NATURAL WINE, ANYONE?
AS THE OBSESSION WITH ‘NATURAL’ WINE GROWS, WE ASK WHETHER THE NATURAL WAY IS TH E B EST WAY.
When it comes to the most common wine question I’ve been asked in the past year, ‘What’s the story with ‘natural’ wine?’ is beaten only by ‘Don’t you think you’ve had enough?’ for the frequency of its asking. Of the two it’s certainly the one I find easier to answer. ‘Natural’ wine – those wines where the winemaker recedes into the background and lets nature take its course rather than guide, cajole and shape what the vineyard has given them – has been the biggest trend in the world of wine over the past decade. Natural wines from here and abroad have established a strong beachhead on the local wine scene. They’re not just some passing fad. They’re here to stay. So it’s probably time to acknowledge a journey through the world of natural wine can deliver some utterly sublime experiences but can just as easily veer of the rails and end up in a putrid stream full of dead dogs and shit. I’ve had natural wines that have thrilled me utterly and I’ve had natural wines that have made me wonder if I should rip my tongue from my mouth and wipe my arse with it rather than subject it to another drop. That’s part of the pleasure, and part of the problem. There is a political statement inherent in the whole ‘natural’ wine movement that makes me a little uncomfortable, an unfair juxtaposition that banishes all other wines that don’t fit the criteria into a bin implied to be ‘unnatural’. The rise of natural wine has coincided with the widespread misuse of the term ‘sommelier’. Perhaps not coincidentally. While there are a number of dedicated wine service professionals with the training and experience to warrant the title, there’s just as many out there calling themselves a ‘sommelier’ just because they think it will get them laid. Without the skills to objectively assess quality through tasting, many are clutching at ideology as the justification for why they recommend a wine. Sometimes that will deliver utter pleasure, other times you’ll end up with tepid piss. I weep at the story of one winemaker – a producer of meticulously farmed, sensitively made wines that sing sweetly of the place from which they come – who walked out of a sales call with a Melbourne restaurant with bottles unopened because the establishment flat out refused to buy wines that exceeded their self-imposed, and unrealistic, threshold of sulfur additions above 30 parts per million. So rather than offer their customers some of the finest wines made in this country, they choose to serve only what adheres to their misguided ideas about the natural preservative that has been used in wine making since the days of the Roman empire. I’ll accept a more open-minded attitude to wine-making faults is required to enjoy a lot of these wines and I’m cool with that. But there is beauty in the flawed as well as the perfect. A natural wine isn’t good just because it’s been made in line with the philosophies and methods that define the movement. A natural wine is good, just as any wine is, when it’s delicious and you want to put in your mouth. Make your own decisions about ‘natural’ wine. Don’t just drink the Kool-aid.