What Is Natural Wine?

A grapevine doesn’t want to give fruit every vintage. It’s a vine: it wants to find the nearest post or tree and wind its way up to look at the sun. When farmers prune in the winter, we’re messing with the plant’s psychology. We gaslight it into thinking its life is in danger; it puts its energy into fruit (the next generation) instead of vegetative growth. Without human hands, the grapes fall to the ground, become food for birds.

All of which is to say: at a basic level, making wine entails a degree of intervention beyond zero. The most hands-off winemaking practice entails a series of hundreds of tiny choices, even if the choice in many cases ends up being “do nothing”: crushing, moving liquid, pushing a cap down or holding it submerged with a tarp carrying water or the slats of a board, destemming or stems on, fermentation and aging vessels ranging from plastic bins, glass jars, flextank and concrete to clay vessels of every imaginable shape and barrels made of chestnut or acacia or oak.

A lot of people start the conversation about natural wine by saying it has no legal definition. And while that’s true (you’re not going to find a certification that tells you a wine is natural or not, for example; organic certifications deal with farming, not with winemaking practices), the working guidelines that MW Isabelle Legeron gives on the website of the international natural wine fair she founded still seems like a pretty reasonable set of principles.

“Natural Wine is farmed organically (biodynamically, using permaculture or the like) and made (or rather transformed) without adding or removing anything in the cellarNo additives or processing aids are used, and ‘intervention’ in the naturally occurring fermentation process is kept to a minimum. As such neither fining nor (tight) filtration are used. The result is a living wine – wholesome and full of naturally occurring microbiology.”

Isabelle Legeron, RAW Wine

The key to natural wine – both in terms of the approaches that growers take in making it and in how it tastes – is that it’s not a box or a border. It’s a spectrum of approaches, all of which are going to entail some degree of intervention, kept to as little as the person responsible for the wine can manage.

The most important thing is the microbial life of the soils the vines grow in, and the ecology of the vineyard. Living soils, not compacted and lifeless soil treated with herbicide, support lives (microbial, insect, plant, animal) that are part of a connected ecosystem better able to weather calamity.

They give rise to healthy native yeast populations that mean that, when grapes are harvested and crushed, fermentation starts well and is healthy too, which means less need to mess around with yeast nutrients, inoculation, sterilization of must, tweaks to pH.

The resulting wine, alive, is both fragile and sturdy. It needs more care in handling than a can of Coke on a gas station shelf to make sure it doesn’t spoil, but it’s also better able to evolve in bottle and reach equilibrium over time than industrial wines. It’s variable, and sometimes when it’s young it can be awkward or go too far down a microbiologically deviant pathway.

A producer might add a little sulfur at bottling, but it’s the least important decision in a chain of hundreds of decisions leading up to it. Preservation (filtration, stabilization, sulfur addition) all has to do with avoiding risk, and every risk avoidance means you’re taking something away, something that would have made the wine more profound and dimensional. But 20ppm sulfur before you put the wine you just spent a year growing onto a ship crossing the ocean isn’t something to drag anybody for, and a lot of producers see the marginal loss of dimension there as worth the (considerable) increase in stability.

Corollary: this means the folks making heartbreakingly beautiful & clean zero-zero wines deserve a huge amount of respect.

What does natural wine mean? In some ways, it’s a return to premodern winemaking and farming traditions (I’m making wine the way that my great-grandfather used to). “Conventional” farming – kill everything in the vineyard that isn’t your vine – only goes back to WWII. Chemical fertilizers and tractors appear after the first world war, synthetic pesticides / herbicide / sterile filtration only in the middle of the 20th century. You didn’t have to have conversations about organic viticulture in the 1840s.

But in other ways, natural wine isn’t a return to the premodern at all.

For one thing, the wine that your great-grandfather made wasn’t being bottled and sent across oceans, unless your great-grandfather was German and owned a Champagne house. The places where natural wine has taken root, even if they’re places with long histories of winemaking, are often places that never received much consideration in the grand scheme of things.

And the people using those (in some cases) ancient methods are often people who never would have been allowed to make wine in the first place.

So natural wine is a wider spectrum: of minimally interventionist approaches in the vineyard and cellar; of places for wines to be from and people to make them; and of potential flavors and aromas in the glass.

All of the wines I pour for the Children’s Atlas of Wine are, broadly speaking, somewhere on that spectrum. Not all are cloudy and wild, but all keep to a few basic principles I verify whenever possible: living soils (organic or biodynamic certification is good, but no herbicides from a farmer spraying a spot synthetic once a year to combat black rot is ok if there’s transparency); farmed responsibly by people who account for and treat their workers fairly; fermentation with native yeasts; winemaking that does not add or remove apart from some sulfur addition at bottle.

Our class was on January 9th. These were the wines:

How it might look on a wine list
Cacique Maravilla, pét-nat, “Gutiflower”, Bío Bío, Chile 2019

Who made it? Manuel and Paola Moraga
Out of what? Mostly 100-plus year-old moscatel (muscat of Alexandria), with a dash of corinto (chasselas) and torrontel (native cross of pais and moscatel) grown on volcanic ash in Bío Bío (southern Chile).
Made how? Destemmed, left on the skins for a day in big rauli pipa and then moved to a tightly sealed fiberglass tank to ferment for two months; bottled to finish fermentation in bottle (pet-nat), with zero added sulfur.

How it might look on a wine list
Populis, “Wabi-Sabi”, California, United States 2019

Who made it? Shaunt Oungoulian and Diego Roig
Out of what? Zinfandel and carignan planted in the ’40s from Venturi Vineyard in Mendocino (dry-farmed, certified organic), and chenin from Redwood Valley, grafted over in the 1960s
.Made how? Native yeasts, fermented in flextank and aged in neutral barrel, 18ppm SO2 added before bottling.

How it might look on a wine list
Duc des Nauves, Côtes de Bordeaux, Bordeaux, France 2018

Who made it? The Amoreau family (it’s a 100 hectare estate, half dedicated to fields, forests, and ponds, half to vines; Duc de Nauves comes from a small 9 hectare estate further down the slope they bought in 2006; the large size implies a fulltime winemaking team of say 3-5, a vineyard management team, and front-of-house/marketing people too).
Out of what? Certified biodynamic vines (70/20/10 merlot, cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon) on sand over limestone & clay.
Made how? Native yeasts, fermented and aged in concrete and bottled after one year without filtration and about 23ppm SO2.

Things to think about when you taste:

Air & Time. Do you like the way it smells when you open it? Does it smell the same after a couple of hours open as it did right when you poured the first glass? If you smell something that’s offputting, does time and air change your opinion?

Texture. What’s the shape of the wine in your mouth? Is it creamy and round, bright and angular, astringent and textural?

Context. How does food change your experience with the wine?

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