Keith Beavers is VinePair’s tastings director and host of the Wine 101 podcast. He previously owned the “In Vino” restaurant and wine bar and “Alphabet City Wine Company” wine shop in New York, and has been a wine educator since his time in the hospitality industry.
For every post-Prohibition wine-drinking generation in the U.S. there has been a category or style of wine that streams through the collective social consciousness. In the ‘80s it was whatever Robert Parker scored highest; in the ‘90s it was the “Cult Cab” craze — make it big and boozy! And the early aughts were all about organic and eventually biodynamic. The popularity of these fads and phases not only gave an identity to the moment but helped bring each generation into wine and gave them a starting point. As our wine culture evolved, drinkers would either continue to cling to the trend of the moment or embark on their own wine journey, feeding an insatiable curiosity and leaving such phases behind.
The last significant movement bore a new trend that is not actually as new as has often been hailed:
- A way of making wine beyond certified organic and biodynamic.
- Allowing the wine to “make itself,” and spoilage yeast to infect the process and create aromas and mouthfeel sensations that some consider painful.
- Doing away with the subtleties of primary and secondary aromas and normalizing tasting notes such as Band-Aid and mouse.
They called these wines natural.
The movement began in the early aughts, took off in earnest after 2016, and hit a fever pitch right before the pandemic. For those who don’t know me, this may sound like I’m jumping aboard the counter-movement to this brand of enological counter-culture, but I’ve been against the term since day one. From the sidelines, I’ve followed from its modern inception to where we are now and I feel there should be some disinfecting sunlight on what’s happening here. Because the murkiness has taken over and a lot of everyday wine drinkers are confused. This is their generation’s defining trend. Yet as I visit wine regions, speak with winemakers, and host tastings and presentations, I still get asked what “natural wine” means.
Much like many of the wines that have come to represent the style, I have only one answer: The term is flawed.
What Natural Wine Isn’t
At this point, the term natural wine is likely here to stay, at least in the vernacular of a percentage of the drinking public. So let’s level the field.
Proponents will say things like “the wine is alive!” It’s not. Just because a wine has been infected with spoilage yeast and serves a little fizz from a minor second fermentation in the bottle, that doesn’t mean a wine is alive. Wine is always interacting with itself — changing color, reducing its youthfulness to more refined and aged characteristics, taking new aromas profiles as it sits in the bottle. So if we want to say “natural wine” is alive then all wine is alive.
People also describe the style as “low intervention.” All that means is that the winemaker tried their best to move the pressed juice through the many stages of the winemaking process while attempting to stay as hands-off as possible. This is just an approach to making wine, like barrel fermentation or not filtering prior to bottling. Not only is the term misleading because all wine requires intervention of some kind, but it encourages winemakers to miss steps that have been developed over time to help make a sound wine. Championing the idea of low intervention excuses wine that’s been infected with Brettanommyces, a spoilage yeast that survives beyond the standard (beneficial) winemaking yeast and continues to eat away at the remaining sugar in the wine. In doing so, it hijacks a wine’s character and depth, resulting in something that’s thin and fruitless, with aromas like vinegar or the famous “mouse” or “Band-Aid.”
Some people will even say natural wine is healthier for you. That’s not cool at all. Wine is an alcoholic beverage, so it’s inherently not healthy. We drink alcohol to get a buzz and, hopefully, the delivery system is delicious. But no one should drink one wine over another because of purported health benefits.
From the Fringe to the Mainstream
How did we get here? What is this mess? Everything was going just fine until this term came along and created such confusion and division.
Before the Industrial Revolution, farming was basically organic. Then in the early 20th century, Justice Von Liebig, a German scientist, named the “father of fertilizer,” developed a solution for a growing global population in an ever-faster-moving world. He called this the law of the minimum. In different proportions, and depending on the plant, if only nitrogen, potassium, and phosphate are applied the plant will produce what is needed no matter how deficient a soil is. This targeted system of fertilization and fertilizer is called NPK, with each letter representing the three chemicals in the mix. By the 1920s, NPK was being implemented on a global scale. It’s still used today in commercial fertilizer.
The droves of adopting farmers, not used to this kind of agriculture, watched with concern as their plants grew but their soil health decreased. NPK only targets the plant. It does not add to the health or biodiversity of the land and often when these chemicals would run off they would have to be decontaminated. Soon a sort of green movement began to form, but only on the fringes of agricultural society. There was too much money in NPK to go back. But going back is what this small movement wanted — and bad.
