Naked wine – letting grapes do what comes naturally

Alice Feiring stirs the natural wine vat

By Charles Lewis
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Naked wine by Alice Feiring

Naked wine by Alice Feiring

 

Natural wine has been a topic of great interest in recent years. In her book Naked wine, award-winning American food and wine journalist Alice Feiring covers the history of this ‘movement’ from its beginnings through to its acceleration of the past decade.

To call it a movement however may give the impression that there exists a cohesive group of producers and wine makers who have common practices and a common philosophy as to what constitutes a ‘natural’ wine. This is far from the truth, as even amongst producers there exist a wide range of views, let alone amongst hapless consumers, who have every reason to be confused.

For example some natural wine producers use no added sulphur in the winemaking process but use sulphur spray in the vineyard (as an anti-fungal agent), whereas others use some sulphur when winemaking because they cannot run the risk of losing a whole batch – which may be their entire vintage – to spoilage.

[It should be noted that sulphur seems likely to have been added to wine for up to 2000 years. This assertion is based on the discovery by Russian researchers of elemental sulphur, which is mined straight from the ground in some places, near amphora-type fermenting vessels around Mesopotamia – where winegrowing began (ref Ian Hickinbotham – Sulphur dioxide*). Small quantities of sulphur dioxide are also produced naturally in the wine making process itself.]

To further complicate the natural wine question, some natural producers are organic and some are biodynamic – but not all.

At best the natural wine movement is an amorphous, loose association of producers with a similar philosophy of moving away from mass-produced ‘industrial’ wine that is often decried as being the same in taste from one vintage to the next and even from one wine region to another.

The spectrum of natural wine producers range from zealots, to others simply using the descriptor for marketing advantage. Unlike organic wines, whose production is strictly and expensively regulated, use of the term ‘natural wine’ is unregulated – the Catch 22 being that it may be anathema to proponents of the movement to suggest that such regulation might be required, even should agreement as to what constitutes a natural wine be reached.

Natural wine claims to speak of terroir that is reflective of place and season. (But then, so do many wines made using conventional winemaking techniques). Seasonal variation and variety from one grower to another within a region is applauded. (Wine consumers might of course already know and appreciate this as normal vintage variation).

There are of course risks when taking a non-sulphur approach to winemaking which can result in brown, oxidized wine. Such wines may be exciting soon after being made, but later may become unapproachable if the wine is kept for any length of time or transported long distances, or kept under less-than-ideal conditions.

By the time they are served in ‘natural wine’ bars, they may even be undrinkable. [This was indeed a common occurrence in the past, before bacteria were discovered and the need for winery hygiene so apparent – at the end of the season, table wines were often sour, hence the eager anticipation of the arrival of new, young, fresh wines every vintage.]

Cool storage can reduce the rate of oxidation but this uses additional energy, which is counter to the natural approach of doing less. Naked wine concentrates on the positive aspects of producing natural wine and tends not to emphasise the risks and problems that are inherent in this technique, although these are mentioned.

The book covers the author’s efforts in making a batch of natural wine and of the trials that led to the final product. Once again due to the imprecise nature of the ‘movement’, there were points of disagreement along the way between her and the vineyard owner whose grapes she was using. For example is it acceptable to add water to wine to reduce the concentration of alcohol and still call the wine ‘natural’?

Alice Feiring admits in the first sentence of the book that she can be polarizing. She has strong views and puts them firmly in print. Naked wine is testament to this. She is strongly in favour of the philosophy of the natural wine movement.

Unlike wine show judges, Feiring is forgiving of wine faults in natural wine and adopts a positive approach to some of these faults. As a consequence she has attracted heavy criticism from sectors of the industry.

Her coverage of the history of natural wine and the characters (often French) involved in the early days of the movement makes for interesting reading. However, Naked wine is a personal account of her involvement with natural wine and as a consequence the book meanders a little.

Perhaps due to my life sciences background, I am not convinced by some of the unsupported assertions Feiring makes about wine made in this way, but nevertheless recommend reading Naked wine if you are interested in more information on this alternative approach to wine making.

The book follows on from the US published Authentic Wine – towards natural and sustainable winemaking by Jamie Goode and Sam Harrop MW (2011),which delves more into the science and presents other views, and within Australia the award-winning The Future Makers – Australian Wines for the 21st Century (2010) by biodynamic evangelist Max Allen.

There is little doubt that Alice Feiring’s book will be controversial, deliberately so. It will certainly enliven the natural wine debate, which can only be a good thing.

In some wine regions such as Oregon, as early as 1999 the ‘feel good’ ideas behind the movement were translated into a ‘low input viticulture and enology’ classification scheme (LIVEinc.org) which is now expanding to include all Pacific North West wine regions.

This organisation provides ‘education and independent third-party certification of vineyards and wineries using international standards of sustainable viticulture and enology practices in wine-grape and wine production’. Its brief also includes impacts on surrounding waterways, similar to the scheme in South Africa designed to protect and educate about the delicate fynbos vegetation and wildlife in the vineyard surrounds. As yet there is nothing similar in Australia.

For what natural wines are about is minimal intervention, environmentally sustainable winemaking – something our forebears had been doing reasonably well for millennia, before the advent of transporting wine to far-flung markets, the desire (or ability) to cellar unfortified wine for lengthy periods, and of course the ever-growing thirst of the world’s population, who do not all want to run the risk of buying spoiled wine.

 

* Elemental sulphur is burned to make sulphur dioxide, which ensures better retention of a wine’s colour and helps to protect it from unwanted bacterial attack.

 

Naked wine – letting grapes do what comes naturally by Alice Feiring is published by Da Capo Press (Cambridge, MA, USA; 2011, hc 232 pp) and retails in Australia for RRP A$39.99.

Naked wine by Alice Feiring can be purchased (in hardcover or ebook) from Booko.com.au here »

 

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August 31st, 2012
 
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