Deliciously Unnatural WineToday, most wine is more delicious than it has ever been in the long history of its existence, which dates back to the Garden of Eden. We can thank our own ingenuity for the improvement. Over millennia, we have learned how to choose and cultivate the best grapes, to guide the fermentation process so that the results are consistently good, and to stabilize wine in bottles for multiple years so that it can be transported throughout the world like any other commodity. As little as one hundred years ago, it was a local product, like bread.

But some winemakers are wondering if wine hasn’t become overly delicious in the last dozen years and are making what they call “natural wine” without defining the term. Probably, they don’t want to publicly disparage methods that have made wine popular throughout the world among people who have no cultural relationship to it. The emerging markets are not just in far away places like China. They might be at home. Most of us will agree that wine is an acquired taste because we remember when we didn’t like it. Wine consumption may be increasing in the U.S., but it is falling in Europe for various reasons. In Italy for example, the continuous work day has reduced two meals at home to one. Even Italians don’t tend to drink wine during a quick lunch before returning to the office. So Italian winemakers are courting their own population, hoping to increase consumption in the same way that they are courting Chinese, Laotian, and American markets. How do they increase appeal for their product? By making it sweeter. At 12.5% alcohol, wine can be acidic and tannic, but at 14.5%, it’s fruity and smooth. But the problem with Italian grapes, some say, is that they tend to be delicate. Regardless of weather, most Italian grapes won’t ripen to sugar levels that would translate to more than 13.5% alcohol without the skins popping. The remedy is to add sugar to the fermentation, which Europeans have often done during cool seasons when they couldn’t ripen their grapes sufficiently. Now many add it to make the wine smoother, increasing alcohol to levels that nature couldn’t produce even during the best vintages.

Here at home, Americans love sweetness in many forms, including wine. California wines tend to be some of the sweetest tasting wines in the world with the highest alcohol levels whether because of warm weather or added sugar. Today, most California reds are at least 14% alcohol, and Zinfandel can easily reach 16%. When winemakers allow fruit to ripen to high sugar levels, it lacks acid, which is an important preservative. So most California winemakers add acid to their wines. But in the absence of natural acidity, they also need to use more sulfur, another important preservative. And since ripeness diminishes tannin, winemakers need to add that too. If alcohol levels get too high, they might have to add water to the wine to diminish alcohol content, or they might resort to technology and reduce alcohol by spinning some of it out of solution. Another item that can influence sugar conversion to alcohol is yeast. At one time, winemakers fermented wine with natural yeasts in the vineyard. Today they have access to yeast catalogues that are as thick as dictionaries. Various yeasts will contribute different flavors to wines, will speed up fermentation, and will ferment varying amounts of sugar into alcohol. So yeast, too, becomes a winemaking tool. The list goes on and might include gum Arabic or Mega Purple.

So when winemakers begin to talk about “natural wine,” they seem to be saying that the pendulum has swung too far. The effort to create mass appeal has led to excesses that they want to reign in because that effort is heavily distorting what the grape produces, throwing wine out of balance so that it requires a major amount of manipulation. Some talk about diminishing the use of sulfur. Others talk about fermenting only with native yeast from the vineyard. Still others pick the fruit earlier at lower sugar levels to avoid high alcohol wines that require so much intervention. In other words, if wine is an acquired taste because it is slightly sour, slightly acidic, and slightly tannic, then so be it. In the presence of food, these qualities are all reduced and refresh the palate, unlike soda pop or fruit juice. When we want sweet sensations, we can drink cocktails. These are the issues that winemakers imply when they talk about “natural wine,” a descriptor that is appearing more often in the wine press, often in a derogatory form because wine writers are unaware or unwilling to explain the problem.

We know from the ancient Romans that wine didn’t taste predictably good although they happily ignored the flavor to enjoy the buzz. Later during the Middle Ages, they drank wine to hydrate so that they could avoid tainted water. No one is advocating “natural wine” on the level that it existed then. But pushing alcohol levels up and then compensating with additives and processing is creating problems for winemakers and consumers alike, some of whom dislike heavy flavors that compete with food, others who would like to enjoy a couple of glasses during a meal without provoking a headache the next day, and still others who don’t want to flash the strong arm of the law after leaving a restaurant. So keep your eyes on the pendulum. It’s swinging. Soon we’ll have the choice to consume lighter, “natural” wines if we prefer.