(Un?) Natural Wines
I read a thought-provoking article by my old friend, Douglas Wregg, of Les Caves de Pyrène, a merchant that has done more for the promotion of good French regional wines than perhaps anyone else in the UK, but I can’t help feeling a little uneasy at his infatuation with “natural wines”.
For those who are unfamiliar with “natural wines”, these are produced with no or low sulphur additions to the wine, no chemical interventions in the vineyard, almost certainly organic and probably biodynamic into the bargain. Noble sentiments, no doubt and one up for the purists, but having seen what my daughter and her partner have to do in their newly-acquired run-down vineyard, just to produce the best quality wine they can in the circumstances, I can’t understand why anyone should be handicapping themselves by making themselves hostages to Nature’s fortune to produce good wines unless they are masochists. Nevertheless, they must be applauded for their undoubted remarkable efforts.
Maybe that’s why there is beginning to be a movement that is infatuated with this work. The wines are not necessarily better than some of the comparable conventional wines, but at least, you are guaranteed purity of fruit from wines made by obviously dedicated farmers. They are not necessarily more expensive than some of the comparable conventional wines, but they are not cheap by any means and in some instances you are really paying through the nose for scarcity value and cult status. However, by and large my experience hitherto of “natural wines”, with some notable exceptions (Frank Cornelisson at the foot of Mount Etna, comes to mind) has been the tasting of cloudy whites and murky reds with poor structure and a tendency to oxidise pretty fast. Of course, that is generalising like mad and as Douglas says in his article, there are clumsy or undrinkable natural wines just as there are clumsy and undrinkable conventional wines. What he does omit to give us, however, is the percentage of such wines to the total produced in each case.
What I find somewhat irksome is the tendency to believe that these wines (together with organic or biodynamic wines) are actually better for your health because of their supposed purity. Pesticides are of course the bêtes noirs of their movement, but the residual amount of pesticides remaining in a bottle of finished wine is infinitesimal and has in no way been proved to be harmful to anyone. What could be harmful is the frequency of times that crops ARE sprayed with pesticides, mainly to the inhabitants living nearby where some farmers spray every single day making them live under a permanent cloud of chemicals. I can’t see any reason why crops cannot be sprayed only when absolutely necessary and fortunately this is the case with the vast majority of vine growers around the world who are promoting responsible, sustainable farming methods. Now that’s something to applaud.
As a former independent wine merchant I hold no truck with the vast amount of “factory wine” seen in the supermarkets whose whole raison d’être seems to be to uphold a price point. It has always amazed me why they have to employ a Master of Wine to buy a price point, but that’s another story. But in the end, these “natural wines” can only be seen in the light of a curiosity, like North Korea being in the finals of the World Cup and like North Korea, will remain on the peripheral of normality. These wines do have a place in the world of wine as something different and interesting, but to promote them as being better or more desirable is pushing the boat out a bit too far.