In 1924, this desire for pre-industrial farming compelled an Austrian philosopher and occultist, Rudolph Steiner, to give a series of lectures on how to convert a crop or farm or vineyard into a single living organism — an ecosystem that relies on itself to thrive and survive by strengthening the health of the biome surrounding a vineyard (crop in the lectures). He called this biodynamics. Bio, referring to earth. Dynamic meaning energizing land by creating natural forms that can contribute to its health while fertilizing and defending against invasive species.
By the 1960s, vinegrowers, mostly in the Loire Valley, began implementing biodynamic regimes in their vineyards. That same decade Jules Chauvet, a Beaujolais-based negociant, wine taster, and winemaker with the skills of a chemist, was experimenting with taking biodynamics even further and into the winemaking process itself. He played around with low to no sulfur additions and practices that would now be considered “minimal intervention.” Chauvet’s methods would eventually be adopted by other winemakers in his region, specifically four of them: Marcel Lapierre, Jean Foillard, Jean-Paul Thévenet, and Guy Breton, better known now as the Gang of Four.
Despite this pop of acceptance, the biodynamic idea was largely set to the back burner of history, but not forever. In 1972 the International Federation of Agricultural Movements (IFOAM) was formed. This helped bring the organic idea from the fringe to the mainstream, which led to better global communication pathways.
The new idea was to not use man-made fertilizers, herbicides, or pesticides but to use organic compost. Instead of targeting the law of the minimum, compost contains vital compounds but also encourages a healthy ecosystem above and below the vines.
In the U.S. this modern green movement led to the federal government eventually beginning a certification process that would allow producers to show legitimacy in their practices and it is still in place today: the organic certification.
Meanwhile, the Gang of Four and other Chauvet acolytes were piquing the interest of drinkers in the bistros of Paris. As Jamie Goode noted in a VinePair article from 2021, “I found out about natural wine from internet bulletin boards in the late 1990s. It was strange, mysterious, and as a newbie wine geek it caught my imagination.” That interest would eventually spread — around Europe, across the channel to the U.K., and across the Atlantic to the U.S.
Where We Are Today
In the same way the punk movement arrived to smash the overindulgence of arena rock (among other things), these wines offered an alternative — not only conventional wine but organic, too. There were good and bad aspects to the punk movement and people took to it for different reasons: Budding musicians only needed to know three chords on the guitar; some were drawn because of the striking fashion; and others turned up to gigs purely to be violent and spit on people. The natural wine movement developed much in the same way. It became a sensation turned cultish obsession and, on occasion, a (mainly online) bully pulpit.
Some wines made in the style Chauvet inspired were technically sound, with unique complexities and minimal amounts of the compounds traditionally considered flaws in the wine world. They were fun, slightly funked-out wines. But not all of them were sound. In fact, as the trend bloomed in major cities, more and more the flaws were passed off as “complexity.” It felt like a revolution was being attempted in the wine world.
But if the natural wine movement was indeed a revolution, it proved to be the type founded on strong ideals but with a lack of cohesion and organization. Freud called it “the narcissism of small differences” — a phenomenon where you encounter greater differences between two entities that are strongly aligned than you do between ones that are much more opposed. (Think Bernie versus Biden supporters.) For some followers, natural wine came to represent only a funky flavor profile; for others, farming and winemaking practices remained key. Average drinkers became a pawn in this dogmatic, undefined tug of war. Bars emerged in hipster boroughs serving only flawed wine. There were podcasts and publications devoted to defending the mousey Band-Aid flavors that robbed sound wines of depth and personality.
They called these wines natural, low-intervention, alive. But what does any of that mean? Meanwhile, the organic and biodynamic movements were solidified with objective, measurable certifications that have benefited the broader wine world. Guidelines put in place to work toward a more sustainable planet through agriculture, all in the name of wine. It’s wonderful that humans came together to make that happen. The term “natural wine” does none of this.
There are signs of hope. A new generation of winemakers is pushing boundaries and bucking perceived norms with nontraditional winemaking methods. I’m seeing New World winemakers from the U.S. to Australia and Old World winemakers from France to Hungary pushing boundaries, blending varieties that haven’t been blended, co-fermenting red and white wine grapes, and aging wine on oyster shells. I’m seeing great use of the carbonic method and winemakers embracing hybrids, once an eye-roll category, and working to make wonderful wines from them. It’s too easy to lump these amazing wines into the “natural wine” thing. That’s not it.
Instead, it’s innovation. These are not natural wines. They are wines made by a new generation of winemakers pushing boundaries and showing that the science of wine can work in new and fun ways. Part of me thinks we had to go through this “natural wine” movement to get here. So here we are and it is great. I applaud the destination if not the journey, and will never support the term. This new generation of winemakers deserves better for their innovative work.