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10.19.2005

What is an Authentic Wine?

My fellow wine blogger Huge Johnson has got a lovely post this week about so-called "authentic" wines. For those of you who may not be up on the jargon, authentic is increasingly being used hand in hand with "natural" to describe a supposedly unique class of wines -- usually those made with biodynamic processes, in small quantities, using traditional techniques.

Johnson (whom I love for his ability to do just this) properly and deftly skewers the whole idea. Natural wine, he says? No such thing. Left to nature we would have vinegar every time. Wine, is by definition, unnatural -- an intervention made by man in a natural process to yield something that we purposefully craft to our taste.

So what is natural then, or authentic, when it comes to wine? According to Johnson, and I'm likely to agree with him, nothing. You can't build a solid definition on a foundation made of cards. Any claim to "authenticity" or "naturalism" is just a subjective designation. Otherwise known as Marketing.

Now this isn't to say that there aren't virtues of small production wines, made by hand, with lovely expressions of terroir -- anyone who is a regular reader will know that I think these wines are often the best wines. It's also true that large industrialized wine production often strips a wine of these characteristics and qualities. But using the word "natural" or "authentic" to describe the former as a way of distinguishing it from the latter doesn't make any sense.

See what Mr. Johnson has to say about it.

Comments (29)

maggie wrote:
10.19.05 at 2:00 PM

I cringe and concur with the verbage being marketing. But I agree with the sentiment behind the marketing. So how would you do it?

How do you tell people you've manipulated the wine as little as possible? ...Could you say "unmolested by the likes of oak or reverse osmosis?" "Manipulated by man, not machine?" Deus ex Natura?"

This is a job for Randall Grahm, me thinks.

10.19.05 at 2:54 PM

I think further deconstruction is needed. There can be no wine without the interference of humans? Interrupting a natural process at the stage of wine? Hm. What if, because it smells good at the wine stage, someone merely drinks it? Is that interfering, or just drinking? Can it be wine if it's not drunk? I think one person's thinking can be just as fuzzy as another's. Let's all keep trying.

HugeJ wrote:
10.20.05 at 11:29 AM

Alder - As always, thanks for the props. This whole 'Authentic' wine campaign just rubs me the wrong way....

For example, is it okay to take a wine, strip it apart, concentrate its alcohol and selectively remove flavor to concentrate its spirit, then use that fractionated component to stop the fermentation process of another wine, simultaneously increasing its alcoholic strength in a totally unnatural way?

Sounds like the fears of the "authentic wine movement" come to life? Not really, we call it vintage "Port" from Portugal. (credit to Gourmet Traveller Wine for the above)

/Huge

Ben wrote:
10.20.05 at 10:55 PM

I suppose you can fault marketing and advertising for pretty much everything they do, but that doesn't mean that an attempt to keep chemicals and manipulative agents out of wine is a bunch of bull. Maybe tricked out wine is the next vintage port, who knows, but I wouldn't say that all of those who are experimenting with "natural" techniques are doing so just to market their wine. To me, it's a term that points to a philosophy of wine-growing and making ... that is being abused by marketing.

Meanwhile: I think "Chardonnay" is just another clever marketing device.

Alder wrote:
10.20.05 at 11:07 PM

Ben,

Thanks for the comment. I didn't mean to imply that the term is JUST a marketing term, nor that the use of it was for marketing purposes. Certainly it is used by people who are taking a specific approach to their winemaking because of a philosophical orientation towards how good wine is made, etc. I agree with the philosophy AND the approach as far as I understand them. I just happen to think that the term "Natural" or "Authentic" is ridiculous as a description (or even worse an industry accepted category) for wine. It implies that wines without that moniker are somehow not natural or not authentic, which is bullshit.

I'd prefer if people used words like "artisan," "hand crafted," or even "non-industrial." They're much more accurate.

Ben wrote:
10.21.05 at 7:38 AM

Yeah, I guess the implication that others are not authentic is unfair, but then we get back to Maggie's question of what do we call the wines that are striving for something different. To me "artisan" has slightly different implications.

