If you’ve spent time at any of the hip urban eateries or wine shoppes popping up in major cities across the United States, you’ve noticed a unique trend in the wine selections on offer. Although Natural Wine makes up less than 1% of the entire wine market, boutique wine shoppes and wine-centric restaurants alike are dedicating more and more shelf space and inventory dollars on wines described as Natural. This post is intended to give an overview of what exactly constitutes Natural Wine and whether or not Natural Wines are right for you.
Quite simply put, Natural Wines are made in a traditional method using very little intervention in either the vineyard or the winery. Natural Wine is to the wine industry what organic and locally-sourced farm products are to the food industry. Even though Natural Wine makes up a tiny portion of the overall wine market, many Millennial wine drinkers are gravitating towards Natural Wine, and this shift is having a positive impact on the movement as a whole.
The rise of Natural Wine is a direct result of consumers demanding more information about the products they enjoy. As consumers with disposable income become more educated, they tend to scrutinize their purchases more closely and consider non-traditional factors when making decisions. Price, brand recognition, and convenience are still major behavioral drivers, however Millennial consumers, which make up 83 million people – the largest generation in U.S. history, place value on other factors. Millennial consumers may consider organic farming practices, authenticity, local sourcing, and ethical production when choosing brands. They may also consider how the product was produced and what specific methods were employed. These types of consumer considerations are growing rapidly as the Millennial population spends more of their discretionary dollars in the consumer market. For consumers who place value on the methods of production behind their favorite glass of wine, Natural Wines are a perfect category to explore.
Conventional Versus Natural Wine
Let’s expand on conventional versus Natural wine-making. First, it’s important to understand Natural Wine processes do not necessarily make a better wine. Natural Wines make up only a tiny portion of the overall wine industry, leaving conventional wines to occupy the rest of the space. It would be a fool’s errand to suggest all those conventional wines on store shelves are somehow inferior or of poor quality. You can find wonderful conventional wines with depth of flavor, concentration of fruit, an expression of terroir, and age-ability in the same way you can find conventional wines which lack character. In the same respect, Natural Wines offer a spectrum of quality ranging from the delicious and the sublime to the less than enjoyable.
In essence, wine is an agricultural product and like all agricultural products, wine can sometimes show inconsistencies in quality, especially from vintage to vintage. Although wine-makers strive to create wines that show relative consistency, factors such as climate, shifting weather patterns, and processes in the winery can affect quality and consistency. To hedge against these factors, conventional wine-makers employ a myriad of tools at their disposal, including the addition of Sulphur Dioxide (so2). So2 is probably the most universal agent employed during wine-making to insure a wine’s stability. The addition of So2 helps preserve wine and allows bottled wine to retain its integrity during the sometimes long shipping and storage phase.
Sulphur Dioxide is added during the bottling phase of wine production by nearly every wine-maker across the globe. Under American wine-making regulations, vintners of conventional wine can use up to 350 parts per million of So2 during the bottling process, whereby many Natural Wine producers will refuse to use So2 at all. Among Natural Wine-makers who do employ the use of So2, it is generally accepted to use no more than 10-35 parts per million. The universal goal of many Natural Wine-makers is to utilize as few inputs as possible, however it is difficult to craft wines for the consumer market without the addition of some level of sulphur dioxide.
The average wine consumer may be surprised to learn the United States Electronic Code of Federal Regulations allows the use of up to 60 different elements during the wine-making process which need not be listed on the label. Some of those elements include: mass-produced yeast strains; oak chips to mimic the flavor of wine aged in oak casks; the use of herbicides and pesticides in the vineyard; silica gel as a clarifying agent; soy flour as a yeast nutrient; ascorbic acid to prevent oxidation of color; and citric acid. Natural Wine-makers refuse to employ these elements and stick to a stringent short list of ingredients: organic grapes; naturally-occurring yeast; and trace amounts of so2.
Wine-Making: A Short History
Wine-making has been chronicled throughout human history starting in approximately 5000 B.C. As hunters and gatherers left their nomadic lifestyles behind and started forming villages and collectivities, they began domesticating plants, grains, and animals for consumption. These collective efforts in agriculture led to surpluses of food stores which allowed our ancestors to survive harsh environments, build cities, and proliferate.
In the Mediterranean basin and other temperate climates where vitis vinifera vines flourish naturally, grapes were most likely harvested by our early ancestors with surplus yields held in vats. With just the right climactic conditions including the right temperature, and the right amount of naturally-occurring ambient yeast, those surplus grapes began to ferment, producing alcohol – wine-making was born! In the centuries that followed, our Europeans ancestors applied more knowledge to this remedial process and developed methods to control fermentation and stabilize wine, thus creating a wine-making industry.
For centuries wine was produced in a simplistic fashion with very few technological advancements. Grapes were harvested in microclimates ideally suited for viticulture and enterprising farmers utilized mother nature’s gifts to produce and sell wine. Over the centuries, wine-makers found they could enhance the character of the wine by aging in oak casks and by utilizing other methods such as fining and filtering. Incremental advancements in wine-making were made over the centuries, however the basic process remained relatively unchanged until the 20th century.
