Wine book reviews
Naked wine: letting grapes do what comes naturally

By Alice Feiring (Da Capo, 2011)

One of the most important wine books in recent years, this is Alice Feiring's narrative of her quest to explore the roots of natural wine—and to make some of her own, too.

Natural wine is a hot topic of late. The use of the term ‘natural’ creates a great deal of controversy in wine circles. Some would argue that all wines are natural, and that it is not for one movement to claim the title, to the possible detriment of others who are therefore badged unnatural by implication.

Another source of controversy is the fact that there’s no strict definition of natural wine. For some it means wines with nothing at all added, while others still claim to be working naturally even though they add some sulfur dioxide.

In addition, opponents of natural wines cast the whole movement as a fad, with hipster wine bars pushing faulty wines on the gullible public. This polarising stance makes for some interesting discussions between the faithful and the non-believers.

In reality, there is no ‘natural wine’ movement as such. It’s a loose alliance—a club, if you will—of like minded growers. And from my perspective, this niche assemblage of growers are making some of the most interesting and compelling wines of all. It’s for this reason I was eagerly waiting my advance copy of Alice’s book.

It was worth the wait. This is a very personal book, written in Alice’s disclosing and witty style, telling the story of her search for the roots of the modern natural wine movement. She captures some of the life, edginess and imprecision of natural wine through her encounters with many of the key figures in the scene.

This is not a scientific textbook, but it does begin to grapple with some of the challenges of making wine in as natural a way as possible. In particular, I enjoyed the focus on the popular technique among natural wine growers of low-temperature carbonic maceration, and how—if misapplied—it can make wines taste less of the terroir and more of the winemaking technique.  

It’s also fun to learn of Alice’s attempts to make her own wine, her way—a rather frustrating project, it seems, although it met with a measure of success. There’s a real honesty in the telling of this tale that is quite compelling.

In fact, I much prefer this to her last book, which I felt focused too strongly on what Alice doesn’t like about the modern world of wine. Since then, she seems to have processed some of this anger, and Naked Wine is much more positive in outlook, with Alice telling us about what she likes—and making a strong case for the virtues of natural wine.

The triumph of the book is the chapter in which she finally gets to meet Jacques Néauport, an elusive figure who has acted as a mentor to many of the current crop of natural wine producers. It’s beautifully told, and, like the rest of the book, draws the reader in.

Those looking for straight answers to questions such as ‘what is the definition of natural wine?’ may find this book disappointing, but I didn’t. It accurately reflects the way that there isn’t actually a natural wine movement as such—just a coming together of wine growers, who for one reason or another are finding that taking a more natural approach to winegrowing is resulting in more compelling, and, in some cases utterly spellbinding wines.      

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