Natural wine is the buzzword — but what does it really mean?

When is a wine natural? The concept of “natural” wine stuck its head into our letterbox twice last month. The first, a note from Clare Valley winemaker Jeffrey Grosset, accompanied a sample of the magnificent Grosset Gaia 2009 (five-star review 28 March).

Grosset’s note sparked our curiosity. It read, “The Gaia vineyard is named after James Lovelock’s original book Gaia: a new look at life on Earth. Lovelock proposed the Gaia hypothesis, now Gaia theory, that the Earth is a single organism, reliant on the complexity and diversity of its species to maintain ecological health.

While there is an international ‘natural’ wine movement, many great winemakers who believe they are already making natural wine have chosen not to jump on the ‘natural’ bandwagon. Jeffrey Grosset remains a firm believer in being guided by the producer’s name, rather than by a loosely defined term.

For decades now, every Grosset wine has been made with such precision and attention to detail, that the need for fining has been avoided and the wine’s integrity maintained. So in the absence of any chemical additives or finings, is it possible to refer to Grosset wines as anything but natural?”

The second arrival in our letterbox – Alice Feiring’s new book, Naked wine: letting grapes do what comes naturally – plunged directly into the natural wine movement, the object of Grosset’s comments.

Feiring traces the rise of today’s natural wine movement to Jules Chauvet, French scientist, his assistant, Jacques Neauport, and a winemaker in the Beaujolais village of Morgon, Marcel Lapierre.

In 1978”, writes Feiring, “Marcel Lapierre came to terms with the reality that he couldn’t stand to drink his own wine”. Independently of Lapierre, Chauvet had noted with despair the degradation of Beaujolais wines.

In a 1984 interview with American writer Kermit Lynch, reports Feiring, Chauvet recounted the unwelcome transformation of Beaujolais, between the late 1940s and mid 1970s, from fruity low-alcohol red, to hollow, alcoholic wine – often over-sulphured and smelling of banana, courtesy of “the industrial yeast 71B”.

Excessive yields made the wines ever more insipid and over use of chemicals in vineyards resulted in degraded soils, devoid of life and nutrients, Chauvet told Lynch. Ultimately, writes Feiring, “The region, capable of such greatness, became the vinous equivalent of candy corn, consumed only once a year [thanks to the rise of Beaujolais nouveau]”.

Lapierre, and a few other Morgon producers influenced by him, altered their grape growing and winemaking practices. Lynch imported the wines to the United States and began the difficult task of selling these wines, made without the addition of sugar (to boost alcohol content), sulphur or yeast.

Forty years on, the natural wine movement enjoys a global following – with dedicated wine bars in some countries. But as far as I can ascertain, there’s no formal definition of “natural wine”. At the core lies a notion we can all relate to – that wine should be a clean, wholesome product from sustainable vineyards. At a practical level, for the naturalists, this means adding and taking away as little possible from wine – no or low sulphur additions, no additions of cultured yeast, sugar, acid, tannin or yeast nutrients, no use of fining agents and no filtration.

But the proponents seem to share plenty of common ground with winemakers not sailing under the “natural” banner. And this brings us back to Jeffrey Grosset.

He says, “I was at a restaurant and their list had a whole section on natural wines. I was shocked and asked where are we? It’s a shame the naturals feel they have to put a wedge between themselves and other winemakers. It’s flawed logic to think that to show that I’m better I must show that others are wrong”.

He sees flawed logic, too, in insisting on wild yeast ferments and avoiding sulphur additions. The latter, he likens to throwing away personal hygiene – opening the door to oxidation in delicate juice like riesling and microbial spoilage in finished wine.

Grosset sees the term “natural yeast” as a misnomer, believing that yeast populations in wineries, and perhaps in the vineyard, as most likely including strains previously introduced. “Wild yeast” is therefore a better descriptor.

He says that if you’ve gone to the trouble to choose the right vineyard sites, use organic practices, balance every vine and get every bunch, every berry ripe and eliminate damaged fruit, “then using wild yeast doesn’t align with all this control. The results might be great or not so great”. He prefers to use a range of known yeasts in every ferment, emulating successful wild-yeast ferments.

Every bunch is precious and we make the best wine we can. We can’t leave it to fate”, he concludes.

Grosset speaks only for himself. But hundreds of Australian winemakers have been striving for decades to create healthy soils in their vineyards, gradually bringing their fruit to perfection and adding, or taking away, only what they need to make natural wines. They’ve simply not jumped on the “natural” bandwagon.

And as Feiring points out in her book, so-called “natural” winemakers embrace a spectrum of views. These range from strict no-sulphur regimes, to a minimum intervention approach strikingly similar to what Grosset and many other Australian makers employ.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2012
First published 4 April 2012  in The Canberra Times