How natural is natural?

How ‘natural’ is natural?

Wine buyers are normally caught between two extremes. On the one hand, supermarkets and bars are mainly stocked with wines made on an industrial scale, to a formula tested in the market.  These wines may well have some character, but they are treated like any other volume product. A major consideration is quality control. Will the wine be reliably fault-free? Will it arrive in your glass in the same condition as it left the winery?  To achieve that standard, most wines will need to be made with commercial yeasts, sterile filtered before bottling and have some sulphites added as they are bottled. At this point, the consumer begins to ask, but isn’t wine supposed to be a ‘natural’ product?

On the other hand, specialist wine shops – led by Caviste – increasingly stock artisan wines, organic wines, even biodynamic wines.  Part of the pitch here is an appeal to ‘naturalness’.  These wines typically will be made from organically grown fruit, made with the yeasts which occur naturally in the winery and in the juice. The resulting wine won’t be tightly filtered and a minimum of SO2 will be added to most at bottling.  The winemaker can claim – with some justification – to have interfered very little in a natural process.   On the whole, the consumer, who will need to be prepared to pay a little more for this bottle, will be happy to have bought a natural product, a bit like buying a piece of traditional cheddar or a free-range chicken.  Wine buffs can then spend countless hours debating whether natural wines taste better or not, but that is not the main point.

Old and new technology at Denbies, W Sussex

Into this tidy scheme of things comes Clark Smith, ebullient Californian winemaker and controversialist.  For him, there is a whole new category of wines which don’t conform to either of these sets of guidelines.  He lambasts the wine industry for not setting up a proper conversation with the consumer about what winemakers actually do: make interventions in order to put a saleable wine in your glass.  They claim to ‘do the minimum’ but most are not prepared to say what that involves.  But the really interesting thing is that Clark Smith is not an advocate of ‘doing the minimum’.   He has spent a career finding applications for a whole range of contemporary wine technology – micro-oxygenation, tight filtering etc – and he still wants to tell us what he has done to his wine.  What is more, he wants to use the whole panoply of modern technology to produce what he calls ‘soulful wines’.

This is a remarkable challenge to the way we think about wine.  Clark Smith argues that the science of winemaking is no longer setting the pace. Yes, it can virtually guarantee that your wines will be clean and stable but, particularly for the reds, will they have that subtle texture which marks out a great wine from a good one?  And in talking about wines using cold, analytical terms  – acidity, level of tannins and the like – haven’t we missed the point altogether?  Here is his definition, as a career-long industry professional, of the work of the winemaker:  it is ‘the practical art of connecting the human soul to the soul of a place by rendering its grapes into liquid music’ (Postmodern winemaking, p. 16) Wow!  When were you last genuinely moved by a glass of wine?  When was its sense of place so strong that you felt transported to the vineyard where the grapes were grown?

Clark Smith’s book and programme throw down so many challenges.  He thinks it is economically crazy and environmentally reprehensible to mature wines in new oak barrels, made from 200-year-old trees of which only a quarter can be used for barrel making, and for barrels that are going to be jettisoned after just three years of use.  His solution? Use old barrels for maturing wine and accurately toasted chips for flavour …  He rails against those who sniffily look down on commercial yeasts or on micro-oxygenation.  Why shouldn’t the winemaker use a reliable, selected natural product (yeast) which will give a secure outcome and reduce sulphite use … rather than let nature take its course and risk spoiled wine?  What could be more ‘natural’ than running finely calibrated doses of oxygen (as found in air!) through young red wines to improve their quality and keeping power?  And have you noticed that just about every ‘natural wine’ maker is happy to use electric lights, pumps, refrigeration and stainless steel all of which have changed winemaking completely?

Clark Smith’s challenges are genuinely mind-opening.  We don’t just have a problem of mass-produced wines versus artisan wines. We need to have a genuine discussion between the winegrower and the consumer about what the latter wants and whether consumers are prepared to live with the reality that wine – all wine – is made in both vineyard and winery.    When you next raise a glass, think about the obvious point that what you are drinking is not a bunch of grapes. What you are drinking has been worked on or crafted by someone who has made a thousand decisions which result in the extraordinarily complex liquid you are about to enjoy.

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Clark Smith, Postmodern winemaking. Rethinking the modern science of an ancient craft, University of California Press, 2013 – by turns controversial, witty, scientifically demanding, written for winemaking professionals and wine students

You can also see Clark Smith giving a summary of his programme to last year’s Digital Wine Communications Conference in Logrõno, Rioja, Spain here

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