The Natural Wine Debate: Our Roman Caper

Most wine lovers, I venture to guess, are not too bothered by the ‘natural’ vs ‘commercial’ wine debate. They just want a tasty wine, with some individuality and character, at a price they can afford. I put myself in that camp. But at the fringes wine enthusiasts are likely to hurl abuse at each other. The commercial wine maker will say that those in the natural camp are lazy luddites who have wilfully turned their back on seventy years of oenological science. They do nothing to their wines: simply abandon their musts to the fates, native yeast, and time, in the hopes that something good might transpire. Instead they get the predictable: flawed wines, thin and mean, tasting of vinegar, cider, ‘brett’, or, in the case of red wines, all three at once.

The natural wine crowd retort that commercial wines are soulless, being largely chemical concoctions that produce the very thing natural wine makers most abhor: homogeneity, and complete lack of terroir. After all, to produce a commercial wine you take mechanically harvested grapes from a terrain too large to retain individuality, and to the must you add a cultivated strain of yeast after having first nuked it with industrial quantities of sulfites, to ensure nothing lives. After the fermentation is done you top up the wine with sulfites to ensure there is no lingering, living yeast. Then there is the filtering and fining, the additions of sugar in cool climates and acid in warm ones, and any number of other manipulations, including, in some cases, reverse osmosis. Oh, and then, to ensure stability on the shelf, or in the container steaming through the tropics, more sulfites. At each stage of manipulation, as the winemaker gets out his box of tricks, another layer of individuality is filtered out of the wine.

Or course, these are more caricatures then real positions held by real people – or winemakers. There is also a natural convergence at the high end of winemaking. The more expensive the wine, the more likely it has gone through a process that moves it a bit closer to natural wine. If your terroir is precious, you are more likely to use careful farming practices employing minimal or no herbicides, fungicides and synthetic fertilisers. As to yeast, in ancient wineries they have their own cultures impregnating the fabric of the place, making inoculation with cultured yeast unnecessary. But at this point we’ve moved well beyond the $15-$30 price range within which most people in BC buy their wine.

At Parsell we try to keep our wines within the $15-$30 range (for conventional .75 L bottles). We make natural wines because we are passionate about regenerative farming and believe that natural wines are the best way to produce individuality and character in a wine (in other words, the best way to capture terroir). My wife, our winemaker, recently got into a friendly online tiff with a wine critic who said he would like to support natural wines, but, unfortunately, he couldn’t, because they were all flawed. My wife rejoined, indignantly, that none of our wines were.

But then we went to Rome for a work trip. We go in January, in the off season, when the vineyard is dormant (summers are an impossible time for us to get away). Holed up in scenic Travestere we naturally checked out the natural wine scene. A few blocks away there was an enoteca only selling natural wines. We rushed over and bought three bottles, each an example of something we made. A natural sparkler, an orange wine, and a red. In total the wines came to over sixty Euro, so around $30 each, which is more than we charge, but the prices just went up from there. This was as close as we could get to our price range. We rushed home and popped the ‘pet nat’. Vinegar! The orange wine? More acetic acid. The red was awash with brett. In disbelief I looked up online to read reviews of the wines. Lo and behold, there were numerous natural wine aficionados waxing lyrical about the wild complexity of what were, for us, undrinkable wines.

Was the wine critic right after all? Fortunately, there was a large natural wine fair in Rome later in our trip, and this gave us, by far, our largest ever sampling of natural wines from the heart of the natural wine making movement, with samples from as far afield as Germany and Slovenia. Not a single flaw in sight, or taste, just endless examples of beautiful, characterful, wine.

The experience renewed our faith in the natural wine movement. More than that, in helped us to count our blessings. Historically, the best wine come from marginal areas. Too warm, and you lose acidity, and once you lose acidity, the game is up. Brett, for example, can’t live in cool-climate, high-acid wines like ours. Given the high levels of sugar you get in warmer climes, and without sulfites, natural wine making becomes a real challenge. Harvest too early, and your wines have no taste, because the grapes haven’t matured. Leave them to mature, and you have no acid, just flab. The problems we witnessed in the ‘flawed’ wines we encountered, were largely a function of climate, and, alas, climate change. To put it another way, you can’t force natural wine. You either have the conditions to produce it, or you don’t. Fortunately, we do.

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