How nat­u­ral wine con­quered the world

‘Nat­u­ral wine’ ad­vo­cates say nearly ev­ery­thing about the mod­ern in­dus­try is eth­i­cally, eco­log­i­cally and aes­thet­i­cally wrong – and have trig­gered the big­gest split in the wine world for a gen­er­a­tion

The Guardian - Journal - - Front page - By Stephen Bu­ranyi

If you were lucky enough to dine at Noma, in Copen­hagen, in 2011 – which had just been crowned as the “best res­tau­rant in the world” – you might have or­dered one of its sig­na­ture dishes: a sin­gle, raw, ra­zor clam from the North Sea, in a foam­ing pool of aque­ous pars­ley, topped with a dust­ing of horseradish snow. It was a tech­ni­cal and con­cep­tual mar­vel in­tended to evoke the harsh Nordic coast­line in win­ter.

But al­most more re­mark­able than the dish it­self was the drink that ac­com­pa­nied it: a glass of cloudy, no­tice­ably sour white wine from a vir­tu­ally un­known vine­yard in France’s Loire Val­ley, which was avail­able at the time for about £8 a bot­tle. It was cer­tainly an odd choice for a £300 menu. This was a so-called nat­u­ral wine – made with­out any pes­ti­cides, chem­i­cals or preser­va­tives – the prod­uct of a move­ment that has trig­gered the big­gest con­flict in the world of wine for a gen­er­a­tion.

The rise of nat­u­ral wine has seen these un­usual bottles be­come a sta­ple at many of the world’s most ac­claimed restau­rants – Noma, Mu­garitz in San Se­bas­tian, Hibis­cus in Lon­don – cham­pi­oned by som­me­liers who be­lieve that tra­di­tional wines have be­come too pro­cessed, and out of step with a food cul­ture that prizes all things lo­cal. A re­cent study showed that 38% of wine lists in Lon­don now fea­ture at least one or­ganic, bio­dy­namic or nat­u­ral wine (the cat­e­gories can over­lap) – more than three times as many as in 2016. “Nat­u­ral wines are in vogue,” re­ported the Times last year. “The weird and won­der­ful flavours will as­sault your senses with all sorts of wacky scents and quirky flavours.”

As nat­u­ral wine has grown, it has made en­e­mies. To its de­trac­tors, it is a form of lud­dism, a sort of viti­cul­tural anti-vax move­ment that lauds the cidery, vine­gary faults that science has spent the past cen­tury painstak­ingly erad­i­cat­ing. Ac­cord­ing to this view, nat­u­ral wine is a cult in­tent on rolling back progress in favour of wine best suited to the tastes of Ro­man peas­ants. The Spec­ta­tor has likened it to “rot­ten sherry” and the Ob­server to

“an acrid, grim burst of acid that makes you want to cry”.

Once you know what to look for, nat­u­ral wines are easy to spot: they tend to be

Wine­mak­ing to­day of­ten in­volves pass­ing it through elec­tri­cal fields or in­ject­ing it with gas

smellier, cloudier, juicier, more acidic and gen­er­ally truer to the taste of grape than tra­di­tional wines. In a way, they rep­re­sent a re­turn to the core el­e­ments that made hu­man be­ings fall in love with wine when we first be­gan mak­ing it, around 6,000 years ago. Ad­vo­cates of nat­u­ral wine be­lieve that nearly ev­ery­thing about the £130bn mod­ern wine in­dus­try – from the way it is made, to the way crit­ics po­lice what counts as good or bad – is eth­i­cally, eco­log­i­cally and aes­thet­i­cally wrong. Their am­bi­tion is to strip away the ar­ti­fi­cial trap­pings that have de­vel­oped in tan­dem with the in­dus­try’s decades­long eco­nomic boom, and let wine be wine.

But among wine crit­ics, there is a sus­pi­cion that the nat­u­ral wine move­ment is in­tent on tear­ing down the norms and hi­er­ar­chies that they have ded­i­cated their lives to up­hold­ing. The hazi­ness of what ac­tu­ally counts as nat­u­ral wine is par­tic­u­larly mad­den­ing to such tra­di­tion­al­ists. “There is no le­gal def­i­ni­tion of nat­u­ral wine,” Michel Bet­tane, one of France’s most in­flu­en­tial wine crit­ics, told me. “It ex­ists be­cause it pro­claims it­self so. It is a fan­tasy of mar­ginal pro­duc­ers.” Robert Parker, per­haps the world’s most powerful wine critic, has called nat­u­ral wine an “un­de­fined scam”.

