simon Woolf

      I’d have to agree on most points. The wine professionals I was with at the above tasting certainly noticed the mousiness, and most were either digusted or perplexed by it. There were questions to the importer such as “do you think this is meant to taste like this?” or “is this normal?”

      Your point about the biogenic amines is interesting, this was new to me.