UFOs in a Glass, a.k.a. Defining Natural Wine

Robot Wine

No one has done it yet. Not really. No one has laid down the law on the true definition of natural wine. Even dipping into the conversation for a moment at the dinner table amongst the trade can cause an episode climaxing in broken bottles and blood.

Some have tried defining natural wines with a particular sulfur level, say 0, 35, or 99 total parts per million maximum. Some might or might not include organic or Biodynamic wines. Some would say anything that is orange, sparkles, and tastes like absolute $%^* would qualify.

While there are certainly examples of winemakers clueless as to what they’re doing—blindly bottling a sparkling orange concoction reeking of volatile acidity, aldehyde, pediococcus, and brettanomyces; wine thick with unidentified floating sediment, the guy or gal making such statements (while scratching their head) as, “No idea why it’s bubbling!”—there also exists true winemakers bottling a savage, flaw-laden (flaw in the traditional terms of winemaking) wine with great passion and clear intention.

There is room for both!

Sarah Hedges Goedhart, who makes Demeter-certified Biodynamic wines (arguably, natural wines) on Red Mountain, makes a beautiful point: “Natural winemaking shouldn’t be lazy winemaking and ‘flaws’ should exist due to the complexities of the yeast, bacteria, and other compounds not being suppressed by the winemakers arsenal of additives. However, flaws that exist due to inattention and laziness should not be considered an okay part of natural wine.”

Perhaps we can make the argument that natural wine lives in two different families. One, we will liken as natural terroir wine. In other words, though the wine is natural, it is clean (mostly) of traditional flaws and therefore carries with it a sense of place and time. Much like the Hedges family’s top wine, La Haute Cuvée. After all, that sense of place and time is what those in the traditional wine trade value above all else.

That’s why this second type of natural wine—let’s call it natural crafted wine—is so controversial. You might hear people say, “Any moron can make that.” Crafted natural wine is crafted more like a beer. The crafter/winemaker is more important than the wine. Certain, if not all, flaws are acceptable in this style, even though these compounds hide the terroir. 

Think about your friend, the beer geek. He probably likes a sour pumpkin beer heavy in brettanomyces with a name like Hopasaurus Quadruple IPA. Do you think the growing region of the hops stands out? It’s okay to like such a beer in the beer world. Sense of place is not held as high. That’s the lens from which we need to see natural crafted wine.

As touched on above, we must further separate natural crafted wine into two camps: those who know what they’re doing, and those who don’t. The context of these natural crafted wines is essential to their enjoyment. We must know whether the wine was done with purpose by a person knowledgeable in the ways of science and passionate in what they are putting into the world.

Polarizing winemaker Chad Stock of Oregon comes to mind. He, in our eyes, is an artist of the highest order. Should you go on a journey of the wines he’s bottled, you’ll find precise and flawless pinot noir—made so clean as if to prove his prowess in the traditional world; but you’ll also find wines that defy what is acceptable in the eyes of many. Under his Minimus line, his labels read such controversial statements as: I HAVE V.A. (on another label, I HAVE BRETT). I AM OK WITH THAT. I AM ENLIGHTENED. One could not argue these wines lack intention; the flaws in these bottles are not a mistake. And his flawless pinot noir, in a sense, allows him the freedom to explore and push these boundaries. As is true in most fields, you must learn the rules before you break them. But you’re only at your best when you start breaking them. Where do his wines fit in this spectrum?

In his own words, “Minimus is constantly evolving and its construct is designed to explore everything possible in Oregon, with a low intervention core philosophy. The low intervention aspect is set in place to allow the wines to show for what they are, so that they can be properly judged and evaluated by my peers. For example, how will anyone know whether growing some grape variety in my region is successful based on excellent acid structure when I am just adding it from a bag… but then telling everyone it is the terroir of my vineyard that creates the natural acid so that I can preserve my proprietary winemaking trickery?” Preach it, Chad.

To take this idea to the art world, abstract expressionism often illicits this “any moron could do this” response. But take a moment to look at some of Jackson Pollack’s lesser known paintings. And study what he was up to. There was talent, brilliance, deep thought, and insurmountable passion going into these works.

What if you taste a wine that doesn’t fit into your preconceived notions of a what traditional wine should be? What if not only the sense of place is buried but even the varietal essence is missing? What if the Chardonnay you’re drinking doesn’t taste like anything resembling Chardonnay? Does it mean this is one of those “awful natural wines?” To add to this idea, Chad says, “What does it mean if it reminds you of nothing you’ve ever tried, and you like it?”

Or perhaps the context reveals the art. Perhaps we need to understand the intent. Perhaps we need to understand who is behind this wine. Perhaps the who matters more than the where. Or the approach, that hands-off, minimalist style, is the art. Perhaps we need to taste these wines like an alien might shortly after first landing on earth. Chad says, “Intent is everything when it comes to justifying the individual methods of iconic producers. I can’t tell you how many MW and MS professionals enjoy my wines because the wines disarm them and reinvigorate their senses, revealing wine from a new perspective.”

It’s worth taking a brief look at two recent experiences in Europe. If you attend London’s Raw Fair put on by Raw Wine, you’re going to find wines that go to each extreme, though the majority lean toward a clean, precise, terroir-driven style worthy of high acclaim by such British wine writers as Steven Spurrier and Jamie Goode. There may be flaws but nothing that would get in the way of its traditional mission.

But! If you find a tiny and extraordinary natural wine bar called Den Vandrette along the water in Copenhagen, you might dash out after your first sip. You might taste an oxidized Chenin Blanc that bares no resemblance to any other Chenin on earth. The flaws are endless. Not one top sommelier could guess the varietal or origin in a blind tasting. Unless you arrive to this place with an open mind, you will be disappointed. Here’s the thing: the owners put serious thought into the curation of the wines in their cellar. They carry both natural crafted wine and natural terroir wine, ALL of which are made by winemakers and vignerons that only bottle and send out into the world wines that they believe in and love. Wines as crucial to the winemaker’s existence as their own children.

Again from Chad, “Natural wine isn’t about just the wine; it’s a generational and cultural movement that could be likened to political or musical shifts that are so powerful they alter society itself.”

Do you have room in your heart for both styles? Do you believe in UFOs?

[Thanks to Chad Stock for his contributions to this piece.]

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