When people think of natural wine what comes to mind are the wines that are super funky both outside and in. Bright, avant-garde labels with unfined and unfiltered wines inside boasting funky flavors of earth and barnyards. But there is so much more to natural wine than the hipster take on what wines can be. Some of the greatest wines in the world, classics, and wines with tremendous heritage and tradition could be considered natural wines. But would they ever call themselves that? No! Because they are natural wines for grownups.
To think of natural wines as some new fad is to forget centuries of winemaking history. If anything it is the industrialization of wine, with its designer yeast strains, mechanization in the vineyards, and use of chemicals to correct unwanted characteristics that is the real fad. Winemakers realized they could bend and shape each vintage to their will, securing their releases and ensuring they had money in their pockets.
It was the movement against industrialization that saw the term “natural wine” come to prominence. The idea was that wines that were over-manipulated (used lots of oak, inoculated with designer years strains, or used an abundance of chemical fertilization and pest control) were doing a disservice to the true nature of wine. Wines are an expression of people and of place, and this can only be done with as little intervention as possible, that is to say that they remain as natural as possible.
Many winemakers from around the world would jump on the bandwagon. But there was never anything new going on. While many wineries became industrialized over time a precious few would stand firm in the face of it and continue with their time tested and traditional ways of making wine. That was to let the yeasts that grew naturally on the grapes over the course of a vintage do their thing, age the wines till you believe they are ready, and just let them be. Centuries old techniques would bring about wines of unparalleled exception. Many of these wines would go on to become the most sought after and heralded wines in the world. They were natural, but nobody ever thought of them as such because they never had to shout it from the rooftops. They were just awesome without ever having to explain themselves.
The wineries who have stood the test of time, be it in the face of natural or industrial movements of wine, have done so because they have never deviated from what they knew to be a proper way of making wine. What they know is how to portray the characteristics of place, of time, and of heritage in a single bottle of wine. A hallmark of great wine, that it is a unique expression of where and when it came from.
Methods might deviate from region to region, winery to winery, but the same strand of truth runs through all of them. That is in order to make a truly exceptional wine as an expression of terroir, one has to be as hands off as possible. Wine is not something to be forced, but something to be guided and allowed to reveal itself.
Perhaps the wine that best represents this philosophy is the famous Domaine Romanee Conti. Considered to be one of the most exquisite wines in the world, if not the most, DRC is a wine that follows age old techniques, with little intervention as possible in the vineyard and in the making of the wine. Is it natural? Technically yes. Would they ever call themselves natural? Why should they? They are simply the best without the need for classification.
Many of today’s natural winemakers are influenced by and look up to some of these exceptional winemakers, and not all of them are wineries who price their bottles in the thousands of dollars. Giusto Occhipinti of COS may be revered by some as a natural wine maker, but by most wine lovers the COS winery is a symbol of Sicily above all. His presence is felt beyond his own work, with his niece Arianna taking up the baton with her own Occhipinti wines as well as California’s latest hottest new winemaker Martha Stoumen. Both are darlings of the natural wine movement and have received widespread acclaim.
Natural wines, or at the very least a minimalist approach to wines, is not purely an old world tradition. Ridge Wines has long been a proponent of native yeast fermentation on top of sustainable farming practices. Their single vineyard expressions of Zinfandel, Carignan, and Petite Sirah are a snapshot of California’s rich history and winemaking philosophy. Bonny Doon Vineyard too, on top of pioneering Rhône varietals in California and having wines name dropped in Frasier, has been one to make wines in a minimalist sense. They do so not because it is fashionable, but because they see the modern bag of tricks to manipulate a wine as being a juvenile viewpoint that does a disservice to the grapes and the place.
Natty wines all grown up
Though there are some who take a dogmatic approach to winemaking, vilifying the use of sulfites for example, many winemakers take a more reasonable approach to their wine while remaining rooted in classical theory. Those who have a dogmatic approach will sometimes release a wine that falls victims to mouse taint, something that smells and tastes like a rodent has died amongst a pile of sawdust. To some it is the price to pay for funky, earthy, wines reminiscent of wet fields and barnyards.
For others, such as Johann Reyneke, a teeny tiny bit of sulfur is necessary in reserving the fresh fruit flavors of a wine. Johann is South Africa’s first biodynamic producer, a term that sends wine hipsters’ hearts racing, but that touch of sulfur when called for Can be the difference between the life and death of a wine. It’s not about correcting flaws, it’s about ensuring the longevity, age-ability, and enjoyability of the wine.
The true beauty of natural wines shine through in a classical and reasonable approach to winemaking. A grown up approach that leaves dogma at the door and seeks out wine of complexity, character, and intrigue. There is an acceptance and celebration of the fact that every year will paint a different picture, and that picture is expressed in the wine. Good years are heralded, and challenging years are accepted. Wine is an art, and like painting if you are truly handmade then you can never make the same painting twice even if you are painting the same landscape every year.
Grown up tastes
As natural wine has gained prominence it’s greatest virtue has been to shine a light on the murky wine world. The overzealous techniques of big houses making wines that checked boxes and mirrored other well known wines are making people think twice about where their wine comes from, much like they think about where anything they buy comes from! While hip wine drinkers went whole heartedly in the direction of weird, wild and wonderful, a lot of wines got cast in a shadow between two worlds.
However as a younger generation begins to come into its own, like generations prior many have seen and will their tastes evolve. Wine lovers of all age groups will desire complexity and intrigue in their wine no matter the direction their tastes take them be it bold and heavy or bright and acidic. And yet they will still shine a light and look deeper into the winemaking processes.
Natural wine has grown from being a movement that countered the industrial wine complex to one that seeks out transparency in winemaking. The term has continued to shed its dogmatic sensibilities and instead become a championing cry for sustainability, terroir focus, and authenticity in winemaking. Wine lovers have been encouraged to look deeper into their wine in terms that are relatable and understandable. Instead of looking at soil content, BRIX, and pH levels, wine lovers are concerned more for native yeast fermentation, dry farming, and lax fining and filtration practices. These are the calling cards of well made, authentic wines that are crafted with care. They speak to the ethos of modern consumers as a whole, not just modern wine consumers, who gravitate toward handmade, artisanal, and unique perspectives on some of the most common items.
Natural wine has grown up. We have woken up to realize that many of the greatest wines in the world have been natural all along. Our desire to seek out more authentic wines has led us to uncover the true beauty that lies in the intricacies of winemaking. We have discovered natural wines for grownups.