I agree that "authentic" is a stupid term, but I don't have a problem with "natural." I find that any of these catch phrases can be overused, so if you really care you have to do a little research into whatever product you are buying.

Needless to say, if I see a bottle of wine that has the words "natural" or "authentic" stamped on the front, I am going to be assume there is a little too much money being spent on the marketing.

10.21.05 at 2:13 PM

I find this whole thread perplexing and a bit suspect. Of whom, exactly, do we speak, and how, precisely were these words natural and authentic used? This seems like one of those straw man deals, so far.
I believe there is a reaction to the dominance in the market of particular styles, to the extent that other styles seem to get crowded out in a way that's reminiscent of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and there is a lament for what may have been lost in the process. Killing the messenger doesn't seem quite the appropriate response.

caveman wrote:
10.22.05 at 7:57 PM

I am coming in on this one a bit late, but i think from what i know of the 'vin de nature' movement is essentially an attempt to make a wine which most authentically represents both the milliseme that it was made as well as the terroir from where it was grown. Time and place, that is what is important here. On a more technical level (cuz i know that huge hates the touchy feely stuff), that means indigenous yeasts, no enzymes and other non-interventions which would remove the wine from said time and place. If we go further, many of these winemakers make an effort to use indigenous grapes of the region as opposed to the cabs, chards, syrahs and merlots that seem to pack our shelves.
caveman

Richard West wrote:
10.24.05 at 12:49 PM

Interesting how we techno language the process of producing a designed food with a need to reduce it to its lowest common denominator; the grape juice itself. I do however enjoy the occasional Caymus Cabernet unfiltered wine experience or the Newton Unfiltered Chardonnay 1995 or St. Francis Merlot 1995 Unfiltered. Filtering a wine can remove flavor as can fining it with bentonite, (clay). Most winemakers traditionally argue that this practice is necessary if the finished wine is going to be crystal clear and free from bacteria that could turn it to vinegar. Wine generally contains the following three items only; the grape itself, yeast, and sulfites, which are added during the fermentation process...
Every wine is different and no uniform formula exists for producing wine. The taste of a wine is a reflection of where its grapes were grown. I have always said that wineries don’t make great wines; GOD does. The soil gives the wine its flavor, which is why wines produced in certain areas have a distinctive flavor and consistently rate high year after year. Winemakers may choose not to extensively process their wine in order to retain some of these natural qualities.

A clarifying or fining agent makes wine clear by removing proteins from the wine. The agents eventually settle out of the wine. Different proteins serve as clarifying agents depending upon both the type of wine and the desired flavor. The winery lab trials determine both the clarifying agent and quantities to be used. The fining agents have an opposite polarity to that of the wine. Therefore, the agents solidify with the protein and they remain in the wine, although they can be removed.

Some clarifiers are animal-based products, while others are earth-based. Common animal-based agents include egg whites, milk, casein, gelatin, and isinglass. Gelatin is an animal protein derived from the skin and connective tissue of pigs and cows. Isinglass is prepared from the bladder of the sturgeon fish. Bentonite, a clay earth product, serves as a popular fining agent.

Many quality conscious new-wave small producers, however, are now cutting back on extensive fining and/or filtering. Look for those wines.

HugeJ wrote:
10.24.05 at 1:57 PM

You want an example, then? Here's one from Eric Asimov of the NYT "Bonny Doon is not above winery manipulations, but somehow its leader, Randall Grahm, manages to produce honest wines".

From that, I infer that Asmiov believes that "manipulations" beyond a certain point are bad (what point I do not know as he certainly doesn't like to drink vinegar) and that "honest" wines are those with less manipulation. To me, this goes right with the whole "natural/authentic" wine concept, which as I've pointed out, is bogus.

The distinction, I believe, is one of technology. Its "okay" to use oak aging, commercially-produced yeasts, chaptalization, etc. because these have been used before. New technology, like micro-ox, oak staves, reverse osmosis, etc. is frowned upon because traditionalists like to view wine within its historical context. Unfortunately, they tend to be somewhat arbitrary about where, within its context, they choose to place it. No doubt my grandchildren will have no issue with the use of 2005's technology.

