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Forget Natural Wine
By Paul Lukacs
Jan 31, 2017
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Wine certainly is natural.  That is, it doesn’t need human intervention to exist.  When the skins of ripe grapes (or for that matter, most non-citrus fruits) split open, yeasts in the air begin to convert the sugar in those grapes into alcohol and carbon dioxide.  The juice then becomes wine.  No one, however, drinks this wine.  Instead, we drink wine that has been manipulated by human beings.  We drink artifacts, products that have been crafted, meaning that they are in important ways artificial.

Neolithic men and women first observed wine being produced by nature some 9,000 or so years ago.  They tasted it, liked it (or liked its effects), and began to make it themselves.  Their doing so marked the very beginning of wine culture.  For the first time, human beings deliberately intervened in the natural process--squeezing the juice from the grapes and then storing the fermenting liquid in clay jars or pots.

The wine that these early vintners made was by our standards pretty bad.  That’s because they had no way to keep air from interacting with it.  And when air comes into extended contact with wine, acetobacter bacteria begins to convert the alcohol into acetic acid.  This too is a wholly natural chemical reaction, and the result is vinegar--the end product of all completely natural wine production.

Despite the fact that natural wine is inherently sour until it turns completely to vinegar, a great many people these days tout its virtues.  “Natural” has become something of a buzzword in some wine appreciation circles.  One has to wonder why.

One reason, perhaps, is that “natural” simply sounds better than “artificial.”  This hasn’t always been true.  Indeed, for most of human history what men and women made was valued much more highly than what nature produced.  Our sense of “natural” as virtuous is something of a leftover from the beatnik and hippie days of the 1960s and 1970s, and today it has become mainstream.  Virtually any sort of product that you can imagine can be marketed as natural.  Wine is no exception.

Another reason may be that “natural” can also mean gifted.  In Bernard Malamud’s 1952 novel, The Natural, baseball wunderkind Roy Hobbs throws strikeouts and hits home runs without thinking.  He’s magically talented, so has no need for practice or preparation.  In real life, however, being natural rarely leads to success.  Granted, some people are lucky sometimes.  More often, though, they need to plan and perform in order to reach their goals.

So too with wine and winemaking.  Virtually all the important improvements in the culture of wine since the Neolithic era have been marked by new forms of artifice that eventually became adopted widely.

The first was the cultivation of vineyards and the propagation of specific grape varieties.  This happened slowly, but by the time of the Pharaohs in Egypt and Homer’s Greece, certain locales had become widely recognized as yielding superior grapes for superior wines.  No longer did people use wild vines.  The plants now were domesticated.

The next important advance was the invention of amphorae, storage containers that could be sealed with cloth, reeds, string and wax so as to prevent air from seeping into them and hence contaminating the wine.  By the time of the Roman Empire, the widespread use of amphorae led some connoisseurs to store wines from prized vineyards for an extended period of time--not just months or years, but multiple decades.  A Campanian wine called Falernian was the best known example.

Unfortunately, amphorae became forgotten following the Empire’s fall, and it was not until the seventeenth century that a new and even better form of storage was invented--glass bottles, soon sealed with cork stoppers.  By then, the emphasis on growing certain grapes in certain places had advanced to the point that small plots of land were walled off from others and identified as particular because distinctive.  This happened nowhere with more precision than in Burgundy, where many of the medieval vineyards first identified as special remain recognized as such today.

More artifice came in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as a result of scientific study.  Fermentation, previously thought natural but also magical, began to be understood as a comprehensible bio-chemical reaction.  Sugar could be added to thin, shrill grape juice in order to give the resulting wine more flavor, body, and yes, alcohol.  Bacteria that causes spoilage could be identified and prevented.  Sparkling wine could be produced deliberately.  Then in the twentieth century came refrigeration and temperature control, giving vintners the ability to manipulate fermentations in order to produce a desired result.    

These are only some of the interventions in vineyards and wineries that gave human beings more and more say over what the wine they produced would sell and taste like.  Sometimes people went (and still go) too far.  The most obvious example is the use of additives--things like megapurple or wood chips today, things like herbs, spices, and lead in the ancient and medieval worlds.  Vintners use these things because they never can be in complete control.  Back then, poor storage conditions made most wines taste vinegary.  Additives obscured the flaws.  Today, differences in weather, in harvest conditions, and in when and how the grapes ripen still give Mother Nature a big role to play.  Vintners use additives in order to hit stylistic targets. 

These excesses, however, pale in comparison with the improvements that mark wine’s history.  And those improvements make it clear that the wine you pour into your class tonight is as much an artifact as a natural entity.

In fact, if you are lucky enough to pour an exceptional wine, one that exhibits all the classic marks of greatness--balance, depth, length, and typicity--you will be drinking not just an artifact, the result of craftsmanship, but an example of art.  And the one thing we all know about art is that it comes from human hands, heads and hearts.  It most definitely is not natural.