Wine & Food

    Beware the cult of ‘natural wine’

    23 March 2017

    Clean eating has gone through a dirty patch recently, with fervent adherent ‘Deliciously Ella’ Mills scrubbing all references to it from her vegan website. The wine world has its own equally absurd clean cult. It’s called ‘natural wine’ and it can be found in hip bars and restaurants from Copenhagen to London. There are no agreed definitions as to what it is, save that the vineyards should be organic and the grape juice should use only natural yeasts and ideally have zero additives. Sulphur, which has been used in wine-making since Roman times and also occurs naturally, is seen as the enemy, although some adherents concede that tiny amounts can be added.

    So far, so pure — who could possibly object to minimal intervention? Certainly not me or any vintners dedicated to making great wine — they inevitably want to keep intervention to a minimum. Where it all goes mad, though, is that with virtually zero intervention, many, if not most, red ‘natural wines’ are riddled with imperfections that make them taste like flawed cider or rotten sherry. (Imagine the state of your teeth if you adhered to ‘natural dentistry’ and you will get the picture.) These wines are also likely to spoil if exposed to temperatures above 20ºC, which may also explain why conventional wine merchants are reluctant to stock them. The whites are different: some have a clean or fresh mid-palate, but they also suffer from a lack of aftertaste. This never seems to bother the true believers, who talk in joyous terms about how alive or funky they are. These innate faults in natural wines are why they are so readily identifiable and why they suffer from a certain sameyness regardless of grape variety or region. Wine guru Jancis Robinson once reported ‘a worryingly high incidence of a smell that reminds me of caged domestic pets — hamster?’

    If you are passionate about wine, the last thing you need is something that fails to express the vintage, grape variety or the region where it was made. The inherent instability of natural wines means that a case of 12 bottles could all taste different, especially after a year or two of ageing, when the faults become more obvious. They are more like extra-virgin olive oil, which is at its best shortly after bottling then goes into a steady decline after a few months. This is one reason that no major wine auction house — not Christie’s, Sotheby’s nor Bonhams — ever knowingly lists natural wine for sale. Equally, Farr Vintners, the largest and arguably the best international fine wine brokers, do not offer any. Chairman Stephen Browett is quite unapologetic about this: ‘All the wines that we list taste of the regions and grape varieties from which they are made. Natural wines taste more of their wine-making philosophy than where they are from.’

    Like all proper cults, there are splits and factions. The original group holds an annual Raw Wine Fair in London — but not long after it began a breakaway faction squabbled about some point of principle and now holds a rival event called the Real Wine Fair.

    I don’t begrudge people drinking whatever they prefer. But where it becomes tiresome is when impressive London restaurants such as Terroir, Lyle’s or Frenchie serve nothing but these cult wines. I went to a superb Scandinavian restaurant called Daniel Berlin in southern Sweden only to have the entire experience ruined with ghastly skeletal bottles, each leaner and meaner than the previous one. I asked the sommelier if he had a favourite Bordeaux and it turned out he had never drunk any. The philosophy behind these wines is closely connected to the whole foraging, terroir-based food movement in Scandinavia. Their food, especially in places such as Noma in Copenhagen, is outstanding because of its simplicity, intensity and reflection of its origins. Noma was once the flagship of these wines, too, but quietly included a range of outstanding conventional wines, much to the horror of the true believers.

    I suppose another reason why I find the whole natural wine movement so repugnant is the assumption that only they are proper authentic expressions of wine, with all of the rest being, ipso facto, unnatural.

    When will it end? I give it a few more years, because logic rarely enters into the picture when it comes to passionate beliefs — if you don’t believe me, look at the way Scientology keeps a hold on its adherents.