Natural wine is ancient, and the latest trend. What makes a wine “natural”?
When Jenny Lefcourt moved to Paris in the 1990s to study French literature and cinema, she and her friends started drinking a particularly exciting type of wine. This wine tasted “totally different, and alive, and delicious,” she remembers. They found it in a couple of bars, and later stumbled into a tasting of it hosted at a neighborhood restaurant. “There wasn’t really a name for it yet,” but it was the stuff that we’ll now call natural wine, and she began importing it in 2000.
Now natural wine has become a signifier of bourgeois taste in certain social circles and on certain menus across the United States. It has become a source of indie social capital, with wine labels that are as feverishly followed and obsessed over as album covers in the ’80s. But what makes a wine “natural” isn’t always clear to consumers who are more familiar with the under-$10 section at Trader Joe’s. And it’s become the subject of heated debate in the wine world, with natural wine purists arguing for its virtue and thrilling taste, and traditionalists criticizing the perceived flaws and even its idealism.
But while natural wine is recently trendy, it is not new: People have been making fermented grape juice without additives for thousands of years. (The history of sulfites complicates this; some people believe that sulfites in one form or another were used to preserve wine as early as the eighth century BC.) “People think that natural wine is a fad or a new thing, but it’s the traditional way to make wine,” explains Krista Scruggs, a winemaker and farmer based in Vermont and Texas. “It’s conventional wine that’s actually new.” Here’s what natural wine is, how we moved away from — and back to — it, and where it’s heading next.
What it is
Natural wine is more of a concept than a well-defined category with agreed-upon characteristics. In its purest form, it is wine made from unadulterated fermented grape juice and nothing else.
Many people — winemakers, distributors, writers, sommeliers — take issue with the term “natural wine.” Some prefer the phrase “low-intervention” wine, or “naked” wine, or “raw” wine. Scruggs calls her product “just fucking fermented juice.” But “natural wine” is the term that is most widely used, and anyone at a natural-inclined wine store, wine bar, or restaurant will know what you mean when you use it.
For the purpose of this article, I am working under the assumption that natural wine is not a fraud, nor are its supporters delusional, but rather that it’s a highly debated and endlessly complicated topic that never ceases to get all manner of people riled up. Also, the stuff is very often delicious.
Understanding natural wine requires a basic understanding of the (generally complex) winemaking process. In the simplest terms, that process has two parts: growing and picking grapes, and then turning them into wine through fermentation. Natural wine, then, is made from grapes not sprayed with pesticides or herbicides. Natural winemakers handpick their grapes instead of relying on machines to harvest them. When it comes to turning those handpicked grapes into juice, natural winemakers rely on native yeast, the stuff that’s whizzing around in the air and will land on grapes if you put them in a vat for long enough, to set off natural fermentation. And unlike most conventional winemakers, they don’t use any additives (like fake oak flavor, fake vanilla flavor, sugar, acid, egg white, etc.) in the winemaking process.
Occasionally, some natural winemakers will add some sulfites, a preservative and stabilizer that winemakers have been using longer than any other additive. Sulfites ensure that the wine you drink tastes roughly the same as it did when it went into the bottle. Natural winemakers either use no added sulfites or use it in small quantities, while conventional winemakers use up to 10 times as much. They also use it differently: Conventional winemakers add sulfites to grapes to kill off natural yeasts, and then add more throughout the rest of the winemaking process; natural winemakers will add a little bit just before bottling. The purest of the pure — naturally fermented grape juice with no sulfites — is often called “zero-zero,” referring to the lack of added anything.
The presence of sulfites doesn’t necessarily disqualify a bottle from the natural wine category, though. Small amounts of sulfites — around 10 to 35 parts per million — are in natural wine circles generally considered an acceptable amount of preservative to add in the bottling stage. Conventional wine, on the other hand, often uses much higher amounts of the stuff, which some natural wine supporters think “deadens” the flavor of the finished product. In the US, the maximum amount is 350 parts per million.
Given that natural wine is often described as “cloudy,” “funky,” and/or “barnyard-y,” many people assume that it’s always loudly, inherently weird. While natural wine is often unfiltered (that leads to cloudiness) and can veer sharply into funky territory, there’s also lots of natural wine that won’t feel like an acquired taste if you’re used to buying yours at Costco.
“There’s a misconception that natural wine is one thing — that it’s ‘funky’ or ‘not clean,’” Scruggs says. “And that’s an injustice. Because natural wine can still honor your palate if you’ve been drinking wine from the grocery store, but the cool thing is that it’s chemical-free, and that’s awesome.” Consumers shouldn’t be afraid to tell sommeliers and wine store owners that they want a natural wine that tastes like two-buck Chuck, she says. As longtime natural wine advocate Pascaline Lepeltier told GQ, “Whatever you like as a more traditional wine drinker, you can find a [natural] alternative everywhere in the world.”
And then there’s glou-glou, a popular type of natural wine made to be drunk without having to think about it too much. (The French term is onomatopoetic, their version of “glug-glug.”) While it doesn’t taste like two-buck Chuck, it does generally taste like delicious electrified juice: These are lighter red wines, often served chilled, and downed quickly.
What it isn’t
“Conventional” winemaking — shorthand for non-natural wine — is defined by technical intervention. In the vineyard, that intervention comes in the form of pesticides and herbicides. In the cellar, intervention generally comes in the form of lab-grown yeast (to control the fermentation process and regulate flavor), acid (to increase the wine’s acidity, which in turn can help the wine age better), and sulfites added at the time of bottling (to preserve flavor). Many winemakers also add sugar, which doesn’t make the wine sweet but instead, through turning into alcohol, creates the perception of “body.” (It’s common practice in Burgundy, Lefcourt notes.)
