Ever heard of natural wine? If you answered, no, you’re not alone.

Lately, the buzzwords ‘natural wine’ have been capturing a wider audience in boutique San Diego wine shops, but there is still some confusion over what these words actually mean. If one wine is natural, what makes another unnatural?  The problem is using the word natural. There are no regulations on the use of ‘natural’ in legal oeno lexicon, so it leaves the meaning open to interpretation and abuse. To some, it’s nothing but a trend, and will fade soon enough.

However, if one changes the word ‘natural’ to ‘traditional’ and compares traditional farming/winemaking to its conventional counterpart, it becomes possible to understand, distinguish and appreciate the world of natural wine.

History of the Grape

According to archaeological records, the first known winery existed circa 6,000 years ago, but exactly when grapes were first used to make wine is unknown. Millennia ago, humans learned how to interrupt the death cycle of the grape. Finding that sweet spot where the grape transforms to delicious libation, moments before converting to vinegar, is every winemaker’s goal. Getting there requires a lot of skill, and it demands an intimate knowledge of the land, vine, and grape along with its resident yeasts and bacteria.

However, since the mid-20th century, research and technology have provided shortcuts in the vineyard and cellar. Honed techniques passed down over generations compete with the convenience of machinery and additives. And it’s the preference to use these shortcuts that ultimately labels a wine ‘natural’ (traditional) or conventional, and it all begins in the vineyard.

Good Wine Comes From Healthy Grapes

Healthy grapes grow on healthy vines planted on healthy soil. Healthy soil is a result of conscientious farming. Ideally, selecting a vine well-suited to its environment will result in fewer problems needing intervention down the road.  In nature, balance is created through biodiversity (variety of organisms), but vineyards are examples of monoculture, or single-crop cultivation, and monoculture lacks biodiversity. Monocrops exhaust the land and leach the soil of its nutrients and microbial life.

Without biodiversity, soil-deficiencies arise, diseases set in and pests invade.  Poor site selection adds to these maladies. In natural wine, these threats are mitigated using organic, biodynamic and/or dry farming practices. Conventional wine tackles these challenges with the use of synthetic, chemical fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides and pesticides. The former seeks preventative measures while the latter opts for corrective action.

The Importance of the Harvest

Pressing the harvested grapes with Bichi Wines.

Natural winemakers prefer to harvest by hand, selecting grapes ripened to the desired balance of acid, tannins, and sugar. In conventional wine, machinery is often used to shake grapes from the vine using no discretion for ripeness amongst bunches as corrections can be made in the winery. Once the grape leaves the vine, decomposition slowly begins.

The grapes are transported to the winery, and crush is underway. Fermentation begins. Naturally occurring, wild yeasts on the grapes start the conversion of sugar to alcohol and CO2. In natural wine, native yeasts are preferred as they represent a sense of place, or terroir,  but they can be tricky. Yeast populations vary, and fermentation can be unpredictable. It can take days to months for yeasts to finish their job. Sometimes, fermentation becomes stuck and threatens loss of wine. Therefore, natural winemakers are at the mercy of timing and temperature. For conventional producers, sulfur dioxide is applied to the must (juice) to inhibit wild yeasts and lab-cultured yeasts are introduced.

To Sulfite Or Not To Sulfite

In winemaking, the use of sulfur dioxide (sulfites) is hotly debated, and a number of natural winemakers prefer to limit use to a small amount at bottling. Sulfites serve as an antibacterial, antioxidant and antiseptic and can be used at different stages of vinification to insure a drinkable, marketable wine.

Yeasts provide flavors and aromas to wine and are a major component of a wine’s personality. Cultured yeasts can be relied upon to duplicate flavor and aroma style year after year, and certain strains are selected for their high rate of fermentation which speeds up the winemaking process. Cultured yeasts can mimic yeast profiles from around the world. Through lab yeast, fermentation can be controlled, and yield loss may be averted. Although cultured yeast and sulfites allow conventional winemakers to produce a reliable product, they serve as examples of manipulation: something eschewed by natural winemakers.

Minimal Intervention Wine Production And What It Means

A defining feature of natural wine is being made with ‘minimal intervention’. Semantics aside, what this refers to is the restricted use of additives in the cellar, and rare use of new oak. The focus is to let the juice speak for itself. Depending on the source, there are at least seventy reported additives used to make wine. Some are used to add acid, sugars, and tannins or to correct color, while others are used for clarification or as preservatives and stabilizers.

Conventional winemaking relies heavily on these additives to guarantee a predictable wine. Producers are not required to label wine ingredients, so there is little transparency in the bottle. However, with truly natural wines, it’s usually safe to assume the bottle contains only grapes, yeast, and possibly a touch of sulfites. The goal is: nothing added, nothing removed. One thing is for certain: the wine will not taste the same vintage to vintage. Of course, as there are no regulations, just how natural a wine is depends on producer preference and practice.

Appreciating Natural Wine

As with all wines, this comes down to personal proclivity. Critics argue that natural wines are faulty wines. If this were true, established companies like Louis Dressner and Jenny & Francois would not continue to expand and supply a growing demand. There are tons of ‘clean’ natural wines. For sure, natural wines have a unique freshness to them. They taste ‘alive’. They challenge the status quo and spark conversation. They represent a return to traditional farming and vinification.

While new natural winemakers perfect their craft with each vintage, generations-old, family operations keep their methods the same as they’ve been for decades or centuries. Be open-minded at your first sip, and as some people say, don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.

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