For nat­u­ral wine en­thu­si­asts, though, the lack of strict rules is part of its ap­peal. At a re­cent nat­u­ral wine fair in Lon­don, I en­coun­tered wine­mak­ers who farmed by the phases of the moon and didn’t own com­put­ers; one man for­aged his grapes from wild vines in the moun­tains of Ge­or­gia; there was a cou­ple who were re­viv­ing an old Span­ish tech­nique of plac­ing the wine in great clear glass demi­johns out­side to cap­ture sun­light; oth­ers were age­ing their wines in clay pots, buried un­der­ground to keep them cool as their pre­de­ces­sors did in an­cient Rome.

Se­bastien Rif­fault, from the Loire Val­ley, runs the 10-year-old trade body L’As­so­ci­a­tion des Vins Na­turels. He told me his ba­sic tech­nique was sim­ply “mak­ing wine like in a pre­vi­ous cen­tury, with noth­ing added”. This means us­ing only or­ganic grapes, picked by hand, and fer­ment­ing slowly with wild yeasts from the vine­yard (most vint­ners use lab-grown yeasts, which Rif­fault says are en­gi­neered “like F1 cars, to speed through fer­men­ta­tion”). No an­timi­cro­bial chem­i­cals are added to the wine, and ev­ery­thing is bot­tled – bits and all – with­out fil­ter­ing. The re­sult is that Rif­fault’s sancerre comes out a deep am­ber colour and very sweet, tast­ing like crys­tallised honey and pre­served le­mons. It’s ex­cel­lent, but far from the “pale yel­low” with “fresh citrus and white flow­ers” de­scribed in the French gov­ern­ment’s of­fi­cial guide­lines for sancerre. “It’s not for ev­ery­one. It’s not made like fast food. But it’s to­tally pure,” Rif­fault told me.

Just 20 years ago Rif­fault and his con­tem­po­raries were ig­nored, but now they have a foothold in the main­stream, and their ap­proach could trans­form wine as we know it. “We used to strug­gle” the Bur­gundy nat­u­ral wine­maker Philippe Pa­calet says. “Peo­ple weren’t ready. But chefs change, som­me­liers change, whole gen­er­a­tions change,” he went on. “Now they are ready.”

At first glance, the idea that wine should be more nat­u­ral seems ab­surd. Wine’s own iconog­ra­phy, right down to the la­bels, sug­gests a placid world of rolling green hills, vil­lage har­vests and vint­ners shuf­fling down to the cel­lar to check in on the mys­te­ri­ous process of fer­men­ta­tion. The grapes ar­rive in your glass trans­formed, but rel­a­tively un­mo­lested.

Yet, as nat­u­ral wine ad­vo­cates point out, the way most wine is pro­duced to­day looks noth­ing like this pic­ture­post­card vi­sion. Vine­yards are soaked with pes­ti­cide and fer­tiliser to pro­tect the grapes, a no­to­ri­ously frag­ile crop. In 2000, a French gov­ern­ment re­port noted that vine­yards used 3% of all agri­cul­tural land, but 20% of the to­tal pes­ti­cides. In 2013, a study found traces of pes­ti­cides in 90% of wines avail­able at French su­per­mar­kets.

In re­sponse, a small but grow­ing num­ber of vine­yards have in­tro­duced or­ganic farm­ing. But what hap­pens once the grapes have been har­vested is less scru­ti­nised, and, to nat­u­ral wine en­thu­si­asts, no less hor­ri­fy­ing. The mod­ern wine­maker has ac­cess to a vast ar­ma­men­tar­ium of in­ter­ven­tions, from su­per­charged lab-grown yeast, to an­timi­cro­bials, an­tiox­i­dants, acid­ity reg­u­la­tors and fil­ter­ing gelatins, all the way up to in­dus­trial ma­chines. Wine is reg­u­larly passed through elec­tri­cal fields to pre­vent cal­cium and potas­sium crys­tals from form­ing, in­jected with var­i­ous gases to aer­ate or pro­tect it, or split into its con­stituent liq­uids by re­verse os­mo­sis and re­con­sti­tuted with a more pleas­ing al­co­hol to juice ra­tio.

