Defining Traditional, Modern and Natural Wines

Over my third espresso this morning I read yet another wine writer claim that there isn’t a definition for natural wine.  Sure there is, just as much as there is a clearly defined understanding of traditional and modern wines.  These terms have been around longer and are better understood by critics and consumers.  Since natural wines have become more popular in the marketplace, an acceptance of the premises behind what constitute them has been preempted by a vitriolic conversation as to their worth.  Below are my Monday morning definitions of traditional, modern and natural wines. They seem pretty straightforward and reasonable to me.

Traditional Wines

Wines that are produced using methods which are understood as traditional in a particular growing region.  These methods in the vineyard include, but are not limited to:  grape selection, pruning methods, vine spacing, adherence to yield restrictions, handling of harvested grapes, harvest dates and treatment for disease on the vine and within the soil.  In the winery, methods such as oak treatment, acidification, chaptalization, use of sulfur, yeast selection, fining, filtration and bottling are all practices that a traditional winemaker understands through the lens of the past within that particular wine making region.  These winemakers, though not always relegated to Old World regions, suggest that place is paramount to an international style being cultivated by their more modern-leaning winemaking counterparts.

Modern Wines

Wines that are produced using methods which are understood as modern for a particular growing region.  These methods in the vineyards include, but are not limited to:  selecting grapes that aren’t traditionally used in that region, pruning methods, vine spacing, adherence to yield restrictions, lengthening hang time on the vine, handling of harvested grapes and treatment for disease on the vine and within the soil.  Sounds similar to methods used in traditional winemaking except modern winemakers might be less inclined to be concerned with growing grapes that are deemed traditional in a particular region.  And if they do produce wines from indigenous, traditional grapes, their methods might yield a style that is less analogous with their traditional counterparts.   In the winery, modern winemakers also use oak, acidify, chaptalize, fine, filter, select yeasts and use sulfur, but they also have at their disposal, if they so choose to put into practice, methods such as reverse osmosis, cryoextraction, and hot flashing using devices such as spinning cones, vacuum distillers, thermo-vinifiers and advanced filtration systems.  For the most part, these methods place more value on style than place.  These winemakers are not necessarily situated exclusively in the New World, as many Old World winemakers produce wines meant for the growing market of modern, Old World wines.

Natural Wines

Wines that are produced in using methods that the winemaker feels best captures not only tradition or style, but a sense of place assumed to be inherent in the vineyard, microclimate, soil and winery.  Most natural winemakers would agree that a wine that is produced using less chemicals in the vineyard, acidification, chaptalization, sulfur, egregious amounts of oak, fining, filtration, engineered yeast and other more modern techniques in the winery, the more natural the resulting wine.  That isn’t to say that the winemaker and facility cannot be modern – many are impeccably clean and the guiding hand of the winemaker can be incredibly heavy as more attention must be paid to the entire process – from vineyard to bottle – in order to ensure that the finished wine remains stable and captures what the winemaker feels is it’s sense of place.

There are different shades of grey in all three winemaking camps – at times they even intersect.  Though most wine writers, both professional and amateur, claim that sides must be chosen and a venomous debate must take place in order to prove one side correct over the other.  The claim that natural wines cannot be defined is growing tired and stale.  They are easily defined – we just need to steer clear of the endless cacophony of blabbering bullshit from all sides in the argument concerning their legitimacy and move on.