Natural Wine: A Japanese Obsession

Japan purportedly consumes a great deal of natural wine.

A few years ago, London's Daily Telegraph suggested that Japanese consumption is around 75 per cent of total volume. While this 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.

Given that Tokyo is responsible for 70 per cent of Japan's total wine consumption of around two-liters per capita annually, one can draw the conclusion that Tokyo is a hotbed of natural wine.

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 non-existent. Most commentators, at the very least, agree that the term implies a minimal interventionist approach to winemaking that is 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, serve 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, detracts from the visceral and wild approach that is 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 non-organic grapes, for example) have been made against some of the strongest natural wine proponents. It is stories like these, spurred by the evangelical tone of the debate, that can make one weary. After all, it is just wine, right? That is like saying football, or cricket, is just a game!

Clearly, stories of the artisan tending small plots of vines, free of pesticides, resonates strongly with most wine drinkers as it should among all people. After all, who would not prefer to avoid wine or food-stuffs 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 proselytizing 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, Bout du Monde and Pierre Overnoy, have an energy and emotional riff that makes me giddy, not to mention great stories to facilitate a love for wine that transcends the pragmatic approach to analysis, as well as sommeliers and their table-side yarns. 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.

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