Nat­u­ral wine­mak­ers be­lieve that none of this is nec­es­sary. The ba­sics of wine­mak­ing are, in fact, al­most stu­pe­fy­ingly sim­ple: all it in­volves is crush­ing to­gether some ripe grapes. When the yeasts that live on the skin of the grape come into con­tact with the sweet juice in­side, they be­gin gorg­ing them­selves on the sug­ars, re­leas­ing bubbles of car­bon diox­ide into the air and se­cret­ing al­co­hol into the mix­ture. This con­tin­ues ei­ther un­til there is no more sugar, or the yeasts make the sur­round­ing en­vi­ron­ment so al­co­holic that even they can­not live in it. At this point, strictly speak­ing, you have wine. In the mil­len­nia since hu­mans first un­der­took this process, wine­mak­ing has be­come a highly tech­ni­cal art, but the fun­da­men­tal alchemy is un­changed. Fer­men­ta­tion is the in­di­vis­i­ble step. What­ever pre­cedes it is grape juice, and what­ever fol­lows it is wine.

“The yeasts are the key be­tween the vines and the peo­ple,” Pa­calet told me, in a rev­er­ent tone. “You use the liv­ing sys­tem to ex­press the in­for­ma­tion in the soil. If you use in­dus­trial tech­niques, you’re mak­ing an in­dus­trial prod­uct.” Viewed in this quasi-spir­i­tual way, the wine­maker’s job is to grow healthy grapes, tend to the fer­men­ta­tion, and in­ter­vene as lit­tle as pos­si­ble.

In prac­tice, this means go­ing with­out the meth­ods that have given mod­ern wine­mak­ers con­trol over their prod­uct. Even more rad­i­cally, it means jet­ti­son­ing the ex­pec­ta­tions of main­stream wine cul­ture, which dic­tates that wine from a cer­tain place should taste a cer­tain way, and that a wine­maker works like a con­duc­tor, in­ter­ven­ing to turn up or tamp down the var­i­ous el­e­ments of the wine un­til it plays the tune the au­di­ence ex­pects. “It is im­por­tant a sancerre tastes like a sancerre, then we can start to de­ter­mine qual­ity,” says Ro­nan Say­burn, the head of wine at the pri­vate wine club and bar 67 Pall Mall.

In France, which re­mains the cul­tural and com­mer­cial cen­tre of the wine world, the ac­cept­able styles of wine­mak­ing aren’t just a mat­ter of his­tory and con­ven­tion; they are cod­i­fied into law. For a wine to be la­belled as from a par­tic­u­lar re­gion, it must ad­here to strict guide­lines about which grapes and pro­duc­tion tech­niques can be used, and how the re­sult­ing wine should taste. This sys­tem of cer­ti­fi­ca­tion – the ap­pel­la­tion d’orig­ine

con­trôlée (AOC), or “pro­tected des­ig­na­tion of ori­gin” – is en­forced by in­spec­tors and blind-tast­ing pan­els. Wines that fail to con­form to these stan­dards are la­belled “vin de France”, a generic des­ig­na­tion that sug­gests low qual­ity and makes them less at­trac­tive to buy­ers.

Some nat­u­ral wine­mak­ers have re­belled against this leg­is­la­tion, which they be­lieve only re­in­forces the dom­i­nant styles and meth­ods that are ru­in­ing wine al­to­gether. In 2003, the nat­u­ral wine­maker Olivier Cousin opted out of his lo­cal AOC, com­plain­ing in a let­ter that meet­ing their stan­dards meant that “one must beat the grapes with ma­chines, add sul­phites, en­zymes and yeast, ster­ilise and fil­ter”. When he re­fused to stop de­scrib­ing his wine as be­ing from An­jou, he was pros­e­cuted for la­belling vi­o­la­tions. In re­sponse, Cousin put on a good show, rid­ing his draft horse up to the court­room steps and bring­ing a bar­rel of his of­fend­ing wine to share with passers-by. But he ended up chang­ing the la­bels.

