Is Natural Wine A Better Wine?

If we say natural, we normally mean: created by or in nature without human intervention. Now that makes it a difficult concept for wine, because making wine from grapes inevitably requires human action, like harvesting and processing. So we need to find a more useful description, such as: ‘nothing added nor removed’. So there might be some human action involved, we may have helped nature a little, but only regarding its original bio-chemical process and certainly not regarding the original physical composition. So, approached from this way, for a wine to be natural it depends on the absence of two types of intervention. On the one hand adding of non-natural (mostly technological) treatments. On the other hand consciously adding extra or new components or extracting (part of the) innate components. So if we do not add non-natural treatments or extra components and we don’t extract innate components, we can say it is a natural product.

Speak of happiness and wine and seek not the riddle of the universe.
For no one has, nor will unveil this mystery through wisdom.

If we demarcate ‘natural’ this way, the requirements go of course back to the viticulture and even to the grape-vines. Otherwise we would accept the use of chemical extermination products during the grape cultivation, as well as genetic engineering of vines as being natural.

This means more practically that first of all a natural wine is made of organic or sustainable grown grapes and there is no use of such things like cultured yeast in the fermentation prices. They also contain no (or only a minimum to avoid failure) addition of the preservative sulfur dioxide. They are produced without advanced modern winemaking techniques (like reverse osmosis) and contain no additional acids or additives (like coloring agents). The grapes for natural wine are in general hand-picked from sustainable, organic or biodynamic vineyards, which are typically grown by small-scale producers. The wine is fermented with only native yeasts which are present on the bunches of grapes. So no added or cultivated yeast or other additives (yeast nutrients, etc) are included in the fermentation. This means that from the production side of natural wine, ‘pureness’ is the essential element.

A second type of requirement regarding natural wine concerns the primary raw material. A pure natural wine can only be made of authentic, non-manipulated grapes. But the dilemma is then, that wine-grapes are among the most cultivated of plants on earth. Most used varieties we have available today are the result of centuries of quite conscious selective breeding, crossing and cloning in order to exhibit qualities desired by the wine maker. Which means they are the result of quite some ‘un-natural’ interventions. So for a large part of the grapes that are being used in the world for wine, the fact of being authentic or natural, is more fundamentally seen also quite arguable.

Truth is a point of view, but authenticity can’t be faked.
(Peter Guber)

Now another overall idea of making natural wine is to create a wine with a true authentic expression of the grape. As producers don’t want to compromise this expression there is in general a minimal use of (new) oak-aging. For the same reason the use of amphora pots to ferment the wine is relatively often used. Also extended maceration, leaving the fermenting wine a little longer in contact with the skins, is a common practice to strengthen the expression of the grapes. These practices are all human actions which only enhance the regular bio-chemical process, leaving the more fundamental natural process in place. So as far as these specific practices are concerned, they don’t really alter the natural bio-chemical processes of wine-making.

So to conclude on what is natural, we can say that it is fundamentally about the pureness of the wine and the innate character of the process of grape-cultivation and wine-making. With the overall aim to express as much as possible the authentic character of original grapes. So if done well, I can’t conclude otherwise than to say: a true natural wine has the fullest possible expression of the original terroir.

Now if we are clear about what ‘natural’ means in ‘natural wine’, we can deepen the concept of ‘better’. Because the central question was: Is natural wine a better wine? In general we could say that we mean by ‘a better wine’ something like a wine which is ‘superior in quality’. This means that the overall taste of a wine is in comparison with ‘non-natural’ wine higher appreciated and/or the wine is less impactful for your health. Now here is where the problems lie. First of all the taste aspect. As taste is a subjective judgement based on sensual impressions, and it all depends on ones personal frame of references. So qualifying natural wine as such principally tasting ‘better’ is quite unsubstantiated as it is a matter of personal judgement. Secondly, it depends on the effect of the ‘not-naturally-present additives’ which might have been put in a ‘non-natural’ wine. For example; the additives may vary substantial, meaning it is in general also too unsubstantiated to say it is a bad thing to do. When for example extra sulfites are added, it prevents the growth of unwanted bacteria and yeasts and inhibits oxidation, which would otherwise just decrease the quality of the wine. The potential adverse reactions of extra sulfite are at the same time still controversial, as they in general still are recognized as not really harmful for people.

A true natural wine has the fullest possible expression of the original terroir.
(Corné van Nijhuis)

So going back to the original myth, that natural wine might be a better wine, we can now present a more balanced reflection: as long as there are no unhealthy components (directly or indirectly) added to the wine itself and the wine-making process doesn’t deteriorate the wine, it just comes down to personal taste.

Good vibes!

Corné van Nijhuis
World’s first self-declared Vinosopher

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