In the post-war boom of the 1950s and 1960s, farmers and vintners in Europe and the United States started utilizing modern methods of agricultural production. Technological advances in farming such as irrigation, mechanization, and the use of herbicides and pesticides resulted in much higher crop yields, more consistency, and predictable surpluses. The global population in the post-World War II era has been better fed and better nourished than in any other period in history thanks, in part, to technological advancements made on farms all over the world.
Viticultural and wine-making practices evolved during this time period and many wine-makers applied advanced methods, giving birth to conventional wine-making. For the first time in history, wine-makers were able to produce more wine of relatively steady consistency and transport their wines over long distances, opening up commercial markets which had never existed. The addition of SO2 during the bottling phase meant wines made in Europe could survive the long sea voyage to the United States and elsewhere and would retain quality. In a very short period of time, more of the world’s population had easy access to some of the best wines in the world.
In the second half of the 20th century after years of conventional practices, an agricultural revolution of sorts began to gain ground; famers and vintners in Europe began to reject modern, conventional practices in favor of more traditional processes. They believed the food products being produced with modern advancements were inferior to traditional, or non-interventionists methods. Farmers along with viticulturists grew frustrated with these modern practices and began to reject the use of herbicides, pesticides, and general intervention as a whole.
During the 1970s, a handful of vignerons in France looked to their fathers’ and grandfathers’ techniques and decided to reject modernity in search of a more pure style of wine-making. The enterprising vignerons of the 1970s, such as Jules Chauvet, studied the roots of wine-making and made a conscious effort to return to that tradition in much the same way many European farmers adopted the Slow Food movement in agriculture. Natural Wine-making was thus born, or at least revived. Since this resurgence in France in the 1970s, the popularity of Natural Wine has grown incrementally, reaching its apex with the current Millennial generation of conscious wine consumers.
Natural Wine-Making Processes
In essence, Natural Wine is a return to those processes utilized by our wine-making ancestors before the introduction of modern, mechanized farming. You may ask “Is Natural Wine any better?” The simple answer is … not necessarily. However consuming wines produced in a natural manner instills in the wine drinker confidence they are consuming only fermented grape juice with zero to minimal additives.
Consider orange juice for a moment. You can purchase a bottle of pasteurized Tropicana orange juice with added sugar and preservatives from a grocery store shelf, or you can enjoy a delicious glass of freshly-squeezed orange juice. Both products can be enjoyable and quench your thirst and deliver necessary nutrients, including vitamin C, however the store-bought product offers certain advantages such as convenience and longevity as it can be transported over long distances to arrive on your grocery store shelf. The freshly-squeezed variety is closest to the source and a direct representation of the fruit itself, but lacks the convenience of pasteurized, conventional orange juice. There is definitely room for both products in our consumer culture. Natural Wine is the culinary equivalent of freshly-squeezed orange juice.
For those consumers looking for a pure and authentic representation of wine-making, Natural Wine is definitely an area to explore, however there are pitfalls which must be noted. Because many Natural Wine-makers shun the use of high amounts of SO2, some Natural Wines may experience oxidation during the transportation phase, especially if the wine was exposed to vast variations in temperature, which often happens during transport. In addition, the avoidance of SO2 may cause the wine to vary wildly in consistency from one bottling to another. You may enjoy a bottle of Natural Wine from a certain producer only to find it inconsistent from vintage to vintage, or from bottle to bottle. It’s important to remember Natural Wines are pure agricultural products; they are alive and have been minimally treated.
Natural Wines can also display notoriously “funky” aromas which can also result from the avoidance of SO2. These funky aromas are often the by-product of Brettanomyces – a non-spore forming genus of yeast in the family Saccharomycetaceae often colloquially referred to as “Brett”. Brettanomyces can infiltrate a winery and if not addressed can infect the wine produced at the facility. Trace amounts of Brett can actually enhance the aroma and flavor of wine and deliver enticing notes of smoke, bacon, or wild game. If Brett is not managed properly, however, it can alter the character of wine in a negative fashion with undesirable aromas such as barnyard, bandaid, and rancid cheese. Imagine paying $35.00 for a bottle of Natural Wine only to find out the wine is flawed.
In closing, there are several valid reasons to drink Natural Wine. If you are concerned with the provenance of the products you consume along with the processes employed and you wish to support wine-makers in their quest for producing a pure product with minimal intervention, then Natural Wines are a wonderful area to explore. With Natural Wine, you can be sure the wine-maker grew and harvested the grapes in an organic fashion without the use of chemical intervention in the vineyard. You can also be sure the wine-maker employed traditional and simplistic processes in the winery and avoided the use of outside elements, mimicking wine-making processes from a bygone era. If these practices are important to you and you are willing to tolerate occasional inconsistency, then Natural Wines are right for you.