Natural Wine 101

Our eighth annual Natural Wine Event at Astor Center is coming up on February 18th. For $20 you’ll taste 20 natural wines and be introduced into a whole new world of wine making. Astor Wines & Spirits buyer and wine expert Elizabeth Patrick gives us a breakdown on natural wines.

What is Natural Wine?
Natural wine is : Juice from grapes fermented by ambient, wild yeasts and minimally interfered with in the cellar – it is wine in its most naked state.

But wait, to say that natural wines are “natural” isn’t that accusing of all other wine of being “unnatural?”
Well, yes… and no. Most producers and ardent fans of natural wines would say a wholehearted YES! And call it a day. I’d like to explain why it works to call a natural wine “natural.” The goal of any producer of natural wine is to allow grape juice to ferment into a substance that is as close to the fruit character of the grape varietal and express its source – namely its terroir as closely as possible. Other wines that are mass-produced and created in a manner emphasizing its commercial viability and distancing the wine from its source, you can safely call conventional. To this end, most every winemaker who calls him /herself natural will hold true to these tenets:

• Only wild yeasts are used in fermentation. Conventional winemakers will use selected yeasts from a laboratory to maintain a consistent product year after year
• No sugars are added – in some regions, wines are chaptalised, that is to say that sugars are added to unfermented grape must to increase alcohol content after fermentaion. This is also called enrichment.
• Wines are not filtered or fined before bottling – Typically, conventional wines are filtered to achieve a clear, bright liquid in the glass.
• Minimal sulphur is used in a finished wine. This is important and controversial because sulphur exists naturally in wines as a by-product of fermentation. Sulphur also acts as a preservative, keeping oxygen out, preventing discoloring and protecting a wine from damage during shipping.
What is so frustrating to me is that while all wines must declare on the label – “contains sulfites,” there is no compulsory statement that describes the amount of sulfites or when they’ve been added. A statement like this would be very helpful to natural wines and would draw a clear line in the sand to where conventional wines begin.

But aren’t all wines a product of some sort?
All producers want to sell their wine…
Yes, but conventional wines are crated for uniformity in taste and appearance – producers of natural wines recognize the individual attributes and unique character of their work. They treat their wines as if they are a living substance. Natural wines are still alive.

Well, does this mean that natural wines are altogether better?
Well, yes, but it depends on whom you ask.
The Wine Establishment (critics, old-school journalists, investors, collectors) defines a quality wine as one without flaws – clean aroma (no basement-y or overly earthy, funky aromas), a bright, clear color in the glass that is not cloudy. These are wines that the experts define as typical of its appellation. This wine will have enough substance that it is stable, can withstand shipping and frequently can age in the cellar.
For a natural producer and fans of natural wines, the idea of quality is something different. That a wine does not display excessive flaws is a no-brainer, of course is a good thing. It should not be vinegar. However, it should be unique, descriptive of its place, and speak loud and clearly of what it is.

Where did this whole idea come from?
From a French chemist and winegrower named Jules Chauvet (1907 – 1989). He pioneered the technique of winemaking with no added sulphur. Chauvet began researching winemaking in the 1940s, wrote seminal books wine production. When his colleagues were purchasing chemicals in the postwar era to produce wines again for the international market, he argued for a back to basics approach. His argument was from practical experience; he was a phenomenal taster. The first people he –influenced were his compatriots in Beaujolais: first Marcel La Pierre, then his friends in Villé-Morgon – Guy Breton, Jean-Paul Thévenet, Jean Foillard, and Joseph Chamonard. Beaujolais in particular suffered at the hands of a mass-production phenomenon known as “Beaujolais Nouveau.” Georges DuBoeuf promoted this bubble gum, light wine to the world, and singlehandedly destroyed the reputation of the region, making it known for cheap, artificial plonk. Their wines are praised for their authenticity and quality of fruit. The movement spread from there and Chauvet’s process has influenced producers throughout Europe and in New World regions. Most of his followers are concentrated in the Loire Valley, France.
In fact, natural producers are more likely to come from regions less influenced by critics and their scores.

Natural wines sound wonderful! Are they for me?
If you don’t mind that a wine you love may be completely different the following vintage, then yes, natural wines are for you. They are for people who treat tasting as an adventure, who are curious and relish the idea of the diversity in the world of wine. They don’t care about consistency vintage to vintage. A dry Chenin Blanc you fall in love with may be sweet the next year.

Can anyone just make a Natural wine?
It requires talent and knowledge to create any wine. Working with great quality ingredients is most important. Grapes must be in pristine condition. Natural winemakers consider a respect for nature to be the most important quality they bring to the table. Many follow biodynamic principles as well. Vines that are grown holistically produce better quality fruit. These are vineyards literally full of life! On a fine day, looking over a naturally tended vineyard, you appreciate the flowers, grasses and herbs growing seemingly wild between the rows! When you squint your eyes, there is hazy movement of insects… these vineyards are alive! In the cellar, strict hygienic measures must be taken, as it is more difficult to produce a wine naturally. There are no easy shortcuts with chemicals or machines. As sulphur is minimally used, or not used at all, there is great risk of a wine spoiling. A producer must follow strict hygienic measures in the cellar.

Sounds like a revolution!
It’s more of a movement, not a revolution, which suggests a uprising. I doubt that they’d conquer the behemoth that is commercial wine. Rather it is a movement – it’s a choice, an alternative. This is a group of producers saying that they don’t like the excess commercialization and chemical intervention in conventional wines. They don’t want uniformity – they want wine that tastes like wine. Most of these producers come from France and they certainly have an anti-establishment streak about them. But really their numbers are just a drop in the bucket compared to all the conventional wines on the market. In France, there are only 200 or so producers who call themselves “natural” compared to the thousands of Independent Vignerons who exist in the country. This statistic is the same in other Old World countries, like Italy and Spain. Remember, there is no specific label for a natural wine. Many go for certification, organic or biodynamic, but it is really by the honor system. A close community has been founded and it is important to get to know the producers by name – as you would get to know the farmers at your local farmer’s market. These are people who rely on their reputation and character to sell their wines.

What do I need to know when buying a Natural wine?
Cool temperatures are key. These wines are more fragile, so they are best stored in a temperature controlled environment. Red wines have more stability, as they have tannins to protect them.
There is no official designation or bureaucratic process for calling yourself a natural producer, so I can’t stress enough to get to know them by name!

But they can be expensive, no?
So is shopping at your local farmer’s market, but the product you buy there are so much more interesting than in the supermarket. Frankly, it’s a question of supply and demand. Less of these wines are produced. There are no economies of scale and increasing demand drives up prices.

Why should I look for Natural wines?
For variety’s sake. Natural wines have more food-friendly acidity, taste pure, when well-done and offer so much more than average quality.
For the planet’s sake. Overuse of chemicals in the vineyards affects the environment. These producers take a step beyond just organic. Their methods, creating a diverse ecosystem in their vineyards, are better for the earth.

Do you have favorites?
“Racines” Les Cailloux du Paradis, Courtois 2007 $29.99
Touraine Pinot Noir, Thierry Puzelat 2010 $19.99
Anjou Rouge “Le Bon P’tit Diable,” Les Sablonnettes 2010 $17.99
Munjebel Rosso #7 VA, Cornelissen $54.96
Cheverny Blanc “Les Perriéres”, Venier 2009 $18.99
Minervois “Le Régal du Loup”, Le Loup Blanc 2009 $17.99
And my list goes on and on….