Subscriber login Close [x]
remember me
You are not logged in.

Soapbox: Natural wine – a murderous funk?

Published:  16 March, 2023

Amphora Cambridge owner Cong Cong Bo takes a low intervention swipe at the faddish addiction to the word ‘natural’ in wine.

Natural’ wine? I prefer mine nurtured. As a woman of science, I appreciate logic and enjoy definitions. You may thus imagine the mental agitation evoked by ‘natural wine’, a term both nebulous and cloudy and, to a large extent, emotive. Why is MSG ‘unnatural’ and universally abhorred in purified form, yet ‘natural’ in Parmesan? If ‘natural’ is characterised by low intervention, at what point does low become medium? When is low-intervention a euphemism for lazy? Intervention in any field develops for a reason and, I would argue, is the basis of civilisation. Indeed, without the arguably unnatural intervention of grafting on to American rootstocks, the wine industry would not exist.

While I condemn the term ‘natural’, I accept that ‘natural wines’ are here to stay, so here is my attempt to structure and critique the topic.

The hallmarks of ‘natural’ wine

In the vineyard:

Organic viticulture

Sustainable practices

Biodynamic practices

Mixed varietal vineyards rather than monoculture, resulting in field blends

Genetic diversity

In the winery:

Low sulphur addition

Minimal use of technologies

Use of ambient rather than cultured yeasts

Skin-contact beyond cold maceration – creating amber/’orange’ wines

Fermentation and ageing in neutral clay/concrete

Minimal processing (fining, filtration, remuage and disgorgement)

At the point of sale:

Clear glass bottles, showing off overtly cloudy liquid within

Crown caps

Obnoxious, hipster, arty-farty labels

Inappropriate glassware – why not just use a pint glass at this point?

The customer:

Young, avante-garde?

Hipster or wannabe

Also enjoys Beaujolais Nouveau


Jesting aside, at my wine shop and bar, Amphora, in Cambridge, I sell many wines that are considered ‘natural’. They share a singular feature: they are clean. I chose them for their complexity, drinkability and elegance, and discovered afterwards that they had many of the above features.

For me, it is vital that wines are clean, because otherwise we may as well head to the pub and drink pints of cloudy cider at a fraction of the price. While I welcome the croissanty, biscuity embrace of autolysis, I reject a mouthful of dead yeast. While a touch of funk adds character and perhaps regional typicality, beyond a small whiff, funk murders the delicate fruit of the aromatic grape, and masks any emergent complexity. It is both a distraction and a soul-sucking dementor that relegates ‘natural wines’ to faddish and short-lived.

Good ‘natural’ wines allow the earth and time to do the work of technology. Take the qvevri wines of Georgia, whose traditional winemaking practices have endured for millennia. The crushed grapes, along with stems, are fermented and aged in buried pointy clay vessels (qvevri). The clay is neutral and permits a micro-oxygenation below that of oak. The earth around the clay acts as a heat sink for ‘natural’ temperature control. The emergent carbon dioxide at ground level creates a protective blanket. The round shape promotes convection currents – a ‘natural’ micro-bâttonnage, and the pointed bottom collects stratified pips, skins, stems and lees, so the wine above is ‘naturally’ clear. I recommend Muza by Askaneli and Rkatsiteli Qvevri 2015 by Chateau Svanidze.

In the highlands of Alentejo, retired prima ballerina João Afonso makes ethereally beautiful field blends of indigenous Portuguese grapes. The vineyards are over 100 years old, translating into a creamy roundness and subtle aromatic complexity that words are woefully inadequate to describe.

Rather than eschewing oak, Joao collects old oak barrels for ageing, and sometimes barrel fermenting. I recommend Cabeças do Reguengo’s Respiro Altitude and Vira Cabeças. If you haven’t tried Fondillón, you must. It is an unfortified Monastrell at 16% abv from Alicante with at least 10 years of age. Long barrel ageing develops sherried aromas of dried fruits and nuts, while evaporative losses to the angels concentrate the wine.

Unlike the crown-capped, skull-labelled Pet Nats of this world, these wines have longevity and meditation value. I will be showcasing these and other wines at my ‘Natural’ But Clean wine tasting at Amphora on Wednesday 22 March (