Natural wine, once dismissed as a “fringe” movement, has been gaining popularity in recent years. Many restaurants, particularly in cosmopolitan centers such as New York and Paris, boast wine lists populated with the names of natural winemakers, for many the more obscure, the better. Many connoisseurs and oenophiles light up at the mention of the practice. And yet the term natural wine is elusive and vague. Unlike organic and biodynamic wines, natural wine is not legally defined or labeled. So what is natural wine? Where does it come from? And why is it gaining popularity in the current gastronomic context? This article is broken down into six sections that define natural wine, elucidate its origins and bring context to its burgeoning notoriety.
You cannot make wine without grapes.
In all of contemporary agriculture farmers are presented with choices in how they cultivate crops. Most of us are familiar with the distinction between conventional farming, sometimes referred to as industrial agriculture, which permits the use of pesticides, chemical and synthetic fertilizers, growth hormones, antibiotics and herbicides, and organic farming, which relies on crop rotation, passive pest control, and fertilizers derived from organic materials such as compost or manure. Broadly speaking, conventional agriculture permits the use of synthetic chemicals, relies heavily on mechanization, fossil fuels and other external inputs, while organic farming rejects these materials and relies on plant and animal-based fertilizers and pest management techniques and often seeks to minimize fossil fuel and other external inputs.
Biodynamic farming is a more specialized type of organic farming in which the farm is seen as an organism. Based on the principles developed in the 1920s by Rudolf Steiner - a philosopher and esotericist interested in the relationship between science and spirituality - many consider Biodynamic agriculture a predecessor to contemporary organic farming. This closed farming system is rooted in the interconnectedness of humans, plants, lunar cycles, and celestial bodies. The use of external inputs, such as purchased seeds or manures, for example, is limited. Farmers use seeds harvested from the farm and produce compost and animal feed using products from the farm. Additionally, farmers follow the biodynamic calendar which determines when to plant and harvest. There are practices in biodynamic farming connected to spirituality and folklore that some may consider strange – i.e. burying cow horns filled with manure to spread on crops at a later date but suffice it to say that biodynamic farming begins with the health of the soil and strives for a healthy, self-sustaining ecosystem.
DEFINITION OF NATURAL WINE
Natural wine is wine that is produced with organically or biodynamically grown grapes with little to no intervention in the cellar. There is no legal designation or certification for natural wine, which, while irksome to some consumers, is the preference of many winemakers since it provides them more freedom in the cellars. Some wines might have a small note stating that they are unfiltered (non-filtré) or have no sulfur added, though this information is often omitted. Natural wine importer Jenny & Francois has a checklist for defining natural wines:
• No synthetic molecules in the vines
• Use of plowing or other solutions to avoid chemical herbicides.
• Use of indigenous yeast
• Handpicked grapes
• Low to no filtering
• Low to no sulfites
• Winemaking that respects the grapes: no pumping or rough handling of the grapes, no micro-oxygenation.
• No chaptalization (the addition of sugar to wine)
Again, there is no labeling in natural wine. Many importers specialize in importing natural and low intervention wines. Kermit Lynch, Rosenthal, Louis Dressner, Vom Boden and Jenny & Francois are a few of the importers we work with at Henry & Son who are committed to showcasing these winemakers.
By some standards wine could never truly be natural. All wine is manipulated. Agriculture and winemaking are both interventions. The distinction is meant to differentiate between wine that is less manipulated and uses organic farming practices (natural) from conventional wine.
Conventional wines can be certified organic. A certified organic wine only ensures that the grapes are grown organically. It does not bar the use of additives in the cellar. Conventional winemaking allows almost 200 additives to be used during wine production; labeling laws do not require that they be listed on the bottle. Additives include mega purple dye for coloring and sweetening, fish bladders and bentonite clay (also used to make kitty litter) for clarifying, and sugar to increase the alcohol content in wine (chaptalization). Sulfur, which is a natural byproduct of the fermentation process, is typically added to wines because it acts as a stabilizer. This high level of manipulation allows winemakers to produce a product with consistent results and little room for error regardless of the quality of the harvest; natural winemakers and connoisseurs would argue that you sacrifice character, complexity, and depth in the process.
