Imagine being served a glass of wine, a vibrant rhubarb pink in colour, almost glowing and too opaque to see through. It smells a bit like strawberries but also fermented, like cider. The wine is fruity and light-bodied; it tastes fresh but earthy, with good acidity and hints of wet dirt.
This was one of my early experiences with natural wines, and it fit my preconceptions to a tee. I’d heard that natural wines were a little rough and unrefined, with the potential for funkiness, barnyard and even compost. Compared to conventional wines, which are what most of us drink all the time, natural wines are rumoured to be more unpredictable, more alive, less refined and less elegant. This wine had pretty much all of those characteristics.
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But as I learned more, talked to people and tasted, I realized that, although natural wines can be dramatically different from conventional wines, they don’t have to be. Some are so subtle and quaffable, you have to check the label carefully to know that they’re different. Some are so redolent of dark fruit, you’ll taste almost nothing else. Some are memorable, and some are totally forgettable. The deeper I dove into natural wines, the more I realized that they aren’t any one thing – except made differently and much discussed.
“Natural wines have benefitted from the same trend toward organics and slow food that we’ve seen in food,” says Emily MacLean, a Toronto-based wine educator and sommelier. “I think consumers are looking for more honest wines rather than commercial wines produced on an industrial scale.”
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Natural wines aren’t simply organic. In winemaking, as in other types of food production, the term “