Benjamin Mitrofan-Norris on May 5, 2016 1 Comment Unless you’ve spent much of the last decade or so living beneath a hefty plastic rock, you can’t have failed to notice the distinctly twenty-first century preoccupation with natural, organic and locally sourced foods. While some degree of cynicism is undoubtedly healthy when browsing the labels on products in the aisles of your local store–after all, many of these buzzwords could be regarded as little more than marketing ploys utilized successfully by savvy salespeople–it has seen an overall positive trend regarding the more discerning nature of the modern shopper and consumer, which can only be a good thing. We have now become more than accustomed to shopping and eating more ethically and selectively than our predecessors, and most of us would agree that natural and organic produce pleases our palates as much as our consciences. Vin Naturel: The Struggle for Acceptance However, when it comes to the world of fine wine, we’ve been a little slow on the uptake. Over the past ten years, more and more people have begun questioning their wine-choosing habits, and have started wondering about where their wines come from, how they were produced, and what impact their selections have on the environment in which the grapes were grown. Thanks to a hell of a lot of hard work in the face of a mountain of opposition, some careful marketing, and plenty of strong-willed and powerful influences, natural wine producers have managed to overturn a less-than-ideal reputation, and eventually bring their exciting, youthfully-driven and ethical produce to the attention of an increasingly eager and passionate audience. The fact that natural, organic or biodynamic wines and their producers face any suspicion at all is, in many ways, bizarre. It says a lot about the careless attitudes we’ve held for so many years regarding intensive farming and the now undeniably negative impact of chemical additives in our food and drink, that we somehow forgot that before the last century, pretty much all we ate or drank was, in the simplest sense of the word, ‘natural’. Did the Phoenicians who cultivated the first vines in Europe use pesticides? Did the Romans need to worry about wrecking their water supplies with detergents from bottling plants? Were there chemical preservatives in Tudor England or Regency France, or in the court of the wine-swilling Austrian Empire? Of course there weren’t, and yet these were the pioneering peoples who made wine the fascinating and varied drink we know and love today. Somehow, we’ve become so accustomed to our chemicals and fungicides, so many of us are too ready to dismiss those wineries who want to return to simpler, purer, more ecological methods as somewhat too eccentric, or downright unqualified to give us what we want. This is clearly not the reality, and it only takes trying a bottle of natural wine produced recently to realize that the vast majority of natural wine makers are perhaps more interested in quality and have more to prove than the big brands coming out of large, ‘classic’ wineries. Championing Natural Wines During the first years of the twenty-first century, the criticism of organic, natural and biodynamic wines ranged from snide jokes to blatant nastiness. The most common complaints were based on the idea that the ‘organic’ label had no real effect on the quality of the produce, and that the flavors of the wines themselves were inferior and flat. It is to the absolute credit of the still-growing number of organic and biodynamic wineries out there that this negativity was received in the most positive way imaginable, leading to further experimentation, an astounding perseverance, and an steady increase in refinement and enjoyment in the wines they produced. Indeed, today natural wines are being celebrated by their core fan base partly for their imperfections, peculiarities and notes of interest, but mainly for the dramatic advances they’ve displayed in flavor, body and aroma. The wineries had plenty of help along their journey, too, thanks to diehard exponents and cheerleaders for the vin naturel revolution, none of whom were perhaps as eloquent or persuasive as author and sommelier Pontus Elofsson. This is the man who lovingly selected a range of world-beating organic and biodynamic wines for Denmark’s Noma, a restaurant which, for most of the last few years, has been synonymous with the utmost in excellence in natural gastronomy, and which blazed a new trail for a generation of people with a renewed and genuine enthusiasm for carefully sourced, ecologically sound and, above all, utterly delicious food and drink. “In one way”, Elofsson remarks, “I don’t think the public perception has changed at all, regarding natural wines. There is still a great deal of skepticism, even if a broader number of people today have heard of, are aware of and actually have tasted more natural wines. But–what has changed is that natural wines have become totally accepted in different subcultures, namely foodies, fine diners and the hipsters. In the most appreciated restaurants in the