Often, we think of wine as something natural--straight from the soil and vines. Wine is certainly more “natural” than soda or sugary juice, but it’s surprising to learn how many chemicals can be a part of the conventional winemaking process.
Compare this to the latest “hot” trend in wines, namely, natural wines. Often referred to as the “natural wine movement,” this sounds like an emerging revolution. You may be surprised to learn that that natural wine movement has been around since the 1980s, though with a much smaller band of proponents and supporters back then than today. It started in France in the vineyards of the Loire Valley, where a few winemakers were disillusioned by what they saw as an increase in industrialized, overly mechanized and homogenized wines of that period and their desire to make more rustic wines.
Now popular in restaurants in France, Italy and Brooklyn, the natural wine movement has gone from fringe to more visible over the last several years. In fact, American consumers are enjoying this new trend and are part of a “natural wine cult” patronizing shops, bars and restaurants around the U.S. that carry these wines. Some sommeliers I know are part of the movement--and some others believe that, at a minimum--their advocacy and fervor really is much more like a movement than a lifestyle trend.
There’s no official or legal definition of natural wine; neither has any legislation been passed to date by any regional, national, or international regulatory body or authority, and there are no organizations that can certify that a wine is natural. However, there are many unofficial definitions or codes of practice published by the different associations of natural wine producers in France, Italy, Germany, and Spain.
What we call natural wines are wines made with the least possible use of chemicals, additives, and overly technological procedures. Nothing is added or subtracted in the cellar--no additives, no chemicals, no sulfur, no oak character from barrels, no filtering, no cultured yeasts. The grapes are normally grown organically or biodynamically and are picked by hand and fermented with natural yeast. Sometimes a very small amount of sulfur is added.
Isabelle Legeron MW, founder of RAW WINE, the annual natural wine fair in London and author of the book, Natural Wine: An Introduction to Organic and Biodynamic Wines Made Naturally, has written that, “When wine was first made 8,000 years ago, it was not made using packets of yeasts, vitamins, enzymes, Mega Purple, reverse osmosis, cryoextraction or powdered tannins--some of the many additives and processes used in winemaking worldwide. The wines of these bygone days were natural: they were made from crushed grapes that fermented into wine.” The London RAW WINE festival--now with a counterpart in New York--was created to promote small, artisan wine producers who make fine wine using natural farming techniques (including organic and biodynamic practices) and low-intervention vinification processes. Ideally nothing is added at all but--at most--there might be a dash of SO2 at bottling. A handful of farmers manage to produce great wines without adding any SO2 at all.”
So, what distinguishes natural wines from organic and biodynamic wines? Organic and biodynamic certification rules are primarily concerned with regulating the use of synthetic chemicals in the vineyard, rather than additives in the winery. For example, Biodynamic certification allows commercial yeast strains to be added to wines to kickstart fermentation in the winery. This is not acceptable to natural winemakers who believe that all the components necessary to start and complete fermentation and give balance and complexity to a wine must come from the vineyard alone.
So, what about the taste of natural wines? While a number of sommeliers are excited by these wines, others say natural wine vintners are lazy and use natural wine as an excuse for inconsistent, faulty wine. The hands-off approach can yield inconsistent, volatile results. For consumers, however, the reaction to natural wines has been much more mixed. Natural wines don’t look or taste like traditional wines. Some consumers describe the taste as more like sour beer or kombucha.
Some natural wines are delicious, and some taste peculiar. Some can be exciting, but typically unpredictable. Natural wines can be mystifying: The first time you drink them, they may be off-putting. The whites and roses can be darker than usual, a little fizzy, cloudy or with clumps of yeast floating in the glass. They're often rough, which some people find charming. Others think they're unsophisticated. Funky is the word used most often to describe natural wine, referring to the barnyard smell of the yeast Brettanomyces, or “Brett,” which can be pleasantly earthy in small doses. I’ve heard the wines described as tangy, cloudy, yeasty or that they taste more like cider than wine.
When I have tasted natural wine, the wine looks cloudy and sometimes tastes oxidized, which is not a surprise to natural wine enthusiasts. My first impression is often that I cannot distinguish its origins, which can be disappointing since natural wine is purported to be a perfect reflection of its place, its terroir; wines that are true to where they come from--that have an authenticity of taste that supposedly most wines today have lost.
Natural, unfiltered wines are still alive and can exhibit yeasty, microbial action. Some people find it fun to observe these changes in the glass. I don’t!
Yet I am very excited about a trend that brings more consumers to admire and enjoy organic and biodynamic wines. There’s no doubt natural wines are produced in ways that conserve our natural environment and beautiful landscapes and are much healthier for workers who avoid exposure to harmful chemical herbicides and pesticides.
Because of the high-risk nature of making wines without intervention, and labor-intensive techniques, natural wine is often made in very small quantities. Here a few that I do like and recommend you try:
Oregon’s Swick Wines
No-sulfur Willamette Valley Pinot Noir and Rosé; Columbia Gorge Pinot Gris
2018 Testalonga Baby Bandito Stay Brave Chenin
Swartland region of South Africa. Orange wine, unfined and only lightly filtered
2015 Vigneau-Chevreau Silex
Vouvray, France. The typical funky nose that blows off to reveal lemons, minerals, and exciting acidity
2014 Vigneto Saetti Rosato dell’ Emilia
Emilia-Romagna, Italy; 12%. True Lambrusco: A fruity, frizzante rosé from old-vine organic vineyards. Fermentation is finished in bottle, with no added sulfur
2014 Mencía, "Fusco," Ribeira Sacra DO, Bodegas Albamer
Galicia, Spain, red wine, made from the mencía grape, fermented in stainless steel with ambient, or native, yeasts; flavors of sour cherries and plums, enriched by notes of sage, bay leaf and clove
2014 Shhobbrook Tommy Ruff
Barossa Valley, Australia; 13.5%. A tantalizing Shiraz-Mourvedre blend made with whole-cluster fermentation
I’m sure you’ll discover many more to taste in your local wine shop….