Do you think of wine as a natural product? It is, after all, the fermented juice of fresh grapes, so what could be more natural? Quite a lot, according to the natural wine movement. Natural wine is the latest addition to the green well-spring of organic, biodynamic and sustainable wines. Natural winemakers are the naturists of the wine world. They may not prance naked under a full moon, but they think of themselves as stewards for wines that taste of their location and vintage with no make-up and no clothes beyond the bottle they stand up in.
Natural wine is a reaction against mass market wine from wine's equivalent of the military industrial complex: the big brand. Natural winemakers feel that the pendulum has swung far too far towards technology and science, both in the vineyard with the devil's chemicals and in the cellar with the additions to wine aimed at creating consistency. Unnatural organisms that distort the living personality of wine are their bugbears, the main two being cultured (as distinct from natural) yeasts and sulphur, the all-purpose disinfectant.
The main protagonists of natural wine are the French. They're growers who are co-operative, not competitive, who wear quirky T-shirts and don't own ties or have an advertising budget. In the UK their great champion is Guildford-based Les Caves de Pyrène, an evangelistic merchant which has won awards for getting natural wines on the agenda. Their site, lescaves.co.uk, is well worth a visit for an understanding of what they call "real wine".
The Loire Valley has yielded some of the best natural winemakers. Franz Saumon in Montlouis makes consistently great chenin blanc, with a superb 2009 Minérale Sec + , around £15.99, North & South Wines (020-7228 2431), Whistle Wines, Exeter (01392 421 363) and a superb barrel fermented 2008 Montlouis Sec Clos des Chênes, £28.49, Caves de Pyrène (01483 554750), a dry white with an intensity of pear fruitiness that finishes indelibly fresh. Also from Montlouis, try the late Stéphane Cossais' magnificently appley, mineral Montlouis Sec Le Volagré, £29.99, Oddbins.
The Roussillon is another once-hidden corner that's springing to life as the perfect location for natural wines. The biodynamic producer Olivier Pithon is making great dry whites like his 2008 Cuvée Laïs, around £22.49, slurp.co.uk, Smiling Grape (01480 403100), an exotic blend of macabeu, grenache blanc and gris, with its baked apple flavours. And from the Fenouillèdes, the fennel-scented foothills of the Pyrenees, Tom Lubbe and Sam Harrop produce a superb dry white in the 2007 Domaine Matassa Blanc, Vin de Pays des Côtes Catalanes, £34.49, Caves de Pyrène, smoky with a mineral finish.
The future for natural wine is as predictable as the wines. Unlike organic and biodynamic wine, natural wine has no rulebook, which is a strength, in that lack of definition gives it flexibility. Among disadvantages are high prices and, as California winemaker Paul Draper puts it: "the term 'natural wine' seems to mean different things to different people". A friend of his pointed out how the term natural lost all meaning once the meat industry got hold of it, and he's now "waiting for the large wine producers to render it meaningless in reference to wine". As naturally they will.