Over the last two decades there has been a growing taste for natural, un-manipulated wines from organic and biodynamic winegrowers. From Paris to London, New York to Hong Kong, Sydney and elsewhere there is a significant and increasing number of restaurants, wine bars and retail shops that specialize in these wines.
Natural wines are a traditional view of wine as the natural expression of the vineyard and the vintage with minimal intervention from the winemaker. In short, it’s all about the grapes.
So how are natural wines made and what make them different? Eric Asimov, the wine critic for the New York Times, says “Wine has been described as the perfect beverage because grapes contain all the ingredients necessary to create their transformation. Put grapes in a vat and over time the yeasts coating the skins set alchemy in motion, converting the sugar in the juice to alcohol.” Basically, it’s that simple.
Grapes are grown organically or biodynamically (a more holistic version of organic that virtually guarantees fermentation by natural, indigenous yeasts from the vineyard.) No synthetic chemicals – herbicides, insecticides, fungicides or fertilizers – are used in the vineyard. Pests are controlled through the application of organic preparations and other natural methods. The vineyard is dry-farmed (no irrigation), the soil is lightly plowed to aerate and encourage the roots to grow deep, and grass and other cover crops are allowed to grow between the vines. Dry farming forces the vine’s roots to grow deep into the earth. This helps to make them drought resistant and absorb more minerals and nutrients thereby strengthening the vines and adds flavor to the grapes.
Grape flavors are concentrated by controlling yields through pruning to limit the number of buds on each vine and by keeping old vines that naturally produce fewer grapes. Ripe, clean grapes are hand-picked and fermented with indigenous yeasts. Sulfur dioxide, which is essentially a disinfectant but can have subtle effects on the flavour and development of the wine, is used sparingly or not at all. Chaptalization (the addition of sugar to foster fermentation) is avoided and additives and other sophisticated physical manipulations are not used in the cellar. The use of new oak is minimized and the wines are fined or filtered lightly or not at all.
As Francois Pinon, one of the top winegrowers from Vouvray states (he prefers being called winegrower rather than winemaker,) his goal is “to add nothing and take nothing away from the grapes potential.” His modus operandi is to grow the best, cleanest and healthiest fruit possible, then stand back and let the grapes make the wine.
For all of its natural connotations most wine is a highly processed product that is rolled off an assembly line as denatured and consistent as a French fry. They are made to a ‘recipe’ to meet flavor profiles shaped by focus groups. They are the products of large multinational corporations that industrially farm thousands of hectares of vineyards that have been made sterile by herbicides, pesticides and fungicides. These chemicals pollute the air (vineyards can be sprayed up to once a week during the growing season) and are recognized as hazardous to those who apply them and live in the surrounding areas. Along with the commercial fertilizers used the resulting runoff pollutes our waterways. These corporations have high tech industrial production facilities located around the world and use a staggering array of chemicals additives. Some manufacture their own bottles and other packaging. This is all supported by sophisticated marketing organizations and large budgets. It is not uncommon for these corporations to produce millions of cases annually and market dozens if not hundreds of different brands even if their corporate name does not appear on the label.
Vines are chosen for their ability to ripen early and produce high yields. Grapes are machine harvested and shipped to high-tech industrial plants for automated sorting and processing. After the grapes are crushed, sulfites are added to prevent spoilage and to kill off wild yeasts. Genetically engineered commercial yeasts are added to ferment the wine and create specific flavors and aromas. Nutrients to feed these yeasts, enzymes and other compounds (including flavorings and colorants) are added to adjust aromas, mouthfeel, taste and color. A multitude of mechanical manipulations from spinning cones to reverse osmosis (to name just two) adjust alcohol, color and concentration of the wine. Sugar can be added to increase alcohol production or sweeten the wine and acidity levels can be adjusted by adding acid or water. The wines are sterile filtered before bottling to help preserve them. All of this produces a wine with predetermined aromas, color, mouthfeel and taste and usually a short finish. These wines basically use grapes as ‘feedstock’ to meet the legal definition of “wine” (see this great wine searcher article for more). They tend to taste the same no matter who made them, where they came from, what year they were made and sometimes even from what grape. Ever have a high alcohol pinot noir taste like a cab? These wines are generally cheap, easy to drink, nearly indestructible (to make shipping and storage easy) and totally consistent and predictable. They are meant for early drinking and for the most part do not evolve in the glass or the cellar.
It’s unfortunate that more wines are being produced and standardized this way, including those at higher price points. They are wines that have been stripped of their life then rebuilt to a preconceived notion of what the public wants.
Why Go Natural?
So why do many people find natural wines appealing? They’re delicious; they simply taste better than most conventional wines and are far more interesting. They are usually vibrant and alive with bright fruit and mineral flavors, they’re balanced, maintaining finesse and elegance rather than raw power, and they’re generally lower in alcohol. They complement food better and refresh the palate like fruit. They are more diverse because many come from lessor known regions with fantastic vineyards and little known but delicious grape varieties (most conventional wines are made from a dozen or so grapes, but Italy alone makes wine from over 400.) Natural wines are simply more compelling. I never tire of drinking them.
This is not to say that all naturally made wines are great or that there are no good conventional wines because there are, and some are made so simply they could reasonably be called natural, but I have enjoyed many more of the former than the latter.
Most consumers pay little or no attention to what goes into their wine even though many are hyper-conscious about the food they eat. Isabelle Legeron, a wine educator who holds the rare title of Master of Wine writes, “It is surprising how many discerning foodies will drink mass produced, highly processed wines without batting an eye.” Unlike other processed foods, there is no requirement to list the ingredients of wine on the label. Isn’t it time we paid more attention to what goes into what we drink? I’ll give the last words to Eric Asimov: “If we ourselves don’t set standards for quality and authenticity, who will?”