As organic wines become a common option on restaurant wine lists and bottle shops, natural wines are also becoming more prevalent. So what truly makes a wine “natural” and what distinguishes it from organic selections?
While organic wine has definitions that differ from country to country, they are at the least, legally outlined. The term “natural” wine does not have any concrete definition. In fact, you may receive a different answer each time you ask a winemaker or merchant what a natural wine truly is.
According to my dear friend Summer Wolff, Founder & European Portfolio Manager of Indie Wineries, based in Italy, “Wine is art. Wine is subjective… and hence we cannot attach these strict parameters that everyone continues to define.” Summer, like us, is extremely passionate about her craft. After all, without passion behind your work, why do it?
Each individual’s passion is the driving force behind natural wine. “The natural wine movement is a philosophy and a way of thinking and a way of farming. So we can say, for these [her portfolio’s] producers, a way of life,” says Summer.
Summer’s wine is distributed by a great company called The Wine Bros. Steve Wynn, Founder & Partner, offers more insight on what natural wine is: “Natural wine lets the earth & climate do the work. It’s back to grassroots. It is back to the notion of picking the grapes & letting their natural yeasts do their work. A truly natural winemaker must be a brave soul.” (Check out JC Garnier “Bezigon” Chenin Blanc at Grapes & Grains, it’s as natural as they come.)
Simply put, grapes and yeast should be the only two ingredients of natural wine. Yeast can be cultured; there are thousands of different strains that will create their own unique flavors and fermentation length. Yeast is a living organism that feeds on grape sugar to create three byproducts: heat, Co2 and alcohol. The purpose of using cultured yeast is to yield consistent results with every vintage.
As vintages go by, the weather and grape conditions change, and as these changes occur, so do the ripeness and flavors of each respective year. These microclimatic variations are what make wine unique. For natural wine producers, it is essential to use the indigenous yeast on the grape skins to start and finish fermentation. The point is to capture the unique conditions that happen between each vintage and vineyard—with no manipulation through cultured yeast.
Still, consistency and natural do not go hand in hand. Each year does not have perfect weather, so each year should not have perfect wine. It’s only natural.
Natural wine can be broken down into four categories: biodynamic, organic, vegan and no-added-sulfites. Biodynamic is farming based on moon cycles and using no motorized equipment whatsoever. To us, this is the most natural. Organic wine is made with no added chemicals, pesticides or herbicides. When wine is filtered or fined, egg whites may be used to coagulate proteins for clarification. Vegan wine cannot use this method because of the egg whites. No-added-sulfite wines are just that, no added sulfur in the wine. Some argue that this method is the most natural. (Check out Meinklang Biodynamic Pinot Noir from Austria.)
Sulfur is necessary for a wine to have longevity in the cellar. Wines without sulfites are the least stable. The right amount can help a wine retain flavor & color, the wrong amount and you have a rotten egg-scented glass. Because wine travels long distances from vineyard to consumer, sulfur can help retain the good qualities during travel and storage. As Steve Wynn said, a truly natural winemaker is “a brave soul.” This is why.
Still, with all of this information we haven’t even discussed the most important factor about wine: the flavor. Regardless of how a wine is made, if it does not taste good, no one will drink it. Natural wine does have different aromas and characteristics to it, and they are not the same as other wines.
This is due to three extended skin contact during fermentation and indigenous yeasts and sulfur, or the lack thereof. The typical fermentation of white wine is to crush the grapes, ferment the juice and discard the skins. Plenty of natural wine producers are macerating the skins with the juice for a very long time to create “orange wine.” Orange wines are what are considered to be the ultimate natural wine. The flavor profiles and color are so intriguing and different; the only way of ever understanding them is to try one. I recommend Movia Lunar Chardonnay from Slovenia—a true orange wine.
In the end, the purpose of natural wine is to seek harmony in the vineyard to ultimately create balanced wine, rather than manipulate it in the cellar. Remember those two ingredients in natural wine? An important lesson in creating any wine is that without quality grapes, one cannot make quality wine. Wine, in essence, is created in the vineyards.
At Grapes & Grains, we strongly believe in the phrase, “to each, their own.” Natural wines are not for everyone. The flavor profiles are much more rustic and less fruit-forward; but they are unique. So when it is time to drink outside of the box (and that time will come) check out a natural wine.
Peter Andrews CSS, CSW, MBA, is the General Manager of Grapes & Grains fine wine, craft beer, and small-batch spirits shop in Barrington. Any questions, comments or suggestions on the Monthly Wine Review? Email Peter at Pandrews@grapesandgrainsri.com.