To Nature or Nurture?

By | July 20, 2010
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what is natural wine

What "natural" means when it comes to wine--sometimes a little interference is just what the grape needs.

Natural wine" is a hot topic. From magazines to the blogosphere, every oenophile seems to have an opinion. But precisely what "natural" means when it comes to winemaking is open to fierce debate. Just as savvy food shoppers know that the word "natural" on a meat label or "organic" on a bag of chips doesn't tell the whole story, sophisticated wine buyers know that, even if a wine comes with an organic stamp, it might be as highly manipulated as that factory-raised chicken you swore off long ago. By manipulated--or, to quote importer Joe Dressner, "spoofulated"--wines, we're talking about those tweaked by "flavor- enhancing" yeasts (do you prefer plum, cocoa or cherry?); oak chips, an inexpensive way to add that toasty vanilla flavor; additives that enrich color, acid, and sugar; those that rely on heavy doses of sulfur to stabilize the juice for lengthy supermarket shelf life; or that have otherwise been whipped into "shape" by micro-oxygenation or reverse osmosis machinery.

So that's what natural wines aren't. But what, exactly, are they?

Ask ten people and you'll get a dozen answers. "I'm not sure I even know how to describe it," winemaker Steve Edmunds of Edmunds St. John recently mused, insisting, "You can't generalize."

But we'll give it a shot. Naturally made wines are crafted by growers who care deeply about their vineyards, and who strive to translate their site's terroir from grape to glass. To do so, they farm organically or biodynamically, harvest by hand, and practice a relatively non-interventionist style of winemaking. That means fermenting with native yeasts, adding no chemicals or enzymes during the winemaking process, shunning high-tech machinery, and being judicious in their use of sulfur, in some cases using none at all.

Out of all these practices, the sulfur issue--to use it or not; if so, how much? in the vineyard as well as in the cellar? a dash during bottling?--is natural wine's single biggest bugaboo, the one thing that is likely to cause a fistfight among otherwise civilized folks who share a deep passion for the same thing: a good glass of wine.

Natural is political

But before we dive into the sulfur debate, let's first review the origins of a viticultural practice that has turned into a passionately organized movement with its own international conferences.

The vin naturale movement took off in France, largely in reaction to the kind of chemical farming practices that ultimately render a vineyard's soil as lifeless as a parking lot, and industrial winemaking techniques that resulted in dull, laboratory wines. High-profile practitioners such as Marcel Lapierre (Beaujolais) and Nicolas Joly (Loire) have become international voices for biodynamic farming, and Lapierre, influenced by a man named Jules Chauvet, is often referred to as the "godfather of the natural wine movement" for his opposition to the use of sulfur.

Long before it migrated to the States, the vin naturale movement gained a following in Paris, largely through small wine bars like Le Verre Volé in the 10th arrondissement. But as it is with so many essentially sound ideas, from organic farming to green energy, the natural wine movement has taken on elements that transcend the initial goal of producing a good (or better) glass of wine. The phrase "natural wine" has turned into a political statement, and in some circles a sales tool.

As the Rhône-based winemaker Eric Texier, whose labels bears his name, recently wrote via email, "Making natural wines is now a political act in France. And therefore the intention is more important than the result."

But even in Paris things appear to be shifting. As David Feldstein, a passionate lover of Burgundy who represents premium labels for Atherton Wine Imports, told me, "What got me going on this was a recent visit to Le Verre Volé. They helped start this, but are now not necessarily pushing natural wine--they just want to sell good wines, those made well from beginning to end. I prefer the phrase vin sincère, or 'honest wine.'"

And honesty means transparency. "To me, more important than whether a wine is 'natural' or not, is a desire for complete transparency on the part of the winemaker and wine seller to let people know how the grapes were grown and how the wine was made," offered Josh Adler, former wine buyer at Bi-Rite and currently wine director at Spring Restaurant and Boutique in Paris. "Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon is on the right track now when he lists everything used in the winemaking process on the back labels of his wines."

To illustrate, the label on one recent Boony Doon Syrah includes grapes and French oak barrels, but also tannin, cultured yeasts, copper sulfate, and untoasted wood chips. Grahm himself is among the first to admit that his style has changed: "The '06 Syrah was a bit of a relic of winemaking techniques past. The reference to oak chips, copper sulfate and tannin is a bit jarring to me, and if memory serves, these elements ended up on the back label because one lot of Syrah that went into the wine had those additives," he wrote on L.A.-based wine distributor Amy Atwood's "My Daily Wine" blog. (The other '06 lots were made in a more "hands-off, non-manipulated style," he said.)

