What is a natural wine? Well, the very term is a primary cause of the friction that the concept has generated: The existence of "natural" wine implies that all others aren't
natural or are artificial in some way. This alone seems enough to irk, annoy or outrage many of the critics to the extent that civilized discussion is impossible.
Next, the term is relatively new in general use, with no agreed-upon definition. Producers are lumped into the natural camp despite occupying a relatively broad spectrum of winemaking practices. This lack of predictability damages both the concept and the debate, which has become somewhat furious, as reporting from the always-excellent Bertrand Celce on his must-read blog Wine Terroirs
How best to define natural wines? (I'll set aside my preference for another, less-polarizing term altogether.) One concept bandied about is that the techniques should be traditional. This is a non-starter in my book, a concept even less workable than "natural." Many of the world's wine regions go back a millennium and have seen vast variations in techniques and technologies. Frankly, most probably made what we'd consider crap wine for much of their existence.
Alice Feiring, a long-time proponent of many of the wines now being called natural, offers a very workable starting point for a definition on her blog
: Grapes, maybe a splash of sulfur dioxide. Nothing gets added to the wine, and nothing gets extracted. This captures one of the critical elements of natural wines -- letting the fruit speak with as little human intervention as possible. I don't think this is the only way to make good wine, but I do see it as a very worthwhile intellectual exercise, and I understand its attraction. I also get the concern of "purists" who want to keep those who interfere with the wine too much from jumping on the natural-wine bandwagon as a marketing tool.
Honestly, I share Alice's enthusiasm for a lot of these wines and drink more than my fair share. What attracts me is their purity, which in theory should allow the differences brought about by terroir to be more apparent, a phenomenon that I find intellectually very appealing
. However, I'm perfectly able to enjoy wines that don't fall into the natural camp, though I will admit to some lingering "what ifs" when I drink them.
No concept is generating more discussion, misuse, vitriol or hype in the wine world right now than "natural" wine. If you've been spared the hubbub to this point, this should offer a gentle and balanced introduction.