world–the three brothers in Catalunya, the vikings in Denmark and those found in Holland and Belgium–they serve natural wines in big floods. For me, as a sommelier at Noma, it came gradually. The shorter the distance from the Nordic nature to the plate in front of the guest, the shorter the distances became from the vine in the vineyard to the wine poured in the glass. Suddenly, at one point the wine served at Noma had become almost all natural–indeed, by 2009, ninety percent of our wines were so.” Elofsson goes on to explain just why the management of Noma were so interested in serving natural wines with their beautiful dishes, which reflect the very best of Nordic ingredients. “At Noma, the fact is (at least for me), that natural wines seem to adapt to the food on the plate. What is going on is that since the natural wines are not deprived of any character, since the natural wines have all the facets intact, there is always something in the wine that makes a good match with the food on the plate in front of you.” Organic vs. Biodynamic So, natural wines are finally ‘in’, it seems safe to say, even if the enthusiasm remains primarily with the cult followers, the movers, shakers and mavens of society. But what are natural wines? And what makes them different from their ‘unnatural’ contemporaries? Essentially, the vast majority of them can be split into two separate camps. ‘Organic’ wines, which are free from chemical interference from pesticides and such, and which have a considerably lower quantity of the sulfites used for preservation–essentially, wine produced in much the same way it was for the millennia or so prior the industrial revolution–and ‘biodynamic’ wines. The list of requirements needed for a winery to label itself biodynamic can look a little odd, to say the least. Cow’s horns stuffed with powdered quartz enriching the soil, buried packages of stag’s bladder and dried blood are the norm, as is cultivation carried out in harmony with the phases of the moon, yet essentially it uses the principles laid out by educational pioneer and social reformer Rudolph Steiner with which to make farming a dedicated lifestyle which doesn’t intrude on nature, and preserves the land for future generations. Biodynamic wine producers really, really care about the quality of their produce, and the spirit of independence and experimentation implicit within it has led to some astonishingly impressive results in recent years, reflected in places like Noma where the full potential of the grape and terroir are manifested in the bottle and glass, without interruption or compromise. Today, organic and biodynamic wines are blooming in the New World wine countries, namely the US and New Zealand, while their spiritual homes remains stronger than ever in France, Italy, Germany and Austria. The concept of terroir is a key one when it comes to understanding natural wines, and it is another of those buzzwords which has been more and more evident on the lips of those talking of such matters in recent years. It comes from the French philosophy of oenology, and the belief that truly great wines can maintain in the glass the finer qualities of the land on which the vineyard is situated, with everything from the acidity and natural makeup of the soil, to the incline of the slope the grapes are grown on, and the climatic conditions taken into consideration and blossoming on the palate. For natural wine producers, the expression of terroir in wine is the ultimate goal, and it seems logical that the low yields and eco-friendly practices they have as a cornerstone of their production would help them to achieve this. Natural white wines are often flintier and sharper as a result, reds are earthier and more mellow, and so on. Where Next for Natural Wines? It seems as though the future of vin naturel is a bright one, indeed. With a new generation of winemakers throwing off the oppressive shackles of tradition and expectation of higher yields and greater profit margins, and being open to risk and experimentation while dealing positively with opposition, times are certainly getting exciting for this maverick corner of the wine industry, and the quality of the latest produce is undoubtedly beginning to speak for itself. It isn’t difficult to understand why natural wine-craft is of particular attraction for younger winemakers, either. There appears to be little doubt that the more we understand about preserving the land we use for our consumption, and the damage previous generations have wrought upon it, the more discerning and demanding the producers–and we, the drinkers–are going to be. Increasing ecological awareness among the millennial generation, coupled with a hefty dose of fashion consciousness and market knowledge has seen natural wineries pop up almost weekly across the globe. This new wave of producers are driven by a reverence for the natural qualities of the fruit, by a respect for the land, and by a rebellious spirit that lies safe in the knowledge that natural wines taste good in more than one way–firstly on the palate, and secondly in the heart and soul.