The risks of the sulfur-free road

One thing pretty much everybody does agree on, however, is that making wine in what we'll broadly call a "traditional" way is a far riskier proposition than that endorsed by the more scientifically minded set who teach at winemaking schools and offer consulting services. Every step of the process must be that much more carefully monitored, beginning in the vineyard and ending with bottling. And for those who elect to go the no-added sulfur route, deliberately sidestepping a technique that has been used (and abused) to preserve wine for hundreds of years, the risks are higher still.

Sulfur has been used in winemaking as a cleansing and preserving agent since antiquity. Without it, wine naturally turns to vinegar. In the vineyard, elemental sulfur is used to control mildew, and as a natural element is employed by growers, including organic and biodynamic, to combat mold. But using too much of it can leave a vineyard's soil with an acid imbalance, and applying it too close to harvest may result in winemaking problems, because during fermentation residual traces of elemental sulfur can combine with hydrogen to produce hydrogen sulfide, the stuff that gives wine that rotten-egg smell. In the cellar, sulfur dioxide is used to cleanse barrels, and also to prevent oxidation at various stages of the winemaking process.

To use a cooking analogy, one might compare sulfur to salt. In expert hands, the right amount added at the right time does not result in a "salty" dish but coaxes out flavors, whereas a heavy hand results in foods that taste salty, and lose their sense of harmony. Too much sulfur can also cause headaches in some wine drinkers.

Some in the natural wine movement--those the writer Alice Feiring calls "ultranatural"-- eschew all use of sulfur. One of my favorite sulfur-free wines is Cascina degli Ulivi's Gavi, from a white grape indigenous to Italy's Piedmont region. This bright, aromatic wine is full of personality, loaded with flavor, and just a tad oxidized. This quality is arguably a result of taking the sulfur-free road, but it also adds a distinctly appealing nuttiness to the bottle. On the red side, Christian Venier's Le Clos des Carteries Cheverny, a delicious Loire blend of Pinot Noir and Gamay, is light and feminine, evoking currants, spice, and minerals, with firm yet expansive flavors and terrific balance.

But just as frequently, no-sulfur wines can seem incomplete, unfinished. In my experience, they can share a similar aromatic quality that I characterize as "grapey," with only a vague sense of place and varietal, which strikes me as antithetical to the notion of preserving terroir.

Despite his own challenging experiences, Gideon Beinstock, winemaker at Clos Saron in the Sierra Foothills, is a strong believer in sulfur-free wines, "For me," he says, "un-sulfured wines are richer in color, and have an intensity, a vitality that sulfur diminishes. Sulfur compacts a wine's dimension, tightens its structure, and lessens its purity of aroma."

Lactic spoilage is Beinstock's biggest issue: "Although a wine may smell and initially taste clean, lactic spoilage results in a 'mousy' finish that can range from subtle to obnoxious." Beinstock also says that, despite what U.C. Davis teaches--that lactic spoilage is permanent--his experience is that the symptoms usually dissipate entirely after six or more months. I suspect Beanstock's "mousy" description is what Feiring calls "puppy breath."

Although Amy Atwood points out that few have tasted many or even any older unsulfured wines, Steve Edmunds was just as quick to name the Syrah produced by Thierry Allemand, in the Northern Rhône's Cornas appellation, as an example of a world-class wine that can not only age but also travel. "Maybe he made a deal with the devil," Edmunds joked.

Temperature fluctuation is an issue for all wines of course, but especially for those that haven't been stabilized with sulfur. For that reason, ocean voyages--even though most importers now use temperature-controlled containers--followed by time in warehouses and delivery trucks, can be a crapshoot for no-sulfur producers who ship overseas, because their wines are more easily prone to early oxidation, and sometimes re-ferment after bottling. "We've tasted fabulous wines with producers in France," explained Daniel Madero of Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant, "but on arrival here something went wrong--it's turned into a sparkling wine."

Trac Le, the wine buyer for Bi-Rite Market, asked about the travel risks, says, "If I were making a sulfur-free wine I'd probably want to sell it out of my garage to neighbors, because at least that way I would know how it was stored and where it was going."

