The January issue of Gambero Rosso, the influential monthly Italian wine journal best known for its annual Tre Bicchieri awards, contains the latest conspicuous salvos in what I believe is the most urgent set of issues in the world of contemporary wine and food – the value and legitimacy of “natural wines.”

What “natural wine” even means is a matter of fierce debate and a controversy where even the terms are being debated.

But most observers agree that the following sub-topics are part of what’s at stake – sulfur dioxide and yeast. There is (usually unlisted) implementation of additives to change taste, color, alcohol and acidity levels. A question arises about whether yeast is used to transform grapes’ sugars to alcohol is native to the grapes or is industrially produced and added to induce fermentation. Or sulfur dioxide as it is added to a wine in order to stabilize it, especially for long-distance transport. Other questions sometimes concern methods and equipment for viniculture, harvesting and vinification, storage and transport.

Of course, any wine considered “natural” is made from grapes farmed without the use of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides, but wines that use such “organically grown grapes” are not necessarily “natural.” Overall process matters more.

Got all that? Well, rest assured that no one does. When you’re on the front lines of a cutting-edge battle, you usually don’t quite know why you’re fighting. An op-ed by Gambero Rosso editor Eleonora Guerini accuses the naturalists of “Luddism,” “denial of technology a priori,” and disregard for quality of the finished wine. Another essay in the same edition by leading French critic Michel Bettane blames “the complicity of numerous sommeliers, wine merchants and irresponsible journalists” for confusing funky, cloudy, unstable or oxidized wines made with minimal intervention with “true terroir.”

Then, a group of hundreds of winemakers who consider themselves, in one way or another, allied with the “natural wine movement” signed an open letter in response to the Gambero Rosso articles. This trenchant missive considers not just many technical details of how a wine is made, but brings into focus the importance of health, digestibility, nutrition, happiness and cultural integrity. Also notably, their response was not printed by Gambero Rosso.

(I was able to follow the various threads of this debate via a post on Jeremy Parzen’s excellent blog, “Do Bianchi” (dobianchi.com/2013/02/18/natural-wine-gambero-rosso), after Parzen found the naturalists’ response published by the Italian blog Intravino.

No matter where you stand on the matter, it’s important to distinguish between “minimal intervention” and “hands-off.” No conscientious winemaker working in a natural way would ever claim that his or her methods are hands-off. In fact, the ones I’ve spoken to make clear that in order to produce wines that work without the safety net of various additives or protectants, one needs to be especially careful, especially diligent and especially hands-on. To live outside the law, so sang The Bard, you must be honest.

The distinction is between guiding the winemaking process, which they and I would argue is humans’ rightful, natural role in the development of a wine, and altering a wine’s destiny by unnecessary interventions.

There’s no such thing as wine unchanged by human agency, despite the attempts by some “anti-naturalists” to set up such a straw man. Wine isn’t just grape juice; it isn’t even just fermented grape juice. It’s an ongoing relationship between earth, fruit, atmosphere and people. My prejudice is that it matters how this relationship is conducted. To try to end the argument by saying, “The only thing that matters is what’s in the glass” is ingenuous, and also pretty boring.

My friend and colleague, Maine wine distributor Ned Swain of Devenish Wines, is a fellow foot soldier in the battle to promote wines that speak of place and nature, but he often knows how to phrase ideas in a less confrontational style than I. In the notes to a trade tasting that introduced the “natural” wines imported by Zev Rovine, Ned wrote, “Natural wines are ‘made with as little farming and winemaking intervention as possible.’ As the movement continues to grow and people understand it better (they) will become more aware of the origins of the wines they drink, ask more questions, and have a better understanding of terroir.”

Regardless of where you stand on this issue, the current discussions can only serve progress. I will continue to explore this subject in upcoming columns with an interview with Rovine, as well as examination in more detail of particular wines.

For now, you can follow the links online, and drink any one or two of the easily procurable wines listed below. I love these for their immediacy, freshness, purity and vitality. There is something so clear, life-affirming and urgent about how they taste that it’s hard for me to accept that the larger debate isn’t worth paying attention to.

Pierre-Marie Chermette Cuvee Traditionelle Beaujolais Vielles Vignes 2011 ($16, Wicked). Relaxed, raspy, exuberant.

Roche Buissiere Petit Jo 2011 ($15, Devenish). Dense, juicy, approachable.

Domaine de Majas Rouge 2010 ($16, Mariner). Rustic, farmy, chewy.

 

Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market. His blog, soulofwine.com, continues the conversation, and he can be reached at: soulofwine.appel@gmail.com