Curious wine lovers have likely noticed a new category emerging in recent years. "Natural" wines have been popping up on wine lists and in boutique wine shops throughout the country. And while the current trend can be traced back to the early 1980s, natural winemaking has existed for centuries. If you're lucky enough to have enjoyed a Grand Cru Burgundy or a powerful Barolo, you're likely to have drunk a natural wine. "Worldwide, all wines were natural up until the second world war, after which many winemakers industrialized the process to increase production," explained Eduard Seitan, a Chicago-based sommelier and partner with the One-Off Hospitality group. "I began to hear the term 'natural wine' occasionally starting about 10 years ago, and at that time it was such a weird, avant garde thing, but in Chicago the trend really started to get big about six or seven years ago."
Despite the popularity today of so-called natural wines, the category has largely defied definition. James Beard Award-winning wine writer Alice Feiring writes in her book Natural Wine for the People that natural wine starts with organically farmed grapes, "...then once the grapes are harvested and you start the winemaking process, you don't add anything foreign or remove anything from the wine, nor do you shape it with machines." Feiring adds that there might be some wiggle room for the addition of sulfur, which acts as an antioxidant, but ideally nothing is added to the grapes that was not created in the vineyard. That all sounds good, but what does it mean for the wine novice or seasoned wine lover looking for something interesting and delicious to drink with dinner?
To understand the natural wine movement, we need to examine its genesis. Stephen James is the director of education for Uva Imports, an Atlanta-based company that focuses on independent producers with an emphasis on sustainability. According to James, the story of natural wine as we think of it today is analogous to the history of punk rock. "The punk rock scene in the early 1970s changed the way people think. ... Bands like the Velvet Underground and The Stooges propelled the genre forward and created this sound that became punk. ... It was a reaction against arena rock, the status quo of what rock had become, essentially a caricature of itself."
That's just what the natural wine conversation is doing today, James explained. "It's helping people better understand what's happening in the wine world. ... There are lots of nasty chemicals being used, lots of manipulation. Much of what's on the market today has been chemically designed to taste good. [Mass-production wineries] have researched what the average palate enjoys, and they add sugar, add or remove acid or tannins, to create a generic product that's tasty but very forgettable."
Many are surprised to learn that there are over 70 additives that are approved for use in wine, including sulfur – which has been an important component in winemaking for centuries – to newer additives like Mega Purple, a super-sweet concentrate that's used to improve color in red wines. There are a wide array of techniques that winemakers can use to ensure that the bottle of chardonnay they produced this season tastes exactly like the chardonnay they made five years ago. The quality of consistency is more valued than consistent quality, with the consequence that many wines available today are devoid of character, sense of place, integrity or interest.
So the natural wine movement was born, but not without controversy. "For better or worse," said James, "there's been a big backlash in the wine community generally over natural wine. For Americans especially, it has become very binary, you're either natural or you're not, and this takes away the nuance of what it means to be human and what it means to make wine in this complex world." This dogmatic approach, that all winemaking interventions are bad and only wines produced with spontaneous fermentations and zero added sulfur are 'natural,' has resulted in considerable confusion for the customer and consternation for wine sellers. Imagine going to a restaurant that refuses to wash salad greens because that would remove the essence of the soil from the salad. Does that make the salad more natural, or is it just dirty?
"To me, a lot of true natural wines made with zero intervention and zero sulfur added are not refreshing or terroir-driven anymore," said James. "When you have an overwhelming funk that overrides any sense of place, it's a flaw because it's out of balance."
While it is possible to make balanced, terroir-driven wines with zero added inputs, it's time-consuming and labor intensive. "You can make a wine with great clarity that's completely unfined and unfiltered if you have the patience to let it rest and settle naturally," James explained. "For example, our producers in Barolo rack the sediment off over time to clarify their wines. A lot of these natural winemakers are rushing the process to achieve an aesthetic and the mousy aromas that you get in some natural wines comes from the fact that they're not allowing the wine to go through the whole process slowly. The effervescence that's sometimes associated with natural wines is a consequence of part of the fermentation finishing in the bottle, which makes the wine very unstable. As a result, many people have gotten burned with natural wines that are undrinkable and many professionals are increasingly skeptical.
"A lot of wine geeks really love that funk and mousy aroma in their wine, but these days I'm tasting more nice, gentle natural wines, what I would call natural wine 101," said Seitan. "Wines that are pretty and drinkable and don't hit you over the head with stink, but there's still an interesting level of funk and unique character."
So, as much as it has become fashionable to define natural wine by the lack of any artificial manipulation, the reality is that winemaking essentially influences the way the grape grows and ferments in a controlled environment. The degree of control falls on a large spectrum. "Where the line is drawn can be fairly arbitrary," said James. "I think a better definition of what makes a wine natural is that it's made with integrity and honesty, and are they being transparent about what they do with that wine? Up to this point natural wine has been about what's not added to the wine. Now the conversation is shifting to how can we create a sustainable ecosystem, improve biodiversity for the future and create a system that's sustainable? This is true whether we're talking about workers' rights, carbon footprint or growing cover crops in vineyards."
Ashley Meyer studied winemaking at Lincoln University in Christchurch, New Zealand, and recently achieved the Level III award from the Wine and Spirits Educational Trust. She founded and successfully operated RealCuisine Catering for five years, then turned her focus to motherhood and homesteading. These days, when she's not cooking, gardening, parenting or writing, you can find Ashley at It's All About Wine, offering insightful recommendations and mouthwatering pours.