Wine is a fermented product. Fermented foods have experienced somewhat of a renaissance in recent years. While the popular book Wild Fermentation may claim to have “started the fermentation revolution” this is an ancient practice for preserving foods. Today, up to a third of the foods that we eat are fermented! Chocolate, coffee, cheese, bread, salami, yogurt, kimchi and kombucha are just a few examples of fermented foods (also some of the best foods in our humble opinion) that are widely recognized and frequently consumed.
So what is fermentation? Fermentation is the process by which bacteria, yeast and other microorganisms break down a given substance, converting its sugars into acids, gasses or alcohol. In other words, it’s allowing food to decompose. In the case of wine, the sugar in the grapes is converted into alcohol by yeasts. Yeasts occur naturally on the grapes – these are called indigenous, ambient, or natural yeasts - however, many winemakers use cultured yeasts that are produced in a lab setting. Not surprisingly, the use of cultured yeasts would classify a wine as conventional and not natural. The use of cultured yeast in winemaking provides an element of control because unlike natural yeasts, which change with every vintage, they are consistent. Winemakers like Jules Chauvet, who is discussed in the next section, would argue that the ambient yeasts on grapes and in the cellar are integral to making a terroir driven wine.
JULES CHAUVET AND THE GANG OF FOUR
Jules Chauvet was a fourth generation winemaker and trained chemist who is often credited as the father of the natural wine movement. He used organic practices in the vineyard, indigenous yeasts in the cellar and, perhaps most famously of all, he did not add sulfur when producing his renowned Beaujolais wines. Chauvet’s research as a chemist provided insight into the scientific process for winemaking. He also invented a pneumatic pump to keep cellars and wine cool during hot vintages that provided winemakers with more control without manipulating the wine itself.
Chauvet became a guru of sorts to a group of young winemakers from Beaujolais in the 1980s. Marcel Lapierre, Guy Breton, Jean Foillard and Jean-Paul Thénevet are now known as the “Gang of Four.” Following Chauvet’s example, the group rejected the excessive wine manipulation that was taking hold in the region, opting instead to reclaim more traditional winemaking based on Chauvet’s methods: organic farming, late harvest of grapes, no additives or chaptalization (the addition of sugar to wine to increase alcohol content), indigenous yeasts, and little to no sulfur added. Collectively, they brought attention to natural wines and continue to inspire new generations of winemakers to explore this methodology.
Other winemakers in France also tapped into this cultural zeitgeist. In Champagne, for example, Anselme Selosse, who studied in Burgundy under several winemakers including Coche, Lafon, and Leflaive, followed an identical methodology to produce terroir driven champagne. He contributed to revolutionizing the region’s winemaking practices through his dedication to organic farming and low-yield, high quality fruit - heresy in Champagne, which, due to its historical popularity, produced a high yields of low quality fruit through the use of excessive chemicals.
These techniques were might have seemed revolutionary at the time however they are firmly rooted in winemaking traditions that date back a full millennium. The Egyptians, the Greeks, and the Romans all had a voracious appetite for this nectar of the gods. Much like organic farming, which didn’t require a designation until the advent of industrial agriculture, the designation for natural wine only became necessary as the practice of manipulating wines in the cellars gained popularity. The practices in natural winemaking are based on long standing traditions.
FOOD AND WINE
Many critics and wine writers have drawn parallels between developments in our food culture and an interest in natural wine. As the public demands more organic products and more transparent labeling of GMOs and food additives it is only natural (pun intended) the shift in wine buying would follow suit. Consumers are looking for artisanal products and small production natural wines fit the bill.
At Henry & Son we happen to carry a lot of natural wine, though that is not our primary goal. Our focus is on small producers with transparent farming and winemaking practices. Many small producers are returning to, or have always employed, traditional practices that are environmentally and socially responsible. They feel it most accurately reflects (or conversely doesn’t obscure) the terroir and allows the character of the grapes to shine. You may have read similar statements in our previous blog entries.
So are natural wines really better than conventional wines? Well, better how? Better for the environment? Probably. Better tasting? It depends on the winemaker, and on the drinker. Matt Kramer defines a connoisseur in his book Making Sense of Wine as “one who can distinguish between what he or she likes, and what is good. The two are by no means always the same.” There are natural wines you may like and ones you may not like, even if a connoisseur might recognize them as “good.” Regardless of whether or not you strive to be a connoisseur, to determine your taste you must first taste! So explore with zeal and curiosity, try everything (at least twice), and enjoy. Bottoms up!