JAPAN PURPORTEDLY CONSUMES a great deal of natural wine, a buzz term that implies wine that is not messed with too much during its processing, a word that risks sounding heretical to most natural-wine enthusiasts reading this piece.
A few years ago, London's Daily Telegraph suggested that Japanese consumption of French natural wine is around 75 percent of total volume. Given that Tokyo is responsible for 70 percent of Japan's total wine consumption of around 2 litres per capita annually, one can draw the conclusion, therefore, that Tokyo is a hotbed of natural wine, however the term be defined. While The Daily Telegraph report sounds grossly exaggerated, the report rightly suggested that Japanese wine consumers have an obsession with provenance, and wines that communicate their origins with aromas, transparency and textures. This obsession with “place” has been further accentuated by concerns over food safety as China rises, the economy continues to lag and the scars of Fukushima heal.
So what is natural wine? This question has incited debate, occasionally belligerent and even downright vitriolic, across the wine world. In many ways this question is rhetorical because methodological or legal tenets that help us determine what “natural” in wine means are either nebulous or nonexistent. Most commentators, at the very least, agree that the term implies a minimal interventionist approach to winemaking that's founded on organic principles in the vineyard, sometimes fully fledged biodynamics. Judicious producers eschew additions, be they acid additions, cultured yeasts, tannins or enzymes. Inherently, the minimalist ideology that binds these wines also sees gentle extraction and a subtle use of oak, if any oak is used.
Perhaps the very lack of parameters, however, in a sort of twisted logic, serves to shape the myriad of wine styles under the “natural” banner. Attempts to define a freedom of expression that is inextricably bound to natural wines, to shape it and force it into definitions, legal promulgations and stylistic shoeboxes, detract from the visceral and wild approach that's so attractive in the first place. In certain instances, for me at least, this freedom is as attractive, if not more so, than some of the wines in an evaluative and/or qualitative sense.
Some have commented that the “natural” moniker suggests that those wines excluded from the category are, by definition, unnatural. This remains yet another contentious issue in the wine blogosphere and beyond, particularly when accusations of dishonesty and impropriety (using nonorganic grapes, for example) have been made against some of the strongest natural-wine proponents, such as Philippe Pacalet. It's stories like these, spurred by the evangelical tone of the debate, that can make one weary. After all, it's just wine, right? That's like saying football, or cricket, is just a game!
Clearly, stories of the artisan tending small plots of vines, free of pesticides, resonate strongly with most wine drinkers, as they should among all people. After all, who would not prefer to avoid wine or foodstuffs borne from chemicals and manipulation, if possible? Recession and social ills have seen consumers seek solace in foods, wines and even fashion with connections to the land and hearth. This movement is possibly even stronger in Japan following the tragic earthquake, tsunami and nuclear fallout of March 2011, even if many trends that have resulted are aesthetic, rather than statements grounded in a philosophy. Witness the mori fashion, for example, that sees urban Japanese women dressed in Tibetan garb and hiking boots, as if heading off to climb Everest.
Just as we determine what is “real” or “true” to a large extent with our perceptions and beliefs, at an emotional level we can also determine, I suppose, what is “natural”. Despite the proselytising and anger among sanctimonious partisans in both camps, the implications of the natural wine movement are largely positive.
The most compelling wines such as those of Breton, Gramenon, Ganevat, Bout du Monde and Pierre Overnoy, to name but a few producers, have an energy and emotional riff that makes me giddy, not to mention great stories to facilitate a love for wine that transcends the overly pragmatic approach to analysis, dissection and the repetitive table-side yarns of many sommeliers.
Conversely, the least savoury natural wines are amuck with excessive volatility, brettanomyces and other spoilage microbes. Of course, there are poor wines in both camps, but the tsunami of rubbish masquerading as natural wine gives reason for concern. Nevertheless, I love wine because of its deliciousness and drinkability; because it takes me somewhere in my mind's eye that, without a glass in hand, fails to resonate with quite the same lucidity and beauty. After all, wine is often much more than a liquid to be broken down into balance, length and complexity – just as football or cricket are much more than mere games.