What if there was a vast, big-business conspiracy in wine, a dirty little secret that no one wanted to talk about? What if the wine you'd been drinking your whole life and thought of as a natural product was actually made in a laboratory full of test tubes, centrifuges, and other nefarious industrial devices?
If you're the kind of person who cares about eating organic fruits and vegetables, who is concerned about the proliferation of genetically modified food and beef injected with hormones, you might want to know if this conspiracy existed. Most people I talk to have no idea that such a controversy could exist in the wine world. People drink wine they like, and they don't think too much about how it was made, and there's nothing wrong with that. On the other hand there is also a very small niche of the wine world that talks about "spoofulated" mass market wines that all taste the same and don't display any real terroir. So who's right?
My answer to this question basically is, it depends. It's not a simple question, so naturally the answer won't be simple.
Let's start by laying out a few basics of winemaking. First of all, you should know that most wine in the world today is made with the use of sulfur during the winemaking process. If you took grapes right from a vineyard and let them sit in a vat, the natural yeasts living on the skins from the vineyard would start to eat the sugar inside the grapes, converting it into alcohol--fermentation. But the modern method of making wine is to put some sulfur in the vat, which kills off those natural yeasts. The winemaker then adds a synthetically produced strain of yeast to the vat and lets it do the job of fermentation.
The key question at this point is: why? If you talk to the majority of winemakers today, they'll tell you it's because synthetic yeasts are predictable and controllable. In fact, there are many many different synthetic yeasts developed for this purpose, each one subtly changing the flavor of the resulting wine. It used to be quite popular for Beaujolais nouveau winemakers to use a certain strain that gave the wine flavors of bubble gum and bananas, for example. Modern winemakers say that using natural yeasts can be dangerous. Sometimes, the yeasts will be weak and they'll die before all the sugar has been fermented, leaving a sweet wine no one wants to drink. Other times, fermentation might take months to finish, or maybe it'll never finish at all. If you use a synthetic yeast, you can be quite sure fermentation will happen in x number of days, every time.
If you talk to most natural winemakers and enthusiasts though, they'll tell you that making wine is not a science, it's really an art, and the winemaker needs to be willing to step out of the way and let nature do its thing, to make some really amazing wine with special terroir. They say the natural yeasts add another element of individuality and terroir to the wine. Sometimes their wines might turn out a little funky in a bad year if they\'re made this way, but other times they might produce something totally amazing. Either way, they say, each wine will taste a lot more different than the way it did the year before, and each vineyard will produce it's own unique flavors, satisfying palettes yearning for uniqueness.
Modern winemakers also like to fine and/or filter their wines. They pass the wine through very fine metal mesh, or they might also add a soluble material like egg whites, which collect solid bits and help to clarify the color of the wine. This makes for clear wine that looks nice in the glass. Natural winemakers often don't filter their wines at all, and you'll find the wine quite cloudy, with a fair amount of gunk sitting in the bottom of the bottle. They say the filtering removes another level of unique flavor from the wine.
Then you have lots of other modern techniques, which modern winemakers hail as the benefits of scientific advancement, and natural wine fans declare chemical and artificial. There's micro-oxygenation, in which little bubbles of air are slowly introduced to a young wine, to speed up the aging process and soften harsh tannins. And there's reverse-osmosis, where wine is put into a huge centrifuge, where alcohol or tannins can be removed if there's too much.
And on the natural side, you have biodynamic winemakers burying cow horns filled with manure, talking about the importance spiritual frequencies, and deciding when to harvest based on the cycles of the moon.
Modern winemakers say there's nothing wrong with any of these new advances. They point to the stainless steel tank, which many natural winemakers use, as a scientific advancement that everyone is ok with, and say fear of the other techniques is just fear of change and advancement. And the biodynamicists say that while some their stuff sounds a little crazy, it actually has some scientific basis. That cow horn is mostly calcium, which is a natural pH balancer and fertilizer, so it helps the soil when they grind it up and spread it all over the vineyard.
So who's right here? Well, in my opinion, they're both right, in their own world. I've tasted a fair amount of natural wines, and they can be very different and unique. Sometimes they're not my taste, and sometimes I absolutely love them. But they're usually interesting. I've also tasted a fair amount of wines that weren't made naturally that displayed a remarkable amount of terroir. And there are plenty of wines that claim to be made naturally, with organic grapes, but for a variety of reasons, they're just impostors and they're not that interesting.
I tend to prefer natural wines, but having worked in retail I can tell you for sure that some people just don't like a lot of them. I don't really believe there's any intentional conspiracy to cover up the natural wines' existence, but I also don't think anyone is being very open about all the processes they use to change their wine, because they're afraid of what people might think if they found out. And there's definitely a niche of foodie people out there that wouldn't like what they heard, if they knew all this stuff was being done to their wine. Is it as bad the semi-secret Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO's) that may be responsible for creating e-coli? No, definitely not. But does it remove some terroir and uniqueness from the wines? Yes, I believe it probably does.
I think the answer here, is that you just have to go taste some and see what you think. If you're like me, and you're the kind of person who gets sick of something pretty quickly, even if it's really good, you might really love natural wines. Other people love to find a good bottle, buy it again and again, and never get tired of it. They might not like the craziness of some natural wines. There's just no accounting for the difference in taste, and I think there's room for all kinds of palettes in this world.
But until you try them, you won't know where your palette lies. And to be fair, you should probably try a bunch to give it a fair shot until you're sure you don't like them. Because one huge benefit about natural wines is they tend to be really cheap! There are a few cult natural winemakers out there that command high prices, but even those are nothing compared to the Premier Crus of Bordeaux. The mainstream, critic driven wine world really hasn't grabbed onto this natural wine thing yet, and they're the ones that often bring the outrageous prices. That explains why you may have never ever heard they existed yet. So if you like them, you can have wines with a lot of complexity that won't break your budget. It's one of the few bargains for really high quality out there in the wine world right now.
So now, you're probably wondering how to find these wines right? Well, I don't have time to discuss it now, but stay tuned and I'll be writing more on that soon!