Friday, October 29, 2010

Why drink natural wine?

Or, more to the point - why devote a whole blog to it? It’s a long story. My husband got into natural wine a couple of years ago and I have to say I was rather sniffy about it. I thought most of the reds I tasted were unappealingly rustic and a lot of the whites tasted of cider.

As the months have passed - and we’ve identified better producers - I’ve come round to it, discovering wines that have an incredible intensity and purity - and which don’t leave you wrecked the next morning. Most are produced organically, some biodynamically but the key thing that defines them as natural is that the producer uses a minimum of sulphur and other additives during the winemaking process.

The big difference I’ve found is that I don’t feel like going to sleep after I’ve had a couple of glasses - something I attributed to the high levels of alcohol in many modern wines but I now believe to be due to the high levels of sulphur they contain.

I’ve also discovered a whole array of new flavours in wine - not always attractive, admittedly. Natural wines tend to be tremendously varied and don’t always taste of the grape variety they’re made from. I’ll explore these and other criticisms over the coming weeks and months.

They’re also, of course, more expensive than the wines I feature in my other wine blog Credit Crunch Drinking which I'm aware will put some of you off but I hope to persuade you that they're worth it. Drink better, drink less is my new mantra.

What has triggered this blog is that we went on a fascinating trip through France last month, driving down through the Loire, through the Languedoc and up through Burgundy during the course of which we met a lot of remarkable winemakers I don’t have room to write about elsewhere.

By and large they’re one man (or woman) bands trying to sell their wine without the marketing budgets of large corporations and often without the support of their regulatory authorities.

There are also many independent merchants now specialising in wines from natural winemakers and other small producers who may not have taken the trouble to get organic and biodynamic certification but whose wines have a real sense of place. I plan to write about them too.

This is still a journey of discovery for me. I won't pretend I know much about the technical side of winemaking. I'm not an MW (Master of Wine) but I'm a passionate wine enthusiast who wants to see small winemakers and shops survive and flourish in these hard economic times. As I hope you do too.


  1. Congratulations on this bold step, Fiona!

    As I know you are a real consumer champion of good food and wine, I want to add to your journey of discovery. One of my great concerns with Natural Wines is the fact (or at least I believe it to be a fact) that due to no or very low sulphur dioxide levels, they require very careful handling. Transport can be a problem, storage unless it is at JUST the right temperature is certainly a problem and even serving can be a problem - many require decanting to taste good. Now this challenge could be seen as part of the excitement, but I'm not sure. Oh yes, and then there is the other challenge that some natural wines I've drunk (and has been confirmed by those more experienced than I) taste radically different each time I have them.

    I look forward to reading more in any case and wish you luck! Wink Lorch.

  2. Fantastic. I really want to learn more about natural wines. I've explored in places like Terroirs but my knowledge is limited. Look forward to following!

  3. A great idea for a blog, I'm looking forward to reading and learning more about natural wines.

    I first started to drink natural wines 3 or 4 years ago and was initially very sceptical but I've come to the conclusion that as with all wines there are good and bad examples. The good ones are some of the most interesting and enjoyable wines I've tried.

    I must admit that I'm lucky to have been introduced to natural wines by friends who import them and by my partner who buys natural wines for Whole Foods Market in Kensington. Have you met natural wine importers David Harvey or Guillaume Aubert? They have some really facinating wines.

  4. You're right, Wink. All these problems are real. Some bottles I've seen recommend storage under 14°C which isn't really practicable unless they've been transported in temperature controlled vans - beyond the reach of most small winemakers. And yes some do need to be decanted. That's less daunting: you can - and we have - picked up a decanter for a fiver in a charity shop. I'll write more about this . . . And yes, they're not the same each time which can be frustrating but then that's often true of Burgundy and no-one complains overly much about that! Personally I think a little sulphur on bottling to maintain stability is better than no sulphur at all but I have tasted interesting sulphurless wines

    Glad you're interested, Niamh, too. Will do my best to unearth some good discoveries

    And yes, spot on, Rebecca. There are good and bad wines just as there are with conventional wines. I find the ratio of wines I can recommend to the wines I taste about 2 in 5. I don't think natural wines have a worse hit rate.

    I knew Whole Foods had a natural wine range and will try and check it out. I don't know about David and Guillaume. Do put them in touch.

  5. Fiona

    Thanks for launching this blog. It's an important subject worth exploring and rapt with interest and controvery at its most basic level, like just trying to define it:)

    I'm an organic and biodynamic wine enthusiast and am looking forward to participating.

    You might be interested in my 'taste first' approach in my post "Why drink organic wine?" @ or my reviews of organic producers @

    Congrats on getting this going!

  6. That's a wonderfully persuasive post Arnold - well worth reading, everyone else. Thankyou.

  7. Fiona

    I look forward to reading you thoughts on this subject.

    My own take on 'natural' wine (whatever that means but let's consider it a drive to reduce the role for chemicals in the winemaking process) is that I'm all for it, provided the winemakers involved don't lose sight of the ultimate goal, that being to make delicious wine.

