That natural wine has always been a source of controversy is a given. From the outset people have sniped at the term ‘natural’ wine (I lost count of the times I heard that old trope “wine doesn’t make itself”), the faults of the early wines, not being certificated etc etc. Many critics would now admit that faults are rarer and that natural wines have enthused many, especially younger wine drinkers. I am almost proud to be a 61 year old natural wine advocate, at last I am on trend!
The growth of natural wine across the world, the increase in winemakers and certainly in media attention (he writes) has been dramatic in the last few years. That growth brings its own problems however. Big companies using the term to promote wines which are really not natural (no certification makes that possible so something of an own goal to be fair) I have mentioned before. The large number of new winemakers rushing to join the trend often with little experience means that there have been some questionable wines, I have tried quite a few.
So why continue? Well the sense of drinking wine more reflective of the actual grapes with minimal intervention, the stories of the producers which are consistently more interesting than those of big brands) and the sheer excitement of many of the wines. I remain as enthusiastic for natural wine as ever.
However a couple of recent stories make me sad. In an article on the excellent Little Wine website (paywall I’m afraid) Jamie Goode reported how one of my favourite natural wines has reached alarming prices on the grey market. I was fortunate to taste a bottle of Domaine Des Miroirs’ Mizuiro Les Saugettes 2013 and meet its maker Kenjiro Kagami at a tasting in 2016. It was memorable for its razor sharp, precise Chardonnay, a joy. I have sought bottles ever since without luck.
Jamie reported that bottles were selling for £600 in bond (tax still to pay) on the Berry Bros & Rudd website. These are bottles people have bought and traded on for profit. Other big stars in the natural firmament are seeing huge mark ups too and this on top of prices which are often relatively high due to the extra costs involved of organic and natural winemaking.
Inevitably, with many natural producers farming just a few hectares the small scale production means that bottles are fewer in number. With demand having grown exponentially it often exceeds supply. I recall one merchant, having been told by Jeff Coutelou that he had no more wine to sell replying that Jeff should simply produce more, as if he could wave a magic wand or lower quality to achieve more bottles. This is the market sadly, good wines will cost good money. The task is to seek the next great producers before their bottles reach collector status. It is sad but inevitable.
Then last week another story. the actress Cameron Diaz has been linked with a wine which has been branded as ‘clean’. Interviewed she explained how many additives are allowed in wine, so far so good. The wine uses organic grapes and this has been verified, Penedes in Spain is the source, mainly Xarel.lo a variety I really like. Still all good. However, alarm bells ring when Diaz expressed surprise that grapes should be used which had not been washed. Grape skins bring yeast into the vat to help ferment the wine, washing them means that the wine uses commercial yeast. It is far from natural, they have carefully avoided the term, clean being an alternative which in these extraordinary times will resonate with many.
Wines being linked with celebrities is not new. My wife recently tried a very ordinary, dull Provence rosé retailing at £10 due to being named after a celebrity. Some celebrities have vineyards making good wine, Sam Neill’s Two Paddocks in New Zealand is one example. As someone sceptical of anything celebrity I am not the target consumer but I really am uncomfortable with the ‘clean’ wine designation even if the intentions are good and especially when the wine costs $24 (£19).
I love natural wines, implore you to seek out the good ones (just not too hard or you’ll drive up the price!), Jeff’s being especially good though I may be biased. However, beware of imitations. Reliable recommendations can be found from many sources, including here I hope.