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Everything You Wanted To Know, But Were Afraid To Ask About Natural Wine

by Kathleen Willcox

posted on January 06, 2020

Photo Courtesy: iStock/Michael Wapp

Here’s a definition that most everyone would agree on: wine is an alcoholic drink that is made by fermenting the juice of freshly-picked fruit, typically grapes. Sounds pretty natural, right?

So what’s up with all of the “natural” wines you’ve been reading about? Well, generally speaking, natural wine is made using grapes from small-scale growers who employ sustainable, organic, and frequently, biodynamic viticultural methods. Broadly speaking, that means the farmers refrain from spraying chemicals and pesticides in the vineyard. Once plucked, producers allow nature to take its course, believing that fermented grapes don’t need the additives or sulfur dioxide many commercial vintners add to assist in flavor development and preservation.

Unlike, say, producers whose juice is labeled “Champagne,” or “Bordeaux,” there are no hard-and-fast rules around who is permitted to say that they’re making natural wine.

“There isn’t a universally-accepted definition for natural wine; in many ways it’s a philosophy and even a spiritual practice,” Keith Wallace, sommelier, author and founder of the Wine School of Philadelphia, tells Dorsia. “You can break down the concept into five common characteristics: biodynamically grown, no additional sulfur, non-interventionist, aged in amphorae, orange. Some natural wines will have two or more of these characteristics, but all natural wines have at least one of them.”

Natural wine has been around for hundreds of years, but the commercial movement got started in earnest in Beaujolais, France in the 1960s, and has been gaining ground since. In the past decade, natural wine has been growing like gangbusters, driven, experts say, by a desire on the part of many consumers to get closer to our foods’ roots.

(Photo Courtesy: iStock/VioletaStoimenova)

“Trends don’t operate in silos,” says trends expert Daniel Levine. “People are looking to get back to nature in many parts of their lives. If you are into organic foods and sustainable agriculture, you’re not going to suddenly throw those sensibilities away, when you’re kicking back with a crisp Chardonnay.”

Hard data on the natural winemaking industry — which, from the get-go, has operated as a reaction to the larger wine world — is tough to come by. To get some idea of natural wine’s rise, we may turn to statistics related to organic wine, keeping in mind that the two categories are not perfectly-synonymous. (Organic wines are produced from organically-grown grapes, while natural wine is made using minimal intervention post-harvest; there is some overlap between the two practices, but not all organic wine is considered “natural”, and not all natural wine is organic.) According to data crunchers Wines and Vines, organic wine grapes account for about 5-percent of total vineyard acreage around the world. In France, 9-percent of vineyards (about 146,000 acres) are organic; California, which harbors 85-percent of wine grapes grown in the U.S., has just 2.4-percent of its acreage devoted to certified organic grapes. But demand is increasing, at rates of between 10-and-20-percent per year in volume between 2013 and 2016.

The demand around the world for natural wine is on the rise, especially among the 20-39-year-old set in the US.

Phillip Acquafresca, the wine director of The Absinthe Group, a major player in San Francisco’s sustainable food movement, says that natural wine has become “the talk” of Absinthe’s hive of restaurants and wine bars. While his team doesn’t track requests, he said “one of 25 consumers are now at least inquiring about natural wine options. And yes, the majority of the people are under the age of 40.”

Levine concurs. “With the exception of some orange-haired presidents, most people think climate change is real,” Levine notes, adding that “younger Americans in particular want to be responsible stewards of the Earth; drinking natural wine is one of the most enjoyable ways to do that.”

(Photo Courtesy: iStock/RapidEye)

Now, if natural wine is basically wine, made without pesticides and additives, why hasn’t this movement been even more successful? That’s where it gets tricky. Rebecca DeVaney, sommelier and owner of the Wine & Spirits Guild, explains that the flavor and aesthetic of natural wine isn’t for everyone.

“Tasting notes will differ depending on the wine, but almost all natural wines have a sour or kombucha-like component to them,” she says. “Most are also hazy from lack of filtration.”

If that sounds like your bag, then make sure you check out some of the temples of natural wine around the world. Favorite watering holes for what Levine defines as the “typical” American natural wine aficionado (you know, the “tree-huggers and healthists with deeper pockets than most. The Lululemon-wearing urbanites, Bernie Sanders supporters, Conservative conservationists, the salad-and-sushi set): 320 Market Café, outside of Philly; Red & White in Chicago; La Buvette and La Pointe du Grouin in Paris; Cordobar and Briefmarken Weine in Berlin; Racines and The Ten Bells in New York City; Chez Lavigne in Montreal; The Antler Room in Kansas City; the Ordinaire in Oakland; Bar Norman in Portland; and The Owls Club in Tucson.

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