“The AOC are liars,” Olivier’s son Bap­tiste, who has taken over sev­eral of his fa­ther’s vine­yards, told me. “The lo­cal des­ig­na­tions were cre­ated to pro­tect small pro­duc­ers, but now they just en­force poor qual­ity.”

The ex­pec­ta­tions of how a wine from a cer­tain re­gion should taste go back hun­dreds of years, but the global in­dus­try built atop them is largely a prod­uct of the past cen­tury. If nat­u­ral wine is a back­lash against any­thing, it is the idea that it is pos­si­ble to square tra­di­tional meth­ods of wine­mak­ing with the scale and de­mands of that mar­ket. There is a sense that along­side eco­nomic suc­cess, glob­al­i­sa­tion has slowly forced the wine world to­ward a dull, crowd-pleas­ing con­form­ity.

France has long been the cen­tre of the wine world, but un­til the mid-20th cen­tury most vine­yards were small and worked by hand. In the eyes of nat­u­ral wine­mak­ers, the rot be­gan af­ter the sec­ond world war, as French vine­yards mod­ernised and the in­dus­try grew into a global eco­nomic be­he­moth. To these disil­lu­sioned ob­servers, what seems like a story of tech­ni­cal and eco­nomic tri­umph is re­ally the tragic tale of how wine lost its way.

Be­fore the war, France had just 35,000 trac­tors; in the next two decades it would ac­quire more than a mil­lion, as well as ac­cess to US-made pes­ti­cides and fer­tilis­ers. At the same time, oe­nol­o­gists looked to science to re­fine their prod­uct. Two in par­tic­u­lar, Emile Pey­naud and Pas­cal Ribéreau-Gayon, worked tire­lessly to first es­tab­lish their sub­ject’s aca­demic le­git­i­macy, and then to build a bridge be­tween the lab­o­ra­tory and the wine cel­lar. “In the past we made great wine by chance,” Pey­naud de­clared. The fu­ture would be more rig­or­ous.

This moderni­sa­tion process was an enor­mous suc­cess. By the end of the 1970s, France’s wine ex­ports to­talled over $1bn, al­most 10 times what they had been just two decades ear­lier, and more than those of Italy, Spain and Por­tu­gal com­bined. As the mar­ket ex­panded, other coun­tries scram­bled to emu­late the French model. French tech­ni­cians and con­sul­tants were hired by new world winer­ies to teach them the new science of oenol­ogy, and the clas­sic French style.

And so, even as more coun­tries be­gan pro­duc­ing wine, they all coloured within lines drawn by the French. Caber­net sauvi­gnon and mer­lot, grapes as­so­ci­ated with Bor­deaux – long con­sid­ered the king of French wine re­gions – were planted ev­ery­where from Chile to Canada.

From the 1980s on­ward, these kinds of bor­deaux­esque wines – heavy, slightly sweet and highly al­co­holic, made with the help of French con­sul­tants – came to dom­i­nate the global mar­ket. A new gen­er­a­tion of crit­ics loved them, es­pe­cially the all-powerful Robert Parker, a self-styled “con­sumer ad­vo­cate” who tasted 10,000 wines a year, and whose rec­om­men­da­tions could make or break a wine­maker’s year.

The kinds of wine Parker and his peers cham­pi­oned be­came known as the in­ter­na­tional style. There was a hint of dis­dain in the phrase, the sense that a bland in­ter­na­tion­al­ism had sev­ered the con­nec­tion be­tween a type of wine and the place where it is made. In truth, this crit­i­cism was hard to dis­pute. To take just one ex­am­ple, since the 1970s the acreage devoted to na­tive grapes in Italy has de­clined by half, of­ten re­placed with tra­di­tion­ally French va­ri­eties.

