I see it’s now 3 years since the term natural wine has registered in my wine conscience and attending the Roquebrun Festival des vins naturel prompted me to reflect. Back then I more or less concluded “so what” given that most independent Languedoc growers were following practices upheld by the movement, especially in the area of organic/sustainable grape growing and minimal intervention in the winery.
Today, if I go to a natural wine fair, natural wine bar or just browse the vins naturel shelves of a caviste, I have expectations, at least in France (less so in the UK). Expressive young wines that dance around the senses perhaps playing with the limits of volatility and yeasty characteristics. Brett often features. Whites might be prickly, oak for reds will be less common and used lightly. The majority are best enjoyed relatively young.
B list grape varieties that are particularly low key on widely recognised characteristics will feature strongly. This is one area where natural wine makers excel; making interesting wines from the likes of Cinsault, Terret, Aligote, Gamey, Cot, Melon de Bourgogne etc.
I’ve also learnt that most “natural wines” are not made by zero SO2 fanatics with beards and sandals. Most growers are pragmatic and will, for example, add a dash of sulphur for wine destined for export. Others make “conventional” wines, but when conditions are right will bottle a modest cuvée sans SO2. Some bottlings will only be sold locally to reduce the risk of spoilage in transportation.
France vs UK emphasis
In the UK I’ve found the “definition” of natural wines to be a bit looser, possibly down to the dominance of marketers in a land where wine making is niche and hence lacks a winemaker driven movement. I've witnessed Organic and Biodynamic grape production used to make conventional wine branded as natural wine. In France a Bio wine fair has a different emphasis to a vins naturel one.
Road to an accepted norm?
I spent many years working in IT, an industry where new ideas and products emerged continuously. There is what observers call a "hype" cycle for new technology before it becomes mainstream. Take mobile phones. Initially they were hyped as the next big thing but then the first products were launched. They were seriously bulky, had a short battery life, offered no coverage and were expensive. Disillusion set in and the traditional telecoms companies continued to shun them. All these shortcomings melted away as the technology became ubiquitous rather than novel. The traditional telecoms invested heavily and made acquisitions to catch up.
Natural wine isn't an IT technology but some parallels with a "hype -> disillusionment -> enlightenment -> mainstream" cycle can be observed. There are still too many poor and overpriced examples that put consumers off, but know-how and standards are improving. Conventional wines are gradually using less sulphur and other additives. Significantly, Languedoc negociant giant Gérard Bertrand now offers non-sulphured lines (stocked by Marks & Spencer in the UK) which signals a market for those who want or require such wine. A market beyond thrill seekers like me. Mainstream consumer acceptance may never fully happen, but this is a significant step. Arguably restaurant wine lists are the closest we have to broad acceptance with many serious lists featuring natural wines interspersed and indistinguishable from more convention offerings.
For me, “natural wines” have shaped a new style of wine to enjoy; up there with the “new world” invasion 30 years ago and my discovery of the Languedoc.