On top of that, there are more than 60 approved additives that American winemakers can use to manipulate their wines without listing them on the label. “A lot of wine is a grape product, plus all these millions of additives to create a product that is reliably the same every year,” Lefcourt explains. “It’s like Coca-Cola.” Egg white and isinglass, which is made from fish bladders, are often used to clarify wine, which makes many bottles non-vegan but not labeled as such.
Conventional wine, as we know it now, is less than a century old. Technological advances are the most influential factor in this change: Pesticides became widespread after World War II, when soldiers sprayed their sleeping bags with DDT to prevent the spread of diseases; commercial yeast entered the market in the mid ’60s. But wine criticism has also played a small role. Partially to thank is American wine critic Robert Parker, who established a 100-point wine rating system in the 1980s. Parker billed himself as the first wine critic not influenced by industry interests, an objective consumer advocate.
As Parker gained notoriety, his scoring began to significantly affect wine sales, so winemakers began manipulating their product to fit his tastes, which often favored full-bodied, fruity wines. “When that started happening,” Lefcourt explains, “there was a homogenization of what people thought good wine was.” (Parker has denied the existence of the “Parkerization” phenomenon, and instead attributed these trends to a “successful industry.”)
That homogenization of taste, Lefcourt says, led winemakers to rely more heavily on additives that would ensure a consistent result every year, regardless of climate or yield. This gets to the core of a large debate between natural wine fanatics and those who think they’ve gone off the rails: Is the “best” wine made with minimal intervention? Or is it made by seasoned, well-informed winemakers looking to achieve a particular result that reflects their land and traditions? This debate likely won’t slow down anytime soon.
Where it came from, and where it’s going
Most people agree that the modern natural wine movement began in rural France, where a handful of low-intervention winemakers who had been toiling (and tilling) in their own organic bubbles found out about each other and began growing a community. “These were natural winemakers who were isolated in their appellations [regions], maybe the only ones there working organically in the vines with little to no additives in the cellar,” Lefcourt remembers.
One of the first organized, formal natural wine tastings was La Dive Bouteille in 1999, which started with 15 winemakers and around 100 attendees, Lefcourt says. Now, La Dive boasts hundreds of winemakers and thousands of attendees and has become a much-anticipated, hype-filled annual event for the natural wine world.
In the 2000s, natural wine importers like Lefcourt and Louis/Dressner grew and gained traction in the United States. Natural wine — first from France, then from elsewhere — grew from a niche interest of those “in the know” to a burgeoning trend. In the early days, Lefcourt remembers, “there was a lot of talking to deaf ears, trying to communicate and build understanding.”
Alice Feiring, one of media’s first drum beaters for the natural wine movement, wrote her first story revealing the mad scientist-like machinations of conventional wine for the Times in 2001; in 2005, she covered the natural wine bar trend in Paris. Fourteen years later, the trend is in full swing in America, and not just in New York and LA.
As more stateside restaurants began to stock natural wines and media began to cover those restaurants — and readers began to associate natural wines with the sort of places where hot, trendy people worked and ate and drank — a different sort of trend grew. Now, a particular type of trendy, well-respected chef is all but expected to be buddies with a handful of natural winemakers. (Fabian von Hauske and Jeremiah Stone, the chefs at three of Manhattan’s most trend-setting restaurants, are set to open their own wine shop, with a focus on all things natural, this year.)
In recent years, natural wine’s trendiness has expanded outside the reaches of new-era cool-kid Bon Appétit, whose splashy and informative 2017 natural wine package compared the genre to the Sex Pistols and N.W.A. GQ Style called it “the next frontier for hypebeast culture.” The comedian Eric Wareheim is making natural wine now, and it’s actually good. Kourtney Kardhasian’s new lifestyle blog, Poosh, published a story on natural wine, whose recommendations were praised by Bon Appétit, Eater, and Natural Whine, an inside-baseball natural wine Instagram account run by industry vet Adam Vourvolis that also sells in-joke T-shirts. Action Bronson hosted a Facebook video with natural wine GOAT Frank Cornelissen. (One commenter replied, “Four Loko is better.”)
As the issue of climate change becomes more dire every day, natural winemaking gains more traction as a way to protect the earth. “Wineries are the biggest polluter in France,” Lefcourt explains. Scruggs notes that natural winemaking with a focus on native grape varietals — as opposed to growing varietals to respond to market trends — can make those vines more resistant to the effects of climate change.
Natural wine begins with organically or biodynamically farmed grapes, which are grown without pesticides, herbicides, or other chemicals. (Biodynamic farming is a holistic, chemical-free practice that takes into account the ecosystem of the farm, as well as lunar cycles.) Organic and biodynamic certifications exist, but they are expensive; many small vineyards that adhere to these practices don’t shell out for the label.
Complicating things further is the fact that many winemakers who do pay for organic certification will then use additives — high amounts of sulfur, yeast, acid, etc. — when making their wine. This brings us to one of the biggest obstacles standing between consumers and the experience of drinking natural, low-intervention, organically farmed wine: It can, at face value, be hard to identify.
One last thing: What about hangovers?
You’ll often hear that natural wine causes fewer hangovers. A lot of people (Goop included) think this is true, that the sulfites in conventional wine can exacerbate wine’s morning-after effects. A lot of people think it’s bullshit.
“I think not drinking water helps with hangovers,” Scruggs says. “I don’t think it’s related to sulfur because it’s a naturally occurring byproduct already. Yes, there are producers pushing an extreme amount of it — but usually it’s bulk wine and it’s the [other] additives that don’t have to be listed.” So drink responsibly, and don’t be an idiot.
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