This Earth Day, we’d like to talk “natural wine”. It’s trendy. It’s funky. It’s... well, what exactly is it anyway?
The term “natural wine” is loosely defined and completely unregulated. Confused? You betcha!
A winemaker says it’s natural and poof, we accept. A sommelier flaunts some funky pour and we pretend to like it (hey, maybe you do!). But can we have some guidelines PLEASE?
At Vinley, we LOVE to seek out excellent wines that call themselves “natural.” For us, it means wine that is made with little manipulation, avoiding pesticides in the vineyard, added tannins or acidity, sulfur (which helps preserve wine) or even commercial yeast.
Yet, here's the deal. Without these added manipulations, the wine can be harder to control, can age quicker, and can give a “funky” taste to the bottles. Call it wine utilitarianism, but we’ve been around long enough to know that “funky” is a slippery slope to “flawed.” (For the record, we aim to curate for deliciousness over funkiness.)
Some natural wine producers add sulfates, for example, while others don't add anything. Others are mostly concerned with biodynamic viticultural practices. Perhaps the vineyard is "sustainable" (another loose term), perhaps it's organic, maybe both. Maybe neither!
It is important to mention that natural wine does not mean the vineyard is using sustainable winegrowing practices and while many producers are certified organic, it also doesn’t necessarily have to be. That’s because there is literally no certification for how a natural wine is made or what a natural wine means. Under the National Organic Program’s guidelines, some synthetic materials are allowed in the winegrowing process – making a wine organic but not necessarily natural (in the way we are discussing it).
And despite the ambiguity on what makes a wine "natural", it's still all the rage. Take it from sommelier Alexandra Harner of The Wine Thumb. Read on to hear what she thinks of natural wines.
Harner: “We all feel better about ourselves when we eat an organically farmed salad instead of a Double Double Animal style (not that I don’t want that sometimes… k a lot of the times). An organic or biodynamic vineyard is thriving, energy-driven, focused on growth, literally a testament to promotion of all things living. A conventionally farmed vineyard however (heavily irrigated, use of round up etc.) generally produces fruit with homogenized flavors, lacking character. And like me with my contour make-up, the more you add to or cover up something the further away you get from its truth. And this is coming from a girl who loves a beat face.
Listen, I can’t speak to the science behind it - but when I drink a “natural wine” - that is a wine that has been minimally f***ed with, no additives or preservatives - I feel like I’m doing something good for my body. When I drink a wine that is highly processed, I feel like I’m eating junk food.
Natural wine has been around for a long time yes, but this current natural wine “movement” is a manifestation of us (the consumer) caring more about how they we treat our bodies and the earth, and I think that is very exciting and important. There is controversy of course, as there aren’t exactly worldwide laws dictating what makes one wine natural over another, and these styles are different than conventional big brand wine making. But nothing progressive ever came out of going with the flow. You have to break the rules to join the revolution.”
A History of Natural Wine
The idea of natural wine actually began in France during the 1980s. A group of winemakers began to experiment with small batch wines, with low alcohol content, a fruit forward nature and high acidity. They embraced the brettanomyces yeast, often known as a spoilage yeast with a barnyard quality and allowed the wine to become more “alive” eliminating contents which tend to control a wine’s aging process. However, their main desire was to rid wine production of inoculated yeast, commercial strains of yeast which promote wine fermentation.
A French minimalist winemaker, Marcel Lapierre, supported the idea that wine should be made with no sulfur or commercial yeast. His support brought natural wines to famous Parisian restaurants, where people evaluated them and lauded their “funky” “natural” qualities. By the 1990s, natural wine had found its way to the United States. However, its popularity within America has only grown recently among California winemakers.
Want to Create Your Own Opinion?
If this article inspired you to check out some natural wines for yourself, here are some of Harner’s suggestions:
Fabio Geo and Furlani out of Italy.