What comes naturally?

on 06 April, 2016

There’s no doubt part of the attraction of natural wine, both for makers and consumers, is the anti-establishment image.

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Not that The Man has seemed especially interested in what the natural wine movement has had to offer so far. No matter how willing they might be to appropriate some of the outsider cool, no large wine producer or importer has as yet looked to invest in the natural wine scene in the same way as its corporate cousins SAB Miller and AB-Inbev have done in the beer world by snapping up craft breweries such as Goose Island in the US and Meantime and Camden in the UK.

Quite the opposite, in fact. There’s a scepticism towards natural wine in the conventional wine world that occasionally develops into outright hostility. “Yes it’s a trend,” said one prominent UK supermarket buyer to me in a private meeting recently. “But it’s also a fucking nightmare for us. The wines just aren’t stable, they might re-ferment, or just taste completely different from one bottle to another. It just doesn’t work for a business of our size or style.”

What really gets under the skin of that buyer and others who have yet to buy into the natural wine scene are its lack of regulation and the very use of the term ‘natural’. There is no definition of natural wine, which means anyone can make a claim to being part of it. The use of the word ‘natural’ offends by implication: ie, if you’re not doing things our way, you must be, in some crucial sense, un-natural.

You get the impression this is exactly how natural winemakers like it. They’re resistant to a definition, they say, because it goes against the spirit of the movement, which is more about philosophical inclination than precise winemaking practices. And if that kind of vaguely anarchic atmosphere bothers the big boys then so much the better. After all, they can’t appropriate what they can’t understand.

Natural wine has become such a staple of millennial drinking in cities such as New York, London, Berlin, Tokyo and Paris, however, that it can’t be long before one of the stars of the scene gets an offer they can’t refuse from an LVMH or an AXA Millésime.

Indeed, we are already seeing a handful of the more imaginative medium-sized producers dabbling with at least some of the natural wine scene’s ideas and techniques. DeMartino in Chile has been earning deserved critical acclaim for the Viejas Tinajas wines it makes in the clay amphorae loved by producers of natural ‘orange’ wines for a few years now. And the always switched-on Languedoc producer Paul Mas has just announced details of a new range, Cuvée Secrete, that goes to the very heart of natural practice in being produced with no added SO2.

Small steps, then, but I wouldn’t be surprised to hear of more attempts. After all, consumers have shown they’re prepared to pay a significant premium for natural wines because they feel the higher prices reflect the small scale of the production. And no matter what he (she? It?) may feel about the merits of the wines, The Man didn’t get where he is today by passing up a money-making opportunity.

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