The False Promise of Natural Wines

The wine community is as trendy as any other, and an article about the latest craze among New York sommeliers, or perhaps a mention from Oprah or Gwyneth, often sends the trend-seekers off searching for the latest “ultimate” wine experience. Sometimes it’s a good thing, exposing wine lovers to the very real charms of Gruner Veltliner or Assyrtiko, but sometimes it just leads to disappointment.

The latest notion to get this treatment is “natural” wine, not only organic, biodynamic and all those other good things, but it is also sans added sulphur. Isn’t that how Bacchus intended it to be? Unfortunately not, and apart from the novelty factor and the breathless acclaim of those swept up in the movement, it is a dead end.

But how could we be against natural wines, free from manipulation and who knows what evil industrial processes and chemicals, especially since it is our sworn mission to bring you the finest wines the world has to offer? While we applaud winemakers who keep their interventions to the absolute minimum, allowing the grapes, the ground, and the season to express themselves most fully, the fact is that without a small dose of sulphur at bottling time to control unwanted microbes, it’s a biological wild west under that cork. The result is wildly unpredictable and very often there is more than “an interesting funky note” in the glass.

Unfortunately, sulphur most often gets the blame when someone gets a headache from wine, as most people don’t realize that when you ferment something, you create more than ethanol; minute amounts hundreds of chemical compounds are created and you can react to any one of them if you are sensitive to it. Even the Romans, who were very serious ancient imbibers knew it was a good idea to drop a little sulphur in the amphora before they sealed it in order to prevent runaway bacterial growth.

We do carry a couple of natural wines for those who want to try it or for those who feel it is their only alternative, but be prepared for a very different, and highly variable, experience.

Jeff Sparling is the general manager of Fine Wines by Liquor Select and a wine and scotch enthusiast.

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