How wine’s gone bad?

If you were fortunate enough to dine in Noma in Copenhagen in 2011, which was just crowned the “best restaurant” in the world, you might have been served its signature dish: a raw razor clam from the North Sea. It is placed in a pool of foaming parsley and topped with horseradish powder. The dish was designed to be a conceptual and technical marvel that evoked the harsh Nordic coast in winter.

The drink was almost as remarkable as the dish: a cloudy, noticeably tart white wine from a vineyard that was virtually unknown in France’s Loire Valley. It was sold at the time for around PS8 per bottle. This was a strange choice for a menu of PS300. It was a “natural wine” – without pesticides or chemicals – that was the result of a wine movement that sparked the largest conflict in the wine world for a decade.

Natural wine is becoming a mainstay in many restaurants around the world. Noma in Norway, Mugaritz San Sebastian, and Hibiscus London are all examples of this. Sommeliers believe that traditional wines are too processed and not in line with local food culture. Recent research showed that London’s wine lists now include at least one natural, organic, or biodynamic wine. (The categories are not exclusive). This is more than three times the number in 2016! The Times reported last year that “Natural Wines are in Vogue.” The weird and wonderful flavors will overwhelm your senses with all kinds of wacky smells and quirky tastes.

Natural wine has gained many enemies as it has grown. Detractors see it as a form of Luddism and a sort of anti-vax movement in viticulture that praises the vinegary, cidery faults that science has been eradicating over the last century. This view says that natural wine is an anti-progress cult that wants to roll back progress to favor wine more suited to Roman peasants’ tastes. The Spectator compared it to “flawed sherry or rotten cider,” and The Observer described it as “an acrid burst that makes you cry.”

Natural wines are easily recognizable once you know what to search for: they tend to be more fragrant, cloudier, and juicier than traditional wines. They also taste closer to grapes. They are a return to those core elements that made humans fall in love with wine when they first started making it around 6,000 years ago. Natural wine advocates believe that the PS130bn wine industry is wrong in every way – from how it’s made to the way the critics judge what is good and bad. They want to remove the artificial trappings developed along with the decades-long boom in the wine industry and just let wine be.

There is a strong suspicion among wine critics that the movement for natural wines is determined to destroy the hierarchies and norms that they have spent their entire lives upholding. For traditionalists, the ambiguity of what constitutes natural wine is especially frustrating. Michel Bettane told me that there is no legal definition for natural wine. It exists because it declares its existence. Robert Parker, the most influential wine critic in the world, called natural wines a “scam.”

The lack of rules in natural wine is appealing to those who enjoy it. A recent natural wine fair I attended in London featured winemakers who grew their grapes by the phases and moon but did not own computers. One man harvested his grapes on wild vines growing in the Georgian mountains.

Sebastien Rifflet of the Loire Valley runs the trade group L’Association des Vins Naturels, which has been around for ten years. He said that his basic technique is to “make wine the way it was done in previous centuries, without any added ingredients.” It means fermenting the wine slowly using wild yeasts found in the vineyard. Most vintners use laboratory-grown yeasts that are “engineered like F1 cars to speed up fermentation”. The wine is not treated with antimicrobial chemicals, and it’s bottled in its entirety, bits and all. Riffault’s Sancerre is a deep amber color and tastes like honey-crystallized and preserved lemons. The Sancerre is excellent but not the “pale-yellow” color with “fresh oranges and white flowers” that the French government describes in its official guidelines. It’s not for everybody. It’s not like fast food. Riffault said, “But it’s completely pure.”

Riffault, his contemporaries, and others were overlooked just 20 years ago. Now, they are gaining a foothold and could change the way we think about wine. Philippe Pacalet, a Burgundy winemaker who makes natural wines, says: “We used to struggle.” “People weren’t ready. “But chefs change, Sommeliers are changing, and whole generations of people,” he continued. “Now they’re ready.”

At first glance, the idea that wine should be more natural seems absurd. Wine’s iconography, right down to the labels, suggests a peaceful world of rolling green hills, village harvests, and vintners shuffling down to the cellar to check in on the mysterious process of fermentation. The grapes arrive in your glass transformed but relatively unmolested.

As natural wine supporters point out, however, most wines today are not produced in the same way as this idyllic vision. To protect grapes, a fragile crop, vineyards are saturated with pesticides and fertilizers. A French government report from 2000 noted that vineyards accounted for 3% of agricultural land but 20% of pesticides. A study in 2013 found pesticides present in 90% of the wines sold at French supermarkets.

A small but increasing number of vineyards are now embracing organic farming. What happens after the grapes are harvested is not as scrutinized, and to natural wine lovers, it’s no less shocking. Modern winemakers have access to an arsenal of interventions, ranging from lab-grown supercharged yeast to antimicrobials to antioxidants to acidity regulators to filtering gelatins. Wine is passed through electric fields to stop calcium and potassium crystals from forming. It can also be injected with different gases to aerate it or protect it.

Natural winemakers do not believe in any of these things. It is almost unbelievable how simple the basics of winemaking really are: it’s just a matter of crushing some ripe grapes. The yeasts on the grape skin begin to gorge themselves on sugars when they come in contact with the sweet liquid inside. They release carbon dioxide and alcohol into the mixture. The process continues until either there is no sugar left or the yeasts have made the environment so alcoholic that they can’t live in it. This is when you can call it wine. Since humans began this process millennia ago, winemaking has been a highly technical art. However, the basic alchemy has not changed. The fermentation is an indivisible process. What comes before it is grape juice, and what follows is wine.

In a respectful voice, Pacalet said: “Yeasts are the key that connects vines to people.” You use the living system in order to express information from the soil. Even if you have a small operation and use industrial techniques, you are making an industrial product.

Illustration by Pete Gamlen

This means, in practice, that you will have to give up the techniques that modern winemakers use to control their products. It also means letting go of expectations from mainstream wine culture. This dictates that a wine from a particular place should taste a specific way and that the winemaker is a conductor who adjusts the different elements in the wine to make it play the tune that the audience wants. Ronan Sayburn is the wine director at the 67 Pall Mall private wine club. He says that it’s important for a Sancerre to taste like a true Sancerre.

France, as the center of culture and commerce for the world of wine, has codified the styles of winemaking that are acceptable. To be labeled as a wine from a specific region, the wine must follow strict guidelines regarding which grapes can be used and what production techniques are allowed, along with how they should taste. Inspectors and blind-tasting panels enforce this system of certification, the appellation controlee or “protected design of origin.” The wines that do not meet these standards will be labeled as “Vin de France,” which is a generic term that implies low quality and, therefore, makes them less appealing to consumers.

Some natural winemakers are rebelling against this legislation. They believe that it reinforces dominant styles and methods that ruin wine. Olivier Cousin, a natural winemaker, refused to join his local AOC in 2003. He complained that “to meet their standards, one must beat the grapes using machines, add enzymes, yeast, and sulfites and sterilize the filter.” He was prosecuted when he refused not to describe his wine as Anjou. Cousin responded by putting on a show. He rode his draft horse to the courthouse steps and brought a barrel full of his wine that was in violation to share with passersby. He changed the labels.

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