New wine makers have taken a radical one tack—but are they right to do so?

The new punk wine movement: is it to your taste?

When wine meets cider, it's time to tread with caution
April 19, 2018

Is wine a natural product? For centuries, humans have produced drinks from crushed and fermented grapes. Knowledge and practice have been passed between generations and continents. It took effort and endeavour to fashion the skills of all these winemakers. It was far from a natural occurrence.

Sure, if you let grapes grow until they fall from the vine, burst their skins and start to ferment, this will induce the process that turns fruit sugars into alcohols, but they will amount to no more than rotten grapes. But there is a great deal of interest in so-called “natural wine”—why is it surrounded by such controversy?

The natural wine movement is about intervening as little as possible in the process that takes us from grapes to wine. So enthusiasts for natural wines are happy to live with wines that are: cloudy and unfiltered; screamingly high in acidity; 16 per cent proof; more like sherry.

Balance in a wine is where fruit, alcohol, acid, perhaps tannin and oak are in harmony. That doesn’t happen by accident, but through winemakers’ knowledge of how to manage fermentation—yet these techniques are set aside by natural wine practitioners.

What can be said of the wines? At best they are uneven. I have tasted and enjoyed excellent examples: Pierre and Catherine Breton find something new and striking in their Cabernet Franc wine, Trinch, from the Loire; while Eric Texier makes a wonderful range of reds from the Syrah he grows in the Rhône. Exceptional wine growers like these produce lively, vibrant wines.

But the problem is that even off-putting and frankly faulty wines are regularly held up as embodying new and exciting flavours (many of which can be readily found in ciders). The unconverted often manage a polite but pointed, “Interesting.”

Perhaps the right way to see natural wine is as a punk movement: a backlash against bourgeois tastes and the unaffordable wines of Burgundy and Bordeaux. French millennials, with no hope of building the cellars their parents once assembled, revel in their open-minded outlook. They proselytise—but I don’t want to follow them. Sure, I am happy to be offered something novel and rewarding, a white wine with some skin contact, a little bit of oxidation, a red that hasn’t been filtered or fined. These methods, in the right hands, can result in something fine.

But these are experiments and not all of them work out—and I don’t want to be a participant in an experiment. We cannot dispense with the usual markers of good quality in wine just because we have stretched the boundaries of the category.

Equally, natural wines should not be dismissed out of hand. It is not natural wine that is bad, but bad natural winemaking. Not all natural wines are poorly made. When we resist these crude assertions we may start finding our way to achieving what we are all after: wines of interest and pleasure that reward the attention we give them. Like so much in winemaking, it’s a question of balance.