On Natural Wine

In the last 3-5 years we have increasingly heard the phrase “Natural Wine” from consumers and wine trade professionals alike, so much so that we have felt compelled to pen a few observations based on our collective decades of industry experience and study. There is no way around the fact that the science of wine is exceedingly complex, and no wine, whether from a tank farm the size of a football field or a tiny cellar and only two hands, is exempt from some basic chemistry. More . . .

When we are asked by consumers about “natural wine” our response - out of necessity if we are to be truly helpful - is usually an effort to understand what “natural wine” means to the questioner. This is so that we can make appropriate suggestions. The variety of responses we get is quite extraordinary. Often it is simply a look of bewilderment. Or they may have heard that “natural wines” are “cool,” or are “better for your health,” or “don’t have additives” or are “better for the environment,” or some combination of these attributes.

The range of responses from consumers is entirely appropriate given that even within the wine trade, “natural wine” is a much debated topic, sometimes heatedly so. This is simply because there is literally no industry consensus on what “natural wine” actually means. Does it refer to organic and biodynamic viticulture? Or does it refer to a minimalist, hands-off approach to winemaking? Or both? Or something as yet ill-defined and beyond those practices? Clearly, one of the things missing is a broadly accepted industry standard, and most likely a certification of some sort as well. The politics of this, however worthy the endeavor, are daunting.

It is relatively easy to find accord on the environmental and health merits of organic practices in the vineyard, but some accomplished and widely respected industry veterans draw the line at the spiritual aspect of biodynamics. It is relatively easy to find general agreement on the merits of minimizing winemaking inputs in the cellar, but how far is too far? Making wine as a commercial endeavor is fraught with financial and biological risks. Where is the line between a controllable outcome and a potential disaster? And what is ultimately acceptable to present to consumers as a finished product?

The best example of this risk/reward equation and its importance to the “natural wine” movement is the use of sulphur dioxide. And sulphur dioxide is also where we encounter the wildest, most profoundly misinformed consumer perspectives. We apologize if that statement offends, but it is the reality. Here are a few facts to help dispel some of the myths:

* Why is sulphur dioxide (SO2) used in wine at all? Because it is an incredibly effective anti-microbial and anti-oxidant. Wine is highly subject to adverse effects of oxidation and microbial spoilage. Sulphur dioxide helps prevent both, and is thus an effective preservative.

* Is SO2 only added to wines for sale in the US market? Categorically - NO, although this seems to be a widely-held impression. SO2 has been used in winemaking for hundreds of years, and as a preservative since Roman times - centuries before the mechanisms of its protective qualities were fully understood. If you encounter wines made in Europe or other parts of the world with labels that do not say “contains sulfites” that is likely the result of a difference in labeling regulations, not a difference in winemaking.

* SO2 is widely used in commercial food production. There is more SO2 in a typical 8 ounce bag of commercially produced dried apricots that in an entire case of well-made wine. That is why those apricots are still bright orange months after production.

* Do all wines contain sulfites? Yes, because normal wine fermentations produce sulfites even without any additions. The federal threshold below which a wine may eliminate the “contains sulfites” on the label is 10 parts per million. Most wineries who do not use SO2 in winemaking choose to use the approved phrase “contains only naturally occurring sulfites.”

* Who is the warning label about sulfites actually for? The less than 1% of the US population that is acutely sensitive to SO2, so much so that they are in danger of respiratory collapse and death. Most of the health maladies we have heard anecdotally attributed to SO2 have little or no evidence in medical literature to back them up.

* Is there a direct equation between the amount of SO2 used during production and the finished wine? Definitely not. The chemistry of SO2 in wine is very complex, and one of the biggest differences is between “free” and “bound”. Free SO2 is still available in solution to perform its anti-microbial and anti-oxidative job. It is also the part that will cause problems for those sensitive to SO2. The “bound” portion has already performed its assigned task and is in another molecular form entirely.

So is it possible to make good quality wine without the use of SO2? Absolutely, and in fact some of the world’s most celebrated winemakers are focused on producing wine with little or no SO2. But here again we have no choice but to come back to the basic facts of chemistry. The common denominator in “natural wines” we have encountered that are not just acceptable but really good wine, is fanatical cellar hygiene. We taste through 100’s of wines every month as part of our careful and deliberate selection process for 3 wine shops/wine bars, multiple wine club programs, and assorted consulting clients who rely on our expertise. It is simply shameful how much wine is coming to market now under the “natural” banner that is flat out defective - marred by excessive volatile acidity caused by oxidation, or buried under an onslaught of spoilage organisms that are excused as “authentic” or “terroir.”

There is an expression in the wine business - “one man’s defect is another man’s complexity” - which is another way of saying that a technically perfect wine is also potentially a boring one, and we are generally in agreement with this view. But there has to be a limit, and from our perspective, the “natural wine” movement has in some cases shoved aside all constraints on what is an acceptable level of flaws, and no amount of “cool” can change that. Sommeliers and wine merchants who are participating in this game are either naive, cynical or woefully misinformed themselves. There - we are saying it out loud - at least some of the “natural wine” emperors loose in the land are buck naked, and it is long past time to be honest about it.

If you would like to know more about this complex topic the following books are worth a read (but please, support an independent bookseller):

Authentic Wine, Jamie Goode & Sam Harrop MW, 2007

Natural Wine for the People, Alice Feiring, 2019

Flawless, Understanding Faults in Wine, Jamie Goode, 2018

Peter D. Granoff, MS
Mission Bay Wine & Cheese
Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant
Oxbow Cheese & Wine