/Huge

Alder wrote:
10.24.05 at 4:32 PM

Steve,

Here are some examples:

1. A tasting of "natural wines" made by producers such as Sébastien Riffault who are billed as "natural" winemakers. http://www.localwineevents.com/New-York-City-Wine/event-63111.html

2. A store in NY dedicated to selling "Authentic" and "Natural" wines http://www.newyorkmetro.com/nymetro/food/features/14268/

3. An article in the NY times / International Herald tribune discussion several "natural" wine producers

http://www.iht.com/articles/2005/09/22/travel/trside23.php

"Most, if not all, of the above producers make 'natural' wine. Richaud, for example, uses indigenous yeasts rather than adding industrial yeasts to start fermentation; he never chaptalizes or adds acid, and he does not filter his wines."

4. The book "Real Wine: the rediscovery of natural winemaking" by Patrick Matthews (as reviewed by Jamie Goode).

http://www.wineanorak.com/bookshop/amatthews.htm

"In essence, this book addresses the question of how to go about making a 'real wine'. This provides a thread of continuity that ties together each of the chapters. These embrace some of the most contentious yet vital issues surrounding wine today, including site selection, planting the vines, organic and biodynamic viticulture, choice of grape variety, wine making techniques, what constitutes a wine fault, and making money. Finally, there's a fun but rather quirky appendix aimed at helping interested readers to actually make 'real wines' themselves."

10.24.05 at 9:39 PM


Thanks, Alder; I wish some more explicit reference had been made by Huge Johnson. It seems important to me that there seems to be a longing among a significant number of people for wines (and other products) that aren't so market-driven, that are more the result of the simplest kind of agriculture and attentiveness ( a form of intervention, isn't it?), and less an idea of creating something to appeal to the lowest common denominator. To respond in a way that implies that such a longing is invalid is a great way to kill an important conversation, in a way that looks to me like grandstanding.
Maybe what we need is more real conversations.

Ben wrote:
10.25.05 at 8:20 AM

I agree with Steve. Alder, I think you're doing fine in supporting your ideas, but Hugh is not only reducing a complex situation to a few opinions, he is also assuming that since he has expressed his opinions, we all take them as fact.

"To me, this goes right with the whole "natural/authentic" wine concept, which as I've pointed out, is bogus."

Yes, Hugh, you have pointed out that you think it is bogus. My question is whether you think the entire natural foods/prodcuts movement is bogus. Obviously the marketeers have jumped on the organic bandwagon, but does that make the production of organic peaches a pointless exercise?

caveman wrote:
10.25.05 at 5:48 PM

This is not about marketing nor is this about wether or not one believe in biodynamics. Huge, dude, we aren't all complete boneheads. Nobody denies that wine is a human construct, in fact, it is one of our nicer achievements. Way to go humanoids. The question with respect to the 'vin nature' movement started by Lapierre, Puzelat et all is to limit those human interventions which remove a wine from it's milliseme and it's terroir. For example, many serious winemakers (like spotswoode i just found out) are letting the indigenous yeasts do their job cuz as you know that is one of the components in winemaking which we can use to alter the final porduct in a dramatic fashion...unnatural if you like. Again , I repeat.. it is simply being faithful to the terroir and the millisème.. This is not about a disdain for technology, in fact, processes like micro-ox help many a producer in places lie madiran and cahors produce softer, easier wines.. but i digress.
See ya,
caveman

Iris wrote:
10.28.05 at 5:42 AM

Thanks Steven and Caveman, for giving your opinion, and Alder for giving some other sources. I must say that Huge Johnson's "bogus" statement seems to me a rather "short cut" opinion - probably voluntarily provocative - and that I appreciated his whole article about the question, which put it into the context of industrialisation versus "artisanat" (I don't know the right English word, is it "handcraft?") more than the isolated citation.

But if you look at a link like

http://www.vitisphere.com/stand_produit-2445.htm

which shows just a selection of what is proposed (and used) largely, to "improve" wines, you can see, that it's not simply a contest between filtered and unfiltered wines.