    You say you have identified better producers the suggestion being that you have moved on from the cidery whites you started with, but when I taste at the annual Renaissance and Salon tastings in Angers each year I meet vignerons feted by many as the greatest in natural winemaking, and I meet their wines, which can often taste like an oxidised fug of bruised apples.

    Vignerons can follow a path that works in harmony with nature, minimising use of chemicals, and give us great wines; look at the wines of Eddy Oosterlinck and Domaine Huet. But when the techniques become more important than the product you lose the beautiful purity to which you refer and gain a mouthful of oxidation. And as I'm sure you're familiar with the intensity of cut-apple and cut-pear floral flavours in young Chenin Blanc, you will know what a crime that is.

    BWs, Chris

  8. There's a grower in my village (Aspiran Languedoc) who doesn't seem to recognise the term "natural wine". Follows all the coined natural wine "conventions" - vineyard practices, hand picking, no sulphur, no added yeasts, wine is stored at 16-18 deg (off site at Montpellier).
    I have great admiration as he's taking big risks (new life, family to support, still working out the terroir). There's an Acacia cask of Rousanne that's tied up fermenting the 2007 and is already at 15%!
    His wine benefits from decanting, but then that's true of loads of wines around here.
    Keep posting!

  9. I'm absolutely with you, Chris. I don't think being a natural winemaker is a virtue in itself - you need to make wines that people want to drink and which reflect the area and grape variety they come from. And that isn't always the case.

    Like you I've also been underwhelmed by wines from some of the most feted winemakers (I've never really got Puzelat for instance)

    But the best have a wonderful piercing intensity and minerality that is really seductive.

    I'd love to know who your grower in Aspiran is Graham (where is it btw?) There are certainly a number of winemakers who are uninterested in being categorised in any way and all credit to them.

  10. I've been a wine producer for 16 years in south west france and for forteen of those years been herbicide free,planting grass between rows before anyone else round here did it and constantly called mad for our practices, however,on starting to win prizes for the wines and recognistion from people like Paul Strang we have been taken a little bit more seriously by our peers. With a large mortagage and young family my wife and I didn't feel it possible to go the whole hog and become offically organic until now , mainly because we are there now all but the paperwork and I didn't want to be answerable to another body in France. Over the last couple of years ,however, I have watched a competitor of mine minus my medals on bottles sells his more expensive bio wine without even a tasting!!! in our local market so I have decided to become offical and see what happens ?

  11. No wine is natural as it's man-made ... natural wine is known by another name - vinegar! :)))

    Wonderful idea for a blog, Fiona and long overdue. I'll be a resident here.

    Why don't you pop-in the shop sometimes?


    p.s. You should put a disclaimer here - ones you get into natural wines you can't go back to the other ones.

  12. Here's a comment from Luc Charlier which for some reason he's been unable to post. (I haven't edited it!)

    "Hey, what a fascinating idea, this new blog of yours. And a huge “Thank you” to Jim Budd for “linking me up” with you (you used the word “flagging” about his initiative).

    I’m a “new” winemaker (started in 2005, at the age of 49 years) in the south of France and, by and large, react very negatively at the “label” natural wine. I “go organic” this year but have been using pesticides in the vineyard very parsimoniously ever since I began.

    Is there a need for creating yet another category of wines?

    Is this not just a marketing gimmick, mostly launched by a marginal type of wine merchants, much more than by the producers themselves?

    Isn’t it a way to flog faulty wines that would otherwise go straight to the drain?

    Why don’t we start advertising “wines without any wood aging”, or “wines without a cork on the bottle”, or “wines made by a woman” .... and so on?

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m strongly in favour of the slogan: “use as little sulfites as possible”, but shouldn’t this be enough? To top the bill, there exists a continuum between: no sulfite at all (and mostly it is a lie) and the legal upper limit.

    Well, it seems the human mind (and certainly the French) loves to categorize. This is one more example.

    Domaine de la Coume Majou

  13. Fiona - Régis Pichon at Domaine Ribiera. To see where Aspiran is see that includes a map.
    His 2009 red La Vista is 100% Cinsault and uses interesting labelling to avoid AOC regs yet still convey some information.

  14. Thanks Graham - I'll look it out next time we're in the Languedoc. And James/Sarah keep me posted on what you're doing too.

    Where is your shop Plamen?

    And Luc, yes I do think it's a good thing to talk about natural wines. It may be an imperfect term but it's the shortest, least complicated way of describing them and resonates with people who want to know more about what goes into the food and drink they consume.

    Very good point about sulphur though. That is the difficult issue and unless and until we have labelling indicating the amount of sulphur a wine contains it will be confusing for the consumer

  15. Don’t start on what should or should not appear on the label, please! Rumour has it the number of ... calories (or Kj) will soon have to be stated. Will you have to add up the alcoholic calories (mostly very quickly dissipated through vasodilation of the skin and through respiratory loss) and the calories of the residual sugar (which gets entirely digested) ?
    That is, if you don’t throw up, of course.