By the early 1990s France was ex­port­ing more than $4bn worth of wine a year – still more than twice as much as Italy, and more than 10 times as much as its new com­pe­ti­tion from the US, Aus­tralia and South Amer­ica. And when it came to style, ev­ery­one still fol­lowed the French. To­day, even the cheap­est red wine found in the US or Bri­tain is a tribute to that victory, hav­ing likely been soaked with toasted wood chips to ap­prox­i­mate the vanilla and spice aro­mas of a French bar­rel, and spiked with sugar and pur­ple col­orant to ape the vel­vety sweet­ness and inky shade of a good bor­deaux.

In the 1990s, a quote at­trib­uted to the Bor­deaux wine­maker Bruno Prats be­gan be­ing re­peated in the press and among wine in­vestors like a sa­cred mantra: “There are no more bad vin­tages.” The im­pli­ca­tion was that ad­vances in farm­ing and tech­nol­ogy had all but con­quered na­ture.

Thanks to the in­dus­try’s em­brace of tech­nol­ogy, wine was more plen­ti­ful, prof­itable and pre­dictable than ever. But in the 1980s, just as French wine was putting the fin­ish­ing touches to its global con­quest, stir­rings of dis­con­tent be­gan to be heard among wine­mak­ers.

The blueprint for what came to be known as nat­u­ral wine comes from Beau­jo­lais, a pretty re­gion of soft green hills and stone cot­tages just be­low Bur­gundy proper. In the 1950s, the area had started mak­ing “beau­jo­lais nou­veau”, a cheap, easy-drink­ing wine that was pro­duced quickly and re­leased early in the sea­son. It was a huge hit, and by the end of the 1970s Beau­jo­lais – an area roughly the size of New York City – was pro­duc­ing more than 100m litres of wine a year, and ex­port­ing more bottles than Aus­tralia and the state of Cal­i­for­nia com­bined.

De­spite its com­mer­cial suc­cess, Beau­jo­lais had be­come a dis­mal ex­am­ple of tech­ni­cal wine­mak­ing run amok. The New York Times com­plained about how pro­duc­ers would “‘push’ the vines” to twice the rec­om­mended yield, a process known lo­cally as “faire pisser la vi­gne ”, or “mak­ing the vine piss”. To achieve the short pro­duc­tion time, wine­mak­ers re­lied on lab-grown yeasts to jump­start the process, and big doses of sul­phur to halt fer­men­ta­tion and sta­bilise the wine ahead of sched­ule.

A small group of dis­senters loathed this con­veyor-belt style of pro­duc­tion. They co­a­lesced around a wine­maker named Mar­cel Lapierre, who, upon his death in 2010, was widely eu­lo­gised as “the pope of nat­u­ral wine”.

What they seized upon was a hereti­cal idea from an un­likely source. In 1980, Lapierre met Jules Chau­vet, a tweedy lo­cal wine mer­chant, then in his 70s, who had been mak­ing small amounts of wine with­out ad­di­tives for years. Chau­vet, who had trained as a chemist and pub­lished widely on fer­men­ta­tion, be­lieved that a healthy, di­verse wild yeast from the same vine­yard as the grapes pro­duced the most com­plex, de­sir­able bou­quets in a wine. Sul­phur diox­ide is a po­tent an­timi­cro­bial, and Chau­vet wrote that he con­sid­ered it and other ad­di­tives “poi­son” that re­stricted his beloved yeasts.

Chau­vet’s rules for wine­mak­ing fol­lowed from his ob­ses­sion with fer­men­ta­tion and elim­i­nat­ing chem­i­cals: the grapes had to be healthy and pes­ti­cide-free to cul­ti­vate the wild yeast; the wine­mak­ing had to be slow and ex­tremely care­ful, as with­out preser­va­tives any bit of rot­ten fruit or un­clean equip­ment could wreck the whole process. “He gave us these rules, and the sci­en­tific back­ground,” Pa­calet told me, de­scrib­ing Chau­vet’s tech­niques as “the foun­da­tion of nat­u­ral wine”.

It is dif­fi­cult to over­state how ridicu­lous all this seemed at the time. In the 1980s, mak­ing wine with­out sul­phur was like climb­ing a moun­tain with­out ropes. The French gov­ern­ment had pro­moted and reg­u­lated its use since the 19th cen­tury, and oe­nol­o­gists thought it im­pos­si­ble to make wine with­out it. Sul­phur of­fered con­trol over fer­men­ta­tion and pro­tected from bac­te­rial spoilage. It was a panacea, the wine world’s equiv­a­lent of peni­cillin.

