Why We Should Love Natural Wines

Natural wines use only one of hundreds of FDA-approved additives: the grape. Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Natural wine, which strives to use only one of 200 additives approved by the Federal Drug Administration—i.e., grapes—is increasingly popular. But wine writers everywhere see problems with it. They argue that without sulfur the wines will spoil. Others say that the wines are “homogeneously cidery and coarse” and compare them to bad vinegar. Even the esteemed critic Robert M. Parker Jr. called natural wine “one of the major scams being foisted on wine consumers.” With blog headlines such as “Natural Wine: The Ugly Underbelly,” the backlash has turned particularly harsh. So I pose the question: are we talking wine or war? Having written two books on the topic, and finding myself drinking this stuff at least 95 percent of the time, I feel protective.

For the uninitiated, natural wines have nothing added or taken away, except maybe a bit of sulfur. Any new wine list worth its reputation will have a hefty selection of natural wines. The reason I love them is the same reason I love heirloom tomatoes, or white truffles, or bitter chocolate—they have exceptional flavor, complexity, and surprise. To borrow a theater analogy, they break the fourth wall. They cause a reaction. Sometimes, maybe, too much of one.

Now, about that sulfur. Though it’s an element, so “natural,” much of what is used in the wine industry is petrochemical. The sulfur acts like a lid, keeping the wine safe from microbial alteration but also containing wine’s flavors. To eliminate it, or use very little of it (sulfur is allowed up to 350 parts per million; natural-wine people use up to 35ppm) the vineyard work must be fantastic. Inside the cellar, the work must be hypervigilant. The resulting juice can sometimes have a slight vinegar aroma or a hint of funk. Fans aren’t bothered by these quirks, technically called “flaws,” and the wines are hugely popular in Scandinavia, Japan, the U.S., and the U.K. There are even natural-wine importers in the Ukraine and China. As with organic food, the demand is greater than the supply.

The problem isn’t really with the sulfur—or even with the term “natural,” which critics say unfairly tarnishes other wines as artificial. The real problem is the new popularity of natural wines. As long as they were fringe, they posed no threat. Now they are driving a growing market sector and absolutely pose a threat to the commercial wine industry, including wine importers and sommeliers who show up at lectures sporting “I Love Sulfur” T-shirts. Just as the food industry has had to respond to a heightened awareness of food additives, the conventional-wine world has to deal with a newly informed public that questions winemakers and sommeliers about yeast or sulfur when choosing a wine. And that suggests a paradigm change. In time, winemakers will adjust rather than lose market share; they will find ways to industrialize natural wine much the way organic food has become industrial.

I understand the reaction from the producers. Change is always painful within a corporate structure. When you make 5 million bottles instead of 20,000, producing natural wine can be difficult. But the attack from independent writers is puzzling. It might be about ego, or the embarrassment for having praised confected wines. Or is it merely that wine, too, is a victim of the globally prevalent attitude of polarization, a scourge from politics to religion? Whether the preference is for white, red, orange, pink, or bubbly, it’s time to break out the corkscrew and make peace.

Natural Wine Fairs

Vini Circus
Hede, France, April 27-30

Salon des Vins Libres
Rouffach, France, May 5-6

The Real Wine Fair
London, May 20-22

Raw Fair
London, May 20-21

Natural Wines to Sample

La Clarine Farm Piedi Grandi
Sierra Foothills, Calif. $24
Better on day two. Serious and powerful.

Guy Bossard Domaine de l'ecu Muscadet Sevre-et-Maine Cuvee Classique
Loire, France, $19
Refreshing and stony.

Hermanos de Peciña Rioja Joven
Rioja, Spain, $15
Juicy and full with a nice fresh lift.

Vin de Table de France Vin d'Oeillades
Navarre, France, $14
A mouthful of flavor.

Clos Saron Tickled Pink Rosé
Sierra Foothills, Calif. $23
Pure fun in a dry rosé.