Peeling Back the Layers on Natural Wine

Captain Vineyards slow Aging Barrels  

Natural wine is widely debated. 

The problem is that natural wine, though a viticultural and winemaking practice for more than 70 years, has never been legislated. Its existence and practice are, therefore, based on a philosophy that each winegrower can interpret in their own way. For the consumer, there is no set standard that guarantees an intersection of the growing practices and conduct of the winemaker. There is no ethical promise of wine that will be consumed under the label “natural wine.” 

Most followers of the movement believe “natural wine” is a wine without synthetic chemicals or oenological inputs, made from organic grapes that are harvested by hand.

This very broad definition does not contain words such as “organic certification” or “Demeter” (biodynamic). In addition, no legislation regulates the level of sulfites (SO2) existing in wine, the addition of sugar during fermentation, nor the analytical control of good or harmful bacteria existing in the wine.

That means, for the consumer looking for an absolutely natural wine — without chemistry — it’s a roll of the dice for each bottle consumed. But now, a great current movement in global winemaking, and the uncontrollable expansion of natural wine production and distribution on the market, must force us to question its fundamentals.

Real Natural Wine

Wine of organic, biodynamic and sulfite-free origins should not be confused with natural wine.

A high-quality grape that’s the product of winemakers practicing organic farming (including biodynamic methods) guarantees grapes without chemicals that ripen as naturally and organically as possible —but with a very important human presence and intervention in the vineyard. This can include not only spreading manure or organic compost, monitoring bud break, addition of grass seeds and plants (flowers) on the soil and watering with preventive or corrective organic herbal teas, but also the leading of the vine, pruning, leaf stripping, green harvest and such.

In the cellar, treading grapes by foot does not come from the natural wine movement but rather from the extremist philosophy of biodynamic movement founder Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925), which demands the abandonment of all mechanical machines. In reality, many “natural wine” winemakers use mechanical presses, pumps and bottling lines; they also add sulfites (SO2) and use synthetic closures. So where does the purism and integrity of “natural wine” begin for the consumer?

                                                   The Farm to Glass Conundrum

Captain Vineyards bottling line "family & friends"

The demand for purity of product comes directly from the consumer wanting to find a real sense of taste and a need to consume fresh, healthy and living products that are justifiable and honorable. The problem is, the consumer no longer differentiates between a living, fresh product (the grape) and a processed product, the wine.

Compare it to the “farm to table” approach: a restaurant that promotes itself “farm to table” does not guarantee you a transformation of the food product with a minimalist, natural, organic approach and without external inputs during cooking and processing. Conversely, you hope the chef is talented, masters with precision the art of cooking and transformation to exalt the taste of the product on the plate.

Producing a wine in a minimalistic way requires great talent as well as in-depth knowledge of oenology, wine chemistry and agronomy. The problem, as with the craft beer wave of the early 2000s, is that the simplicity of producing a wine without intervention has opened the door to a generation of pseudo-winemakers who justify their lack of mastery of quality by promoting less-than-palatable wine. They insist that the notes of bitterness, sourness, glue, nail polish, wet old newspaper, rotten egg, vinegar, sulfide, onion, cauliflower or horse sweat are “funky,” “cool” and “acceptable.” In truth, these aromas are the result of unprocessed bacteria that can be dangerous to the consumers’ health —and certainly not acceptable in a quality and consumable wine.

Today, the movement has grown enough to catch the attention of public health regulators and awaken among professional winegrowers the demand for a quality standard and international legislation of practice. More and more winegrowers from so-called “classic” viniculture are beginning to rigorously practice this winemaking approach and finally offer the chance to consume quality “natural wine.”

The progression and natural elimination of extremes gives us hope to see — and be able to consume — more and more very good “natural” wines. The question, therefore, is not in the definition of natural wine but in the definition of international standards of taste: good taste.

Water Press at Captain Vineyards