Some believe sulfur is essential to making a good wine, and that a "natural" wine can be made using tiny amounts. Some add just a touch at bottling, while others believe--and I'm starting to view this as the majority point of view--that a judicious application, when necessary, in the vineyard makes sense to prevent mildew, as well as right after malolactic (or secondary) fermentation, when wine can be especially vulnerable to oxidation.

David Feldstein mentioned a recent visit he made to Nicolas Joly's famed Coulée de Serrant in the Loire, where Joly feels that a touch of sulfur after malolactic (but not at bottling) gives the wine something to "bind" to. And Feldstein agrees that a careful application of sulfur is critical to retain a wine's freshness. "Not to be elitist, but a grand terroir needs time to express itself. I believe, let's say, that a biodynamic wine with an honest regime of sulfur is a natural wine, a harmonious wine. I don't like oxidized white Burgundy," he says.

Learning curves

As it is in the non-factory-controlled real-food movement, consistency can be an issue with natural wine. As I've noticed with our local grass-fed beef and chicken ranchers, it's not easy to buck trends. There are definitely learning curves, and it takes time and patience for growers to achieve consistently good results.

"The best natural producers have learned a lot in last five to ten years," says Keven Clancy of Farm Wine Imports. "Like Breton in the Loire Valley [one of the movement's most respected labels], they're finding ways to make their wines more stable all the time, without losing their purity and energy. They're using longer élevage [guidance between fermentation and bottling], and are bottling later."

In my own experience, both personal and professional, I've tasted many natural wines that are simply wonderful: exciting wines with an exceptional purity of expression, wines that you want your friends to know about, and wines of wonder and surprise. But a wine's appeal is a very subjective thing. I've also tasted fizzy bottles that probably shouldn't be, and highly oxidized wines that, while fascinating on one level, are not always ones I want to return to.

Daniel Madero summed it up nicely, "Bottle variation can be a problem. But when you find that wine that really works for you it's like going out on a date with that wine. As the evening progresses, you'll know by the end if you want to give it a kiss."

pouring wine

Four Natural Wines--And A Box Of Donuts

On a rainy March morning we gathered some of this article's participants (Trac Le, David Feldstein, Wayne Garcia, Daniel Madero, and Keven Clancy) for a photo shoot at 18 Reasons on Guerrero Street. I asked each of them to bring a representative bottle to share as we discussed the issues facing the natural wine movement. Although the wines didn't necessarily match with the box of Dynamo Donuts provided by photographer Naomi Fiss, no one objected too vigorously.

2008 La Clarine Farms Syrah, Sierra Foothills, California
I chose La Clarine Farms Syrah because they're local, and I want to make a point that it's not just a French movement, that it's happening here also. I also believe that one of the most integral parts of natural winemaking is how a vigneron farms. Hank Beckmeyer farms organically, and nurtures his grapes to bottle without any manipulation. --Trac Le, Bi-Rite Market

2005 Joseph Roty Griotte Chambertin, Burgundy, France
I brought this wine that I adore to share with friends. Griotte is a most unique terroir in Gevrey, and Roty's Griotte comes from 90-year-old vines. It's exotic, and a bit wild. And talk about tradition--the Roty family has been in this village since the 18th century! They make only 2 barrels (40- 50 cases) of this wine. --David Feldstein, Atherton Wine Imports

2004 Radikon Ribolla Gialla, Friuli, Italy
This is a very natural wine, an "orange wine"--white made with long skin contact--a type of wine that creates buzz and controversy. But it transcends the discussions and controversies. It makes us shut up and smile. It's intellectually satisfying, but also crazy pleasurable. It comes from a great vineyard and a great farmer. It is a wine that has made many technical winemakers question their assumptions. --Keven Clancy, Farm Wine Imports

2007 Marcel Lapierre "Cuvée Lapierre,"
Beaujolais, France
For Lapierre natural wine is a way of life. His holistic approach has influenced so many other producers. It's rare to have the Cote du Puy cuvée in this country-- it's usually only sold in France. In May we tasted it in Lyon at Le Mercière for lunch, and we all flipped over it! When we got back to the States, we asked Kermit if we could have some here. He was reluctant at first, then he agreed...kinda... I had to protest! --Daniel Madero, Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant

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