The odds of mak­ing de­cent wine with­out any sul­phur seemed slim, but Lapierre and his friends per­sisted. Lapierre’s diaries re­count bad har­vests, tem­per­a­men­tal yeasts caus­ing en­tire vin­tages to go milky and sour, and nearly 15 years of ex­per­i­men­ta­tion – dur­ing which time Chau­vet died, in 1989 – be­fore he was con­sis­tently mak­ing good “low-in­ter­ven­tion” wine, around 1992.

Hav­ing proved they could do the im­pos­si­ble, Lapierre and his friends achieved a strange suc­cess. They cul­ti­vated a small, ded­i­cated fol­low­ing in Paris and abroad who were will­ing to evan­ge­lise for them. “When I tasted it [in the 1990s] I al­most lev­i­tated. My god, I thought, the spirit of Chau­vet is still alive,” the Amer­i­can wine im­porter Ker­mit Lynch told the mag­a­zine the Wine Spec­ta­tor in 2010.

Af­ter years of toil­ing in ob­scu­rity, Lapierre’s work was vin­di­cated by the scores of other wine­mak­ers who used his pro­to­type to form a loose move­ment, free them­selves of con­ven­tion, and be­come the bar­bar­ians at the gates of the wine world.

In the 1990s, as the nat­u­ral wine scene made its way across France and Europe, it took on a glee­fully an­ti­mod­ern char­ac­ter. Many wine­mak­ers em­braced hy­per­local­ism, plant­ing long out-of-fash­ion na­tive grape va­ri­eties and adopt­ing ar­chaic pro­duc­tion tech­niques. A group based in the Loire val­ley pushed mys­ti­cism to the fore­front through an in­ter­est in bio­dy­namic agri­cul­ture, in­vented al­most a cen­tury ear­lier by the Aus­trian oc­cult philoso­pher Ru­dolf Steiner (he of the con­tro­ver­sial schools). This in­volved pro­mot­ing bio­di­ver­sity in the vine­yard, but also bury­ing cow horns and en­trails to form cos­mic an­ten­nas in the soil – “ray­ing back what­ever is life-giv­ing and as­tral”, ac­cord­ing to Steiner.

For a long time, nat­u­ral wine seemed des­tined to re­main a shaggy sub­genre. Lon­don’s wine cognoscenti started notic­ing the style around 2010, and didn’t know what to make of it. “We were scratch­ing our heads, be­cause the def­i­ni­tion was very vague. You could have a very good wine made in this way, then one which is just hor­ri­ble – fizzing, bub­bling, and smelly,” Ro­nan Say­burn of 67 Pall Mall told me. The wine press tended to de­scribe nat­u­ral wine as if it were a mine­field – with a few safe choices among a field of ex­plo­sively bad bottles. “Don’t make the mis­take of think­ing that just be­cause a wine tastes dif­fer­ent or un­ex­pected that also means that it’s good”, the Tele­graph’s wine critic Vic­to­ria Moore wrote in 2011. David Har­vey, of the Lon­don im­porter Rae­burn, re­called that “many wine pro­fes­sion­als and writ­ers pooh-poohed the whole thing early on. They as­sumed be­cause they knew con­ven­tional wines, they knew it all.”

In early 2011, as the in­sur­gency was grow­ing, Say­burn in­vited Doug Wregg of Les Caves de Pyrene, one of the largest nat­u­ral wine im­porters in the UK, to give an ac­count of the style to a co­terie of the na­tion’s wine elite at Vagabond, a small bar in west Lon­don. Among the 12 peo­ple at­tend­ing were Isa Bal, the som­me­lier of He­ston Blu­men­thal’s res­tau­rant The Fat Duck, and Jan­cis Robin­son, the Fi­nan­cial Times’ wine critic, who ad­vises the Queen’s cel­lars. The group in­cluded eight of the world’s 170 Master Som­me­liers, and three of its 289 Mas­ters of Wine, grad­u­ates of gru­elling pro­fes­sional pro­grammes that can take decades to com­plete, and pro­duce the grand­mas­ters of the wine world.

