(Disclosure: I sell, amongst many other things, Portuguese wine. What I’m saying is, I have a vested interest here but it’s an economic one, not a egocentric one, so my motives are pure. Also, I recognize that my characterization of Portuguese wine making can also be used to describe many of the world’s small production vineyard-driven wineries.)
The definition of “Natural Wine” has been annoyingly debated and rehashed to death in newspapers and blogs, including by yours truly, for well over a year now. Since a quick Googling of “natural wine” will yield a week’s worth of nearly-literate reading, I’ll leave the analysis of its finer points to the readers. Instead, I’ll present the following basic definition of natural wine:
1. Wine that expresses first and foremost its terroir, or sense of place.
2. Wine that is made with minimal human intervention beyond that of shepherd, moving the grapes, juice and wine from vine to bottle.
By that definition, the small-production wines of Portugal that I encountered on my trip this past summer were almost all “natural.” Indigenous varietals, dry-farming, hand-harvesting and natural fermentation using wild yeasts was practiced throughout most of the country. Most fermentation and aging is done in concrete, stainless steel or old oak barrels, often very large ones.
(The one exception to these practices is in the southern region of the Alentejo where, as a relatively new wine region, growers are experimenting with international grapes like Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon as well as using new oak barrels. That region’s oppressive heat also virtually requires some degree of irrigation.)
The reason for this “natural-ness” is not steeped in reactionary dogma like in France, where the codified natural wine movement began to emerge in the 1970’s in resistance to modern industrial wine making. As a country that was isolated from the rest of the continent during Europe’s period of rapid post-World War Two modernization, Portugal didn’t have a modern wine making movement to react against since it didn’t have much of a global market to make wine for. Portugal’s natural approach to wine making is based on the reasonable pragmatism of a country that remains the poorest in Western Europe, despite the innovations of the last twenty-five years that have put it nearly on par with its neighbors: being unnatural costs money.
Irrigation costs money. Pesticides cost money. New oak costs money. Yeast inoculation costs money. Replanting vineyards with international varietals costs money. Why would you add any cost to your wine making if you can keep producing a great product without it? The idea of using new oak barrels for every vintage of wine is as decadent to the frugal, efficient wine maker as that 1950’s American ideal of buying a new refrigerator every season. It’s unnecessary, conspicuous and indulgent; you have to have oak to spare and until very recently Portugal didn’t have any oak to spare. Flashy modern wine making flourishes do little to help a well-made wine other than embellish what should already be a flawless product.
Of course that pragmatism does cut both ways, as the wine makers are also not against nudging the fermentation along with a little pitched yeast if the natural yeasts fail to take hold and if the choice needs to be made between losing a crop to powdery mildew and splashing the grapes with a quick does of fungicide, most wine makers will opt to preserve his or her livelihood, knowing that these crisis moments are rare.
And isn’t the purpose of wine maker intervention in natural wine philosophy solely to ferry grape to wine? If so, then crisis intervention is as natural as any wild yeast or 100 year-old Brazilian mahogany barrel. If grapes rot on the vine or juice doesn’t start to ferment then you haven’t even produced a product whose natural merits can be argued about which is the most unnatural thing of all.
Damn, I said I was going to analyze the finer points. Sorry.