Is Natural Wine Dead?
Despite what some people might imagine, this is not my headline, but one from the excellent Canadian publication Quench, and it appears at the top of a thoughtful piece by the doyenne of natural wine, Alice Feiring.
Answering the question in the negative, she nevertheless acknowledges that at least some people in her home town of New York City – ‘natchlings’ – are saying that "natural wine is at a saturation point" and that "the best and most trendy bottles" are no longer in short supply.
Natural wine Feiring says, has been affected by rising prices, just as conventional wine has. “Wine is simply too expensive, whether it’s natural or not… It’s one thing to choose a $15 bottle of wine and find it disappointing, but a whole different thing at $45."
More stable, and tasteful
Given the limited production of most natural wines, I’m not surprised to witness the cost of buying them going up, but I was pleased to see Feiring distancing herself from the – in her words – "unstable and distasteful" examples that fuelled much of what I wrote about the subject a few years ago.
I had no time for wines, made by “sincere natural winemakers", that "were falling apart with bad reduction, intense volatility and mouse”. And even less for the starry-eyed sommeliers and others who assured me that "this is how authentic wine is supposed to taste".
Now, Feiring says, “perhaps the dogmatic ‘all wine is great as long as it is natural’ is over,” and “maybe the fad-like acceptance of unstable and distasteful wines is over. Hallelujah!”
A timely corrective
Looking back, I now acknowledge that the natural wine movement, even in its excesses, was like Nouvelle Cuisine and punk music: a timely corrective. The chefs with their minimalist dishes (12 artfully arranged peas and a grey, poached fillet steak, is one I seem to recall) and the harmony-lite, saliva-spreading Sex Pistols were necessary responses to dishes drenched in melted butter and floury sauces and soulless disco music and pretentious prog rock.
And, just as I may never have fallen in love with the Pistols (unlike the Ramones), others did.
According to the Swiss flash-sale website qoqa.ch, those wines still have their fans. Alongside the attractively-priced wetsuits, watches and whisky, there’s also wine on qoqa, including 2022 en primeur Puisseguin St Emilion and a weekly natural wine offer (an indication of how, in Switzerland at least, the category has entered the mainstream).
Recognising that natural wine now comes in various degrees of, let’s say, naturalness, the site has helpfully produced a ‘rock ‘n roll index’ with a funkiness scale out of five to help buyers avoid disappointment.
- 1/5 - A wine that won’t surprise the non-initiates (to drink with a family game of UNO on a Saturday night). Your mother-in-law will love it.
- 2/5 - This is cloudy, with aromas ‘some might find surprising at first’, but it’s accessible for most people and Grandpa might well drink it again. ‘To consume over a four-hour Monopoly game that may be beginning to fall apart’.
- 3/5 - A wine that ‘leaves the beaten path – for the pleasure of the curious.’ Dad has quit the table, leaving the ‘initiates’ to drink it over the French card game of Tarot which ‘promises some beautiful surprises.’
- 4/5 - ‘The presence of CO2 and the - sometimes wild - smell after opening the bottle will not suit most people. However, these wines can thrill many a discerning taster. To drink as a couple while playing (strip) poker.’
- 5/5 - ‘These fragile wines will disturb the non-initiates. They may contain high levels of volatile acidity and a flavour profile that can be off-putting. They are also the source of great emotion. For a game of Blackjack between ayatollahs of natural wine.’
I think of myself as quite adventurous when it comes to food and wine but can happily withstand the temptation to buy expensive bottles with high levels of volatile acidity, unless they’re labelled as balsamic vinegar. I’ll also probably leave the ‘sometimes wild-smelling’ wines to the discerning strip poker players. But I like the idea of the scale, especially because, last week I included a natural Pinot Noir from New Zealand in a blind tasting I hosted for members of the Young Presidents Organisation at 67 Pall Mall in London.
Presidential seal of approval
Sourced from a UK online merchant called Natty Boy and made in Marlborough, New Zealand by ‘writer, natural wine & regenerative agriculture enthusiast’ Ashleigh Barrowman, the High Priestess Pinot Noir 2021 ticks almost all the natural wine boxes.
Biodynamically grown; hand-picked and hand-destemmed; wild fermented; matured in an old puncheon; unfined and unfiltered. The only departure from hardline naturalism was the addition of ‘minimal sulphites’ at bottling. On the qoqa scale it was unequivocally a 1/5 and the Young Presidents thought it delicious.
Who'd have guessed?
Wines like these – and there is a growing number - that don’t depend on ‘initiates’, prove that natural wine is far from dead, but they raise questions. If I hadn’t bought it from a natural wine specialist or taken the trouble to read the text (on another merchant’s website), I might never have known about its credentials. And, given the absence of the word ‘natural’ on wine labels, this is often going to be the case.
Barrowman only made 71 cases of that wine, so I counted myself lucky to get four bottles – at a price of £37 which was very comparable to a good Pinot Noir from the Jura or a less-than-ambitious one from Burgundy.
Annoyingly, I suspect, to many purists, there will, however, be many more delicious wines like the High Priestess that are produced by far larger producers in far larger volumes, and I won’t be surprised to see industrial quantities of consumer-friendly Pet Nat hitting the shelves. At least some of these will, I expect, fit Feiring’s description of “fizzy, cloudy, and boring, with no structure – soulless with the wildness filtered out, but easy to drink.”
And many of the people who’ll enjoy them, like the ones who’ll drink Barrowman’s Pinot Noir may do so without ever knowing they’re drinking a natural wine. Unlike the Swiss strip poker and Blackjack players.
In other words, natural wine may be very much alive and kicking but many people will continue to be blissfully unaware of the fact.