The link is a French one, but I'm sure you can find easily equivalents in the USA or elsewhere.

Aidan Maconachy wrote:
10.28.05 at 6:27 PM

Sounds as though new-age and eco terminology is threatening to crash the world-of-wine.

I agree that the wine making process is anything but natural. However, I have heard the N term used for so-called "organic" wine made with unsprayed grape. I tried an overly priced bottle of this elixir and was disappointed. It tasted like an above average home brewed concoction. Clearly I was paying for the little word that makes the cash registers go ching ...

"organic".

Iris wrote:
10.29.05 at 2:26 AM

Just a hint: "organic" only refers to the way, the grapes are grown - at least in France, we don't have a regulation for "biological vinification" yet - just some rules, winemakers should respect, but the label "bio" refers only to the grapes, not the wine.

And you can be sure that the average home brewed concoction is made by using artificial yeasts - just have a look on "home brewing" internet pages :-)))

But it is surely regrettable that your only experience was disappointing - I hope it was not a biodynamiquely grown Romanée Conti ou Coulé de Serrant!

Ben wrote:
10.29.05 at 8:17 AM

Hey Iris,

Have you heard of the Alsatian producer Ehrhart? I believe they are pretty clean in their vineyard and cellar practices. Yummy, too.

Iris wrote:
10.29.05 at 11:08 AM

No, there are so many good Alsatian producers, that I don't know all of them - we only had the oportunity to visit Seppi Landmann, Pierre Frick and Bruno (Gerard) Schuller, when we went to Alsace some years ago. The last two are very "clean" in wineyard and cellar work and produce ecellent wines (Pinot Noir and Riesling) from grand cru fields.

There are also Zind-Humbrecht, Deiss, Kreydenweiss, Josmeier (biodynamiqually working) and some more. When I looked on google, I only found english entries for Ehrhart, André, nothing about his wines in French - but there are also a Henri and a Christoph Ehrhart around there, so difficult to judge for me, without knowing the wines and without finding more details...

Aidan Maconachy wrote:
10.29.05 at 1:17 PM

Iris - the term "organic" in the N. America refers explicitly to wine made from grapes free of chemical residue, not simply the manner in which the grapes are grown. Here is a quotation from the Organic Wine Company :

"All of the wines are Earth-friendly, made in partnership with nature with certified organic grapes. They are free of pesticides, herbicides, chemical fertilizers and other synthetic chemicals, and essential natural preservatives are kept to a minimum."

Aidan Maconachy wrote:
10.29.05 at 1:20 PM

The irony is that despite the chemical-free grape used these organic producers, the wine was mediocre. At least the the few bottles I have sampled.

caveman wrote:
10.29.05 at 2:03 PM

For you Alsace freaks, remember the queens of bio-d, the ladies at Weinbach... Of course growing your grapes does not immediately mean that you make better wine. I do find however that because organic and bio-d agriculture requires being a little more attentive to what happens out in the fields that wines are generally riper and the wines better( in France specifically). But remember Huges and Alders posts.. we are taking about the vin nature movement which concentrates on what happens during the vinification process.. an again this is no indication of quality, just a process which they believe assures that the final product will represent the terroir and the milissème in the most faithful way possible.
Caveman

db wrote:
10.30.05 at 7:05 AM

In my personal experience, I've found most of the wines I've had that extensively market their organic nature to be rather subpar. However, I've had several wines that I believe are some of the best representations of their kind to only later find out the wineries practice organic viticulture/viniculture.
As such, I feel there are really two issues being raised here (perhaps among several others): Can organic practices (regardless of the size of its 'ecological footprint') produce better wine (i understand the relativity of this statement, I suppose I should say commonly accepted better wine) & if so, is it directly because of organic principles or increased care at different steps along the process? And, are wines that are overtly marketed as organic naturally inferior with respect to QPR to similar wines due to some 'organic premium' people will pay in the marketplace?
I will also say, how organic/BioD can many of these producers that claim it in regions like Burgundy & Alsace truly be when, due to the fractionization of vineyards, they may not be spraying herbacide, etc. though their neighbors on all sides are? I've heard of a few examples of some small hamlets in Alsace where the entire village goes BioD though I'm sure this is much rarer than the former.

