Natural Or Not? Why You Should Care About The Quality Of Your Wine
Natural wine has undoubtedly become one of the most discussed topics in the wine industry. Though for many consumers (and even some industry folks), the term remains a bit vague.
We spoke to a handful of industry professionals and are breaking down what natural wine is, why producers choose to work in this way, and above all, why you should care about this buzzed-about way of making wine.
What is natural wine?
Although the term is widely debated, natural wine is simply wine in its most pure and honest form. This means that the wine is produced from organically (and sometimes biodynamically) farmed fruit and has nothing added or taken away during the process. Yeasts used to ferment the wine are native (as opposed to cultivated/added), juice begins fermenting spontaneously, and little to no intervention is used in the cellar.
“Natural wine is wine made from organic or biodynamically grown grapes and is made without any additions or filtration. It is often considered acceptable to add 20mg/L of sulfur and only after the fermentation process is complete,” explains Zev Rovine, founder of Zev Rovine Selections, an American based distributor of natural wines.
Believe it or not, winemakers are actually allowed to add and take away a lot from your wine. Aside from adding cultivated yeasts to ignite fermentation, certain countries/appellations permit the addition of coloring agents, oak chips, flavoring additives, and boatloads of chemicals to produce the final wine in your glass. In terms of taking away, most natural winemakers will choose to leave their wines unfined and unfiltered, meaning the final wines may be a bit cloudy in the bottle.
Not to worry! A little sediment never hurt anyone. Conventional winemakers use a handful of techniques to fine and filter their wines, ranging from simple filtration to using egg whites, gelatin, and other products to coagulate sediment and clarify their wine.
“Natural wine is a notoriously slippery term,” states Stephen Giroux, head sommelier at New York-based Ruffian Wine Bar. “Natural wine is not a laissez-faire posture. It begins with the stewardship of the land, with a belief that an agricultural site – a vineyard – should be as much a part of the natural landscape as any other green space.”
Giroux notes that a healthy vineyard is an utmost priority, as these vineyards have all of the necessary bacterial cultures to begin and execute fermentation naturally.
Unfortunately, winemakers around the globe are not obligated to inform the consumer what goes into and is taken away from their wine, making these chemical manipulations totally legit. Natural wine producers rebuke the use of chemicals and additions/take-aways to and from their wine.
What is the big debate over natural wine?
There are two major arguments surrounding natural wine. Within the production world, the biggest debate is over the use of sulfur. Many natural winemakers choose to add minimal amounts of sulfur for the sake of wine preservation, though a handful of purists consider this an unnecessary addition to the wine. Most industry professionals agree that sulfur is a near necessary addition to conserve and preserve wine, though there are plenty of producers who challenge this statement.
On a larger scale, the bigger debate surrounding natural wine is the issue of flaws. Natural wines can be some of the most thought-provoking and delicious wines out there, though because of the complete natural state of their production, a great deal of supervision is necessary throughout the vinification process.
If not carefully monitored, natural wines are subject to a handful of wine flaws, including brettanomyces, excess oxidation, volatile acidity, and/or mousiness. The core of this issue occurs when industry professionals and consumers excuse these flaws simply because the wine is ‘natural.’ All wine, regardless of how it is produced, should be enjoyed flaw-free, natural wines included.
What does natural wine taste like?
Like any wine, natural wine should be delicious to drink, period. Many professionals agree that natural wines are more terroir-driven and pure because of their organic and unmanipulated nature. At times, pét-nats (natural sparkling wine) can show a slight bit of residual sugar due to the secondary natural fermentation in bottle.
A common misconception is that natural wines taste ‘funky’ – funky is not a good thing. Great natural wines should taste delicious, honest, and clean, and above all, should be held to the same standards as any other wine.
“I choose to work with the most compelling and delicious wines made by passionate and attentive winemakers,” says Josh Adler, founder of Paris Wine Company, a France-based import company focused on French natural wines. “It seems I’m just ‘naturally’ attracted to these wines,” explains Adler.
Why should I care if my wine is natural or not?
Natural wines are produced from organically farmed fruit, sustainable farming practices, and minimal intervention in the cellar, all of which are generally better for the environment than conventional farming practices. Most natural wine producers share a passion for taking care of the planet, which is then reflected in the juice in bottle.
“The first reason to work with these wines is because systemic chemicals have a long term deleterious effect on the environment, particularly in the case of insect population and general bacteria and life in the soils,” explains Rovine.
“It also seems unethical to sell wines with these trace chemicals to our clients for consumption. Furthermore, the process is harder and requires a more artisan hand, and that’s a compelling story to many consumers as well.”
“I want to focus on wines that have a positive impact on both the natural world and the communities that produce it,” says Giroux. “I choose not to be complicit in the human risk and environmental harm of large scale commercial farming and viticulture. In a sense, I want to transmute my love of wine into a form of activism, both ecological and political,” he explains.
At Ruffian, Giroux works with natural and minimal-intervention wines from unexpected and burgeoning wine regions because of their ‘positive impact on the local communities that produce them.’
Simply put, drinking natural is one of the many ways that we can advocate for more sustainable and healthy farming worldwide. However, these wines should be more than just ‘good for the environment.’ They should be flaw-free, taste delicious, and show a sense of place. Drinking well and drinking responsibly should go hand in hand.
Published 20 February, 2020