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Wine: Natural isn't perfect

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By Dave McIntyre
Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Wine is not immune to political correctness or polemics. (Readers who merely desire a simple glass of fermented grape juice to enjoy with dinner might want to turn to the editorial page now.) The latest battlefront in wine is whether that juice you're drinking is "natural."

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The natural-wine movement has been sweeping France for a few years now, with stylishly dressed millennials in trendy wine bars in affluent urban neighborhoods celebrating the peasant vignerons who defy globalization in defense of terroir.

There's a Gallic defiance of the European Union's standardization of regulations, which is seen as undermining France's strict defense of tradition and quality as the homeland of fine wine. And there's more than a soupçon of resentment against New World (read "American") wines and their flirty fruitiness that renders them wines of the masses rather than wines of character.

The movement has reached the United States, with wine bars in San Francisco and New York featuring natural wines from France, Italy, Spain and even California. Importers such as Louis/Dressner Selections and Jenny & François Selections in New York and Williams Corner Wine, based in Charlottesville, specialize in natural wines.

Simply put, natural wine is an extension of organic and biodynamic viticulture, two approaches to winemaking that focus on the vineyard.

The natural-wine movement pays attention to winery practices as well, rejecting cultivated yeasts in favor of those indigenous to the vineyard or winery. It rejects the practice of adding sugar or acid to correct balance or enzymes to aid fermentation, as well as other manipulations such as filtering and fining the wine to remove potential impurities (and flavor). Natural wine, its proponents argue, is a true wine of place.

"Enologists at UC-Davis set the standard of what wine should be, and they defined it by identifying faults and how to correct them," said Nicolas Mestre of Williams Corner Wine. "That approach has no pleasure in it." Natural wine embraces the unexpected and revels in the differences conferred on wine by each vineyard or vintage. It seeks to minimize the impact of the winemaker and glorify nature's voice as expressed by the grape.

And there's the rub: The minimalist approach of the natural-wine movement, taken to its extreme, can be an excuse for bad winemaking. Without human intervention, wine naturally turns to vinegar. The most controversial tenet of the natural-wine movement is the rejection or extreme minimalization of the use of sulfur dioxide during fermentation and bottling.

Sulfur is a natural preservative used to protect wine against microbial contamination. Sulfur dioxide added at bottling prevents the wine from refermenting in the bottle and protects against the premature oxidation that leads eventually to vinegar. It is especially important when the wine is to travel far from its place of origin.

These natural wines can be compelling, perplexing, frustrating and even unpleasant, sometimes all at once. Straight out of the bottle, they might taste funky and require aeration, such as decanting for several hours or even a day before drinking, as if the wine woke up on the wrong side of the cork. Many consumers might not be willing to commit to such a relationship with a cantankerous bottle of wine. But with the better ones, the effort is worth it.

Market preference has swung significantly away from the industrialized, chemically dependent winemaking prevalent in the second half of the last century. The growth of organic and biodynamic viticulture has focused industry and consumer attention on the harmful effects of pesticides, herbicides and synthetic fertilizers.

If the natural-wine movement makes us question the additives and techniques used in the winery, all well and good. But why reject all the winemaking advances of the modern era if they help us avoid the occasional stuck fermentation, correct an acid imbalance and ensure that the wine reaches the consumer in the best possible shape?

McIntyre can be reached at food@washpost.com.



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