“I sensed a lot of hos­til­ity in the room,” Wregg re­called. Robin­son, the FT critic, char­ac­terised the mood as “sus­pi­cious”. Among the wines Wregg pre­sented, there were a few hits. A thin, fresh Jura chardon­nay by JeanFrançois Ganevat was well re­ceived. Less so a tangy, pep­pery and slightly sweaty-tast­ing sul­phur-free gamay from the south-east­ern Loire, which more than one per­son noted reeked of “VA”, or volatile acid­ity – crit­i­cal short­hand for a va­ri­ety of acids that smell of vine­gar.

It wasn’t Wregg’s most con­tentious tast­ing. (“I at­tended a lunch with him at [the Lon­don res­tau­rant] Galvin that win­ter, where we got cloudy bottles that smelled like the arse-end of a farm­yard,” Jay Rayner, the Ob­server’s res­tau­rant critic, told me.) But the scep­tics’ main mis­giv­ings – that nat­u­ral wines were hugely in­con­sis­tent, dif­fi­cult to de­fine and failed to line up with tra­di­tional styles – re­mained. “I feel like I left none the wiser,” Say­burn said. “Some were good, some were hor­ri­ble.”

There was also a feel­ing that, like the pa­leo diet or pro­bi­otics, nat­u­ral wine was at best a trend, and at worst a cult. Wregg, him­self a true be­liever, was not best-suited to con­vinc­ing them oth­er­wise. “Talk­ing nat­u­ral wine with Doug is like talk­ing to a Mor­mon about God,” one of the at­ten­dees told me. Two oth­ers com­pared nat­u­ral wine to the “em­peror’s new clothes”.

Yet the very com­plaints crit­ics level at nat­u­ral wine are the same things that now en­sure its suc­cess. The in­con­sis­tency, the im­pu­rity, the strong smells – all this sig­nals to the con­sumer that nat­u­ral wine is an al­ter­na­tive to the bland “per­fec­tion” of com­mer­cial prod­ucts, in the same way that slight asym­me­tries dis­tin­guish hand­made fur­ni­ture. Nat­u­ral wine of­fers a noth­ing-to-hide-here im­age at odds with the stuffy cul­ture of the tra­di­tional wine world. To many peo­ple, there is some­thing very ap­peal­ing about up­end­ing the crit­i­cal hi­er­ar­chy, or at least be­ing told it can be ig­nored.

“When you de­cide con­sis­tency is less im­por­tant, you are lib­er­ated in the way you taste. In­stead of look­ing for faults, you take what the wine gives you,” Wregg told me re­cently. We were at Ter­roirs, a Trafal­gar Square wine bar that Les Caves opened in 2008, sur­rounded by mostly older pa­trons in Ox­ford shirts or suits, nearly all with a glass or bot­tle filled with some­thing that would have been nearly un­recog­nis­able as wine a decade ago.

Wregg is fas­tid­i­ous when de­scrib­ing soil types or wine­mak­ing prac­tice, but tends to in­ter­pret the fi­nal prod­uct with a loose, an­ar­chic air, like a sedi­tious school­teacher who knows the cur­ricu­lum but urges stu­dents to doubt the sys­tem that cre­ated it. “Cus­tomers will tell me, ‘Oh, the 2015 is not like the 2014’, and I say ‘Good’, be­cause, well, those are dif­fer­ent years, and if the wine­maker was farm­ing hon­estly and not try­ing to ma­nip­u­late the wine to­wards some idea of qual­ity, it’s go­ing to be dif­fer­ent”, he said. Once one ac­cepts the premises of nat­u­ral wine, he con­tin­ued, “In a cer­tain way, all bets are off. Ev­ery­thing is valid, ev­ery­thing is as good as ev­ery­thing else.”

Rigid bound­aries soften over time. Nat­u­ral wine can’t re­main seg­re­gated in its own mar­ket for ever. There are nat­u­ral wine­mak­ers who want to ex­pand, and main­stream wine­mak­ers ea­ger to learn from nat­u­ral wine’s pop­u­lar­ity with young peo­ple who are as in­ter­ested in craft beer and spir­its as they are in wine.