Aidan Maconachy wrote:
10.30.05 at 8:29 AM

Interesting points db.

I'm curious to know what measures are taken, if any, to cleanse grape that has been exposed to herbacide and other chemicals. In the case of store bought commmercial vegetables, it is possible to cut down on any contaminants present by washing produce prior to cooking (at least according to "the experts").

I've always wanted to know how extensively grape is treated after being picked, but the information on this seems difficult to come by.

Iris wrote:
11.01.05 at 12:54 AM

Aidan,

You will often hear or read about "trié" after harvest, which means the grapes are controlled one by one (on a rolling table) when coming into the cellar, to sort out all the eventually rotten ones, which haven’t been "trié" (picked out) on the wines already. But I've never heard of somebody washing his grapes mend for wine - or dry-clean them:-)))

The only cleaning is natural: if there is sufficient rain between the last treatments in the wines and the harvest - and this can't be controlled and as a winemaker I can tell you, that we are all lucky, if it doesn't rain during the last period before the grape picking, because we don't like to work with watered grapes - even if it may increase the "volume".

For me, another important argument against "washing" grapes would be the fact, that I count on the natural (indigene) yeasts of the grapes (which are specific for the terroir as well) to start fermentation, to "make" the wine. And they are principally on the skins, so wash them away would mean to be obliged to add artificial ones... as you probably also have to do, if too many chemical treatments in the wines inhibit the natural ones.

There are also yeasts everywhere in the cellar, all the time, but they are not always the best ones.

So I would go on to wash table grapes, if I don't know where they come from, like salads, but never try it on my grapes for the wine. That's why it is so important to be "clean" the whole way long...

Aidan Maconachy wrote:
11.01.05 at 1:46 PM

Thanks Iris - very interesting post.

cru wrote:
06.21.06 at 12:31 AM

why anyone would be hostile or disdain for the term natural wine boggles the mind.

Natural winemaker: Indiginous yeast

Traditional: yeast 44k312 (blueberry flavored)

Natural Winemaker: No preservatives

Traditonal: Sulpher

what's the problem here?

Alder wrote:
06.21.06 at 8:59 AM

"cru"

Thanks for your comments. It really shouldn't be that confusing why some of us object to the term "natural wine." At best it's a horribly unspecific, often misleading term that perpetuatues misunderstanding about wine.

The dichotomies you present below are only two tiny parts of the winemaking process. While it may seem straightforward to you to proclaim that natural wines use indigenous yeasts and no sulpher, there are many other variables which you have not addressed (and which NO ONE has really addressed in any formal way in the marketplace).

Would the wine still be a Natural Wine if any one of the following was ALSO done in the winemaking process:

Saignee (bleeding off of excess juice -- to concentrate the wine)
Watering down (to reduce final alcohol level)
Mechanical destemming
Hand destemming
Use of a centrifuge to eliminate some of the alcohol
Using oak chips or staves in the barrel
Use of temperature controlled steel tanks
Mechanical pumping over
Fining with bentonite
Fining with egg whites
Filtering
Micro-oxygenation
Using mixed-stave barrels
Acidulation (adding acid)
Adding sugar
Blending in wine from past vintages

While you personally may have very difinitive answers to all of the above, the world, and the industry, do not. At the moment, Natural wine is just an arbitrary term that is used by people who espouse a certain philosophy of winemaking (which I happen to agree with, by the way) to label their wines.

I think that if someone is going to create a "category" of wines, or even a "school" of winemaking, that it needs to be clearly defined, and have a name that actually means something. Natural is a very unfortunate and very misleading word choice that says more about the agenda of the people who selected it than the final product.

Michael Zenn wrote:
11.10.12 at 9:42 AM

This is a circular argument. By this definition virtually nothing is natural. This is a classic circular argument: since nothing is natural, nothing is more natural or better than anything else. People use this to argument to smooth over quality differences in many categories of products but it's a silly argument to make.

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