Why Natural Wines Are the New Wine Movement
One of the Most Exciting Trends in the Wine World Right Now Involves the Production of Natural Wines
The natural wines are made with minimal if any, chemicals or additives, and in which as much as possible of the growing and production process is done by hand. In short, as Wine Folly has noted, natural wines are “unfiltered, untamed and un-Photoshopped versions” of traditional wines.
What Makes a Natural Wine?
While both producers and consumers commonly use the term “natural wine”, there is no unanimous consensus on what actually constitutes a natural wine. That’s because there are no official bodies that oversee the certification of these wines, no official legal definitions used to describe these wines, and no legislation to require certain techniques or approaches. Instead, there are informal associations and organizations – such as Raw Wine – that help to define what exactly a natural wine should be.
The good news is that there is general agreement about what the term “natural wine” really means. For example, almost all winemakers agree that the starting point for making a natural wine is using organically grown grapes that have not been treated with pesticides or other chemicals. Moreover, these grapes should be dry-farmed (i.e. no artificial irrigation) on low-yield vineyards. And all grapes should be handpicked during harvest. Then, during production, there should be no added sugars or cultivated yeasts, no additives for colour or mouth-feel, minimal filtration and minimal use of sulfites. Finally, all techniques traditionally used to extend the flavour profile of a wine – such as ageing in oak barrels – should be minimized or avoided altogether.
The problem, however, is that terms like “natural wine” and “organic wine” tend to be intermingled. And even the term “biodynamic” is used to describe natural wines, creating even more confusion about how these wines are actually produced. One way of thinking about this is that the term “organic” only refers to the growing process and how grapes actually enter the production process before they become wines. Thus, all natural wines are organic wines, but not all organic wines are natural wines. For example, a winemaker might use organic grapes, but then embrace a modern technological process for making wines that use plenty of additives and advanced filtration techniques.
Mixed Reactions to Natural Wines
For wine purists, of course, natural wines represent everything that is good about the wine industry. These are wines the way they used to be made, before the introduction of high tech tools and processes. From this perspective, natural wine techniques help to maintain the true expression of a grape as well as the terroir of a wine region.
And at high-end restaurants around the world, top sommeliers are firmly behind the trend, viewing these wines as a refined embodiment of everything that is good about the winemaking world. For example, two of the top French sommeliers in the world – Pierre Jancou and Ewen Le Moigne – are fully supportive of the natural wine trend. Other celebrity proponents of the natural wine trend include Rudolf Steiner and Maria Thun (both top experts on biodynamic farming), Masanobu Fukuoka (a Japanese philosopher of farming), Jules Chauvet, Nicolas Joly, Marcel Lapierre, and James Hird.
For consumers, however, the reaction to natural wines has been much more mixed. Natural wines don’t look or taste like traditional wines. Since they are unfiltered, and since no sugars or cultivated yeasts have been added, they can look cloudy within the bottle. Moreover, they can sometimes taste more like sour beer or kombucha and come with smells that some have described as “gamy” or “yeasty.”
The Leader of the Natural Wine Movement: Isabelle Legeron
Within the natural wine movement, there is one clear leader and voice – Isabelle Legeron, who is France’s only female Master of Wine and the only MW worldwide dedicated to the subject of natural wine. In short, if you want to understand how and why the natural wine movement became so popular, you have to understand her unique perspective on the topic. Legeron is the founder of Raw Wine as well as the author of a bestselling book on natural wine. This book has received positive reviews from the likes of The World of Fine Wine and Decanter Magazine.
As Legeron describes in her book, a natural wine is “living wine from living soil.” It is, as she notes, “Wine that protects the microcosm of life in the bottle in its entirety, keeping it intact so that it remains stable and balanced…” And, as she has also noted in both her book and interviews, “Natural wine is a continuum, like ripples on a pond. At the epicentre of these ripples, are growers who produce wines absolutely naturally – nothing added and nothing removed…”
Just from these brief excerpts, you can start to grasp the philosophy that surrounds natural wine. It is, indeed, a way of thinking about life that can profoundly affect people, and especially those who can appreciate the care and time that goes into making each and every bottle of wine.
Examples of Natural Wines
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Of course, there are several great examples of natural wines being made today that are increasingly showing up on wine lists around the world. One of these is Orange Wine, which is most commonly produced in the Friuli region of Italy and the neighbouring wine regions of Slovenia. During the production of Orange Wine, skins and seeds stay in contact with the juice during fermentation.
Another popular example of a natural wine is Pétillant Naturel (“Pet Nat”), which is created from Chenin Blanc grapes from the Loire Valley in France. This type of wine is made using the oldest and most ancient sparkling method known to winemakers. And, finally, there is Col Fondo Prosecco, which is a type of Prosecco that is unfiltered and often looks cloudy to the eye (not to mention the fact that it also can smell “funky” to the drinker).
The Debate Over Natural Wines
The big question for many wine drinkers, of course, is whether natural wines are worth all the extra fuss and attention. This is a natural question to ask, given that 99% of wines available today are clear (and not cloudy) in appearance and not sour to the taste. Moreover, most wines are produced to be redolent of everything from chocolate to ripe fruit. Few wine drinkers want to open up an expensive bottle of wine and smell something that is gamy or yeasty, right? If you ordered this bottle of wine at an expensive restaurant, you might even be tempted to send it back.
And then there is the question of whether or not natural wines are actually good for you. One commonly accepted notion, for example, is that the elimination of sulfites during the wine production process means that wine drinkers do not have to worry about the classic “a wine headache” later after imbibing a few glasses. But that’s not necessarily true since the elimination of filtration during the production process means that microbes and proteins can make their way into the wine.
Finally, there is the problem of shipping and logistics. Since natural wines are not packed full of additives and chemicals, they are much more unstable during shipping. Most winemakers would agree that natural wines are much more fragile than traditional wines, and require much more effort to avoid spoilage during transport and storage.
A Wine that Breaks All the Rules
Yet, at the end of the day, there is something glorious about celebrating a wine that seems to break all the rules. Natural wines, by and large, are not meant for the mass-market consumer used to chemicals and additives. Instead, they are a rarity, and something to be celebrated for the skill and patience and precision needed to produce them. They hearken back to an earlier time when all winemakers were artisans, and the entire winemaking industry was much more localized (and not global, with wines being shipped all over the world). As a result, natural wines represent one of the most exciting and profound trends in the winemaking world today.