When I spoke to Jay Rayner (no nat­u­ral wine fan, to put it mildly) he drew a par­al­lel be­tween nat­u­ral wine and the suc­cess of the or­ganic food move­ment. De­spite its enor­mous vis­i­bil­ity, or­ganic food still ac­counts for only a frac­tion of the to­tal mar­ket, but its rise has pro­vided a con­trast and cri­tique of the main­stream food world that could not be ig­nored. As a re­sult, the main­stream has be­come a lit­tle bit more or­ganic.

I caught a glimpse of this process late last year at Château Palmer, one of the world’s most pres­ti­gious winer­ies. While nat­u­ral wine­mak­ers of­ten tend to­ward lighter, brighter wines for im­me­di­ate drink­ing, Château Palmer makes dense, highly con­cen­trated wines that won’t age into their full po­ten­tial for decades. It is wine for the yacht, the pri­vate jet and the fu­tures mar­ket.

Yet in a sign of how nat­u­ral wine’s think­ing is in­fil­trat­ing the high­est lev­els of the in­dus­try, Château Palmer’s CEO Thomas Duroux has con­verted the es­tate to bio­dy­namic agri­cul­ture. This in­volves elim­i­nat­ing chem­i­cal fer­tilis­ers and pes­ti­cides, and ap­ply­ing Steiner’s the­o­ries of bio­di­ver­sity and herbal treat­ments in their place. In 2014, Duroux de­clared that “in 10 years all the se­ri­ous clas­si­fied growths [in Bor­deaux] will go this way.” When I vis­ited, rather than the usual stark sight of thou­sands of vines in bare soil, there were rows of grapes boast­ing a healthy blan­ket of leafy greens.

Cows pro­vided abun­dant nat­u­ral fer­tiliser, and sheep for graz­ing be­tween the vines waited in a nearby barn.

Sab­rina Per­net, the head wine­maker, as­sured me that the con­ver­sion wasn’t just mar­ket­ing. “Con­sumers want to drink more nat­u­ral prod­ucts. But it’s not just a trend. There’s no fu­ture in killing the Earth,” she said. For the past few years, Château Palmer has also been ex­per­i­ment­ing with low­er­ing the sul­phur con­tent in their wines. The amount in this year’s vin­tage is just 34mg per litre of wine – low enough to clear them for en­try at most nat­u­ral wine fairs. “The first time Thomas and I tried our wine with­out sul­phur it was in­cred­i­ble”, Per­net said. “It was so open, so ex­pres­sive. Sul­phur makes wine very closed.”

If this seems like the fa­mil­iar story of the mar­ket ab­sorb­ing crit­i­cisms and turn­ing them into new ways of mak­ing money, it’s worth not­ing that some core el­e­ments of nat­u­ral wine are likely to defy at­tempts at scal­ing up. Ev­ery­one at Palmer is quick to point out that they aren’t go­ing fully nat­u­ral, just di­alling back their ad­di­tives as much as pos­si­ble. “We can’t make wine to­tally with­out sul­phur. I don’t want fizzi­ness, I want it clean,” said Duroux. And with 10,000 cases re­tail­ing at more than £2,000 each, un­like small-scale nat­u­ral wine pro­duc­ers, they can’t af­ford mis­takes.

“This is a prob­lem for the big es­tates,” said Cyril Dubrey, a wine­maker in the vil­lage of Mar­tillac, about 50km south of Château Palmer. “You need to be OK with los­ing some bar­rels, or to sim­ply ac­cept the wine you made.” Dubrey’s wine is fresh and very acidic, with a slight dusty earth­i­ness – a long way from the den­sity and power of the Château Palmer wines. But it is very good, and true to his DIY op­er­a­tion; Dubrey’s small vine­yard butts up against the bas­ket­ball nets and swim­ming pools of his neigh­bours’ yards.

“You should be free in your head and heart,” he said, with a calm sat­is­fac­tion. He comes from a main­stream wine­mak­ing fam­ily, and stud­ied oenol­ogy nearby. He has never re­gret­ted break­ing with that tra­di­tion. “I’m proud of the wine that comes from this place. There is noth­ing added. The wine is free.” •


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