Natural wine has been trending over the past decade or so, and these days certain wine bars, restaurant lists and retail stores are solely devoted to it. The latest Wine & Spirits magazine’s annual poll, which I wrote about last week, noted that diners are requesting natural wines at establishment restaurants such as Le Bernardin in New York City. As sommelier Aldo Sohm explained: “It’s different. That’s what they liked about it.”
But what exactly is “natural wine”? Here are five things to know:
1. There is no one definition of “natural wine,” and the term is controversial.
The controversy is easy to spot. Nobody wants to acknowledge (or be accused of) making an “unnatural” wine. Natural wine’s champions emphasize minimal intervention by the winemaker in the vineyard and in the winery. This generally means no pesticides, herbicides or fungicides (no modern chemicals) sprayed on the vines, no cultured yeasts used in fermentation, and — in the extreme — no sulfur added to stabilize the wine.
“There is no single definition, but the way we define it is that all the grapes in the wines we sell are farmed organically or biodynamically, fermented with native yeast, and bottled with minimal, if any, sulfur,” says Jeff Segal, co-owner of Domestique wine store in the District, which specializes in natural wines.
Sulfur is the controversial aspect of natural wine. It’s a natural substance, used for centuries to stabilize wine and prevent spoilage in bottle. But because it is an additive, natural wine’s early advocates campaigned against it. That led to a strong backlash among winemakers and critics who said the new movement was celebrating faulty wine.
2. Natural wine isn’t new.
“People who have been drinking wines all their lives have been drinking natural wines, they just haven’t been calling them that,” Segal says. “A lot of the world’s classic wines have been made with these principles for a long time.”
Many natural wine producers are small family producers, making wine the way previous generations did, without modern chemicals or techniques.
“I look for wines made with care, by families, by hand,” says Helen Johannesen, wine director for the Jon & Vinny’s restaurant group and proprietor of Helen’s Wines, a boutique wine shop in Los Angeles. “A lot of the wines I sell fall in a natural spectrum, in that there isn’t a lot added or taken away from them in the way mechanization can do.”
Natural wine celebrates ancient winemaking techniques, such as fermenting and aging wines underground in clay qvevri, the traditional method in Georgia. That country was the birthplace of wine, according to current archaeological research. The wine might also be aged in concrete eggs but never in new oak barrels — those are, after all, a source of added flavors not inherent to the grape or vineyard.
3. Natural wine is anti-science. Or is it?
Natural wine, at its extreme, rejects modern science and technology. Those interventions, chemicals and additives natural winemakers deplore have made modern wine reliably free of many types of spoilage and faults. Rejecting those tools and techniques for ideology’s sake often results in wines that are downright awful and unstable, spoiled by bacteria, reeking of bad vinegar. Modern winemaking has been so successful in eliminating these flaws that some people actually relish them simply because they are different.
But it needn’t be this way. “It’s easy to let a bunch of grapes ferment and do nothing to prevent the wine from going bad, but it takes talent and effort to make a clean natural wine,” Segal says.
Johannesen agrees. “A wine doesn’t have to be cloudy and [messed] up to be amazing to drink,” she says.
Natural can be an excuse for lazy winemaking, and I am not just posing a straw man here. I have heard pretentious importers claim their wines were so natural they represented the “true terroir” of their region, while I could only conjure the terroir of a toilet bowl. And I have tasted electric and vibrant natural wines that seized my attention and held on until I drained the last drop from the bottle. That type of winemaking requires meticulous care, in the vineyard and in the winery.
4. Even some adherents are leery of the term “natural wine.”
While Segal and his partners embrace the natural wine label at Domestique, Johannesen is leery of adopting it for Helen’s Wines, even though her reputation is squarely in that camp.
“Natural wine has become such a movement that I shy away from attaching my programs to a label like that, even though it simplifies to a consumer what I’m doing,” she says. “The basic foundation is organic farming. I don’t want to buy wine that has been exposed to a lot of herbicides and pesticides.”
“We try to stay away from the term natural wine, even though we follow those principles of minimal intervention and natural yeast fermentation,” says William Allen, owner and winemaker at Two Shepherds winery in California’s Sonoma County. Two Shepherds has become a darling of natural wine fans.
5. “Natural” has changed the discussion about wine.
Despite its controversy and polemical aspect, the natural wine movement has contributed to an increasing focus on environmentally friendly viticulture and a hands-off approach in the winery. Sensing a market niche, some are producing experimental wines without added sulfur to challenge the accepted modern doctrine that wine needs sulfur to survive.
So natural wine has helped shape the discussion of wine. And that’s a good thing.