Natural Wines: A Taste of Place


Photo by delphaber/Flickr CC

For the wine enthusiast, a trip to Burgundy can change everything. It's arguably the most revered of French wine regions and, also arguably, the most picturesque. It certainly was a game-changer for me. I set foot on hallowed Montrachet Premier Cru ground; I explored the labyrinthine cellar of Maison de Champy, with its dusty bottles, some a century old, with the gruff winemaker Dimitri Bazas (who spent much of my visit berating Americans for such crimes as infanticide: drinking wines too young). All fun. But what changed the game was tasting my first natural wines.

These wines--at times sparkling with the funk of fermentation, always redolent of the earth in which their grapes were grown--tasted like nothing I'd ever had. They were alive, literally. And, more than any wine I'd ever drunk, they communicated that most elusive of wine terms: terroir.

My first brush came at Eric de Suremain's biodynamic winery. His elegant, expressive wines were made, in some cases, from grapes he stomped with his feet. His Rully Blanc 1er Cru had a savory, mineral, almost briny quality that stood out from the fruit-and-flower-noted wines I'd had in the region.

"Natural" is not an official certification, like organic or biodynamic, but rather a style.

Soon after, I was introduced to Alain & Julien Guillot, a father-son team that makes funky wines in a ramshackle house in Macon-Cruzille (not to be confused with a Guillot cousin who also makes natural wine down the road). Julien showed me their 150-year-old press--now defunct, but only as of the 2007 vintage--as he explained that his family went natural because his grandfather was "allergic" to sulfites.

Just what made these wines natural, exactly? Sure, they're organic, although not certifiably so. And, yes, they're often biodynamic--because if you're going to take such care to grow grapes, why not give them the mystical treatment? But just as a square is a rectangle but a rectangle not necessarily a square, natural wines are organic but organic wines are not always natural. "Natural" is not an official certification, like organic or biodynamic, but rather a style.

In lay terms, these wines carry the organic philosophy from the vineyard into the cellar. They are made without the use of pesticides and herbicides on the vines and without any, or as few as possible, of the 200-odd additives routinely used in conventional winemaking. Most important, they're fermented using yeasts that occur spontaneously rather than the commercially bred yeast strains common to modern winemaking. The vineyard soil is plowed, never irrigated; the grapes are picked by hand; the wine is unfiltered. And production is very, very small. The winemaker observes, more than orchestrates, the winemaking process, which is often referred to as non-interventionist.

Jenny Lefcourt, who is a partner in Jenny & Francois Selections, an importer of natural wines from France, says the difference between "a small vineyard making a natural wine and a big company making a technological wine is that one expresses a place. The other is made to taste the same every year. The taste profile is decided in advance."

To those enamored with the idea of eating whole, unprocessed foods raised sustainably by small farmers, natural wine seems like a no-brainer. And, indeed, the organic and sustainable movement is surely at least in part responsible for the growing popularity of natural wines. So it seems strange that such a seemingly altruistic way of making wine would have detractors. Natural wine, however, does.

"It's bullshit," says master sommelier Fred Dexheimer. "If there's a problem with a wine's fermentation you have to inoculate" with commercial yeast. He adds, "How can you sell a wine if it might be different the next time the customer orders it?" Like other critics, he denounces natural wines as unstable and inconsistent.

"Yes, the wines will be different every year," Lefcourt replies. "If you're looking to have a product that's the same year after year, like Coca-Cola, then that's right. But if wine is about vintage and place, then it's wrong. You don't want a wine with flaws. Some people's idea of unstable is different from mine."

And therein lies the issue on which both sides can agree: The flavors found in natural wines do not appeal to everyone. Some find the prickle of CO2 (sometimes used in lieu of sulfur dioxide, a common preservative), or the whiff of oxidation that some natural wines exhibit to be offensive.

Dexheimer told me he once tasted the same juice fermented by four different strains of yeast. Each of the final products was completely distinct. He meant it as praise for commercial yeast's versatility. To me, it proved a different point: adding yeast--or other additives, for that matter--compromises a wine's terroir. It changes its taste. That may come across as an improvement to some.

For better or worse, the natural wine movement is spreading. San Francisco hosted its first Natural Wine Week last month, and natural wine bars have sprouted in London, Tokyo, and certain pockets of the U.S. Dexheimer attributes its popularity with the Japanese to their unique palate, with its proclivity for umami and fermented flavors. Lefcourt believes their predisposition to "clean" cuisine also has something to do with it.

Because natural wines have nothing on the bottle designating them as such, part of the fun is finding them. Blogs like saignee and Alice Feiring, are great resources for unearthing small, cultish producers. Certain shops, such as Wine Therapy and Thirst in New York, and Terroir in San Francisco, specialize in these wines. And you can always check the back label to see who imported it. If it's Kermit Lynch, Jenny & Francois, or Savio Soares, with its German and Austrian focus, you're in business. Natural wines may require a little more research than picking up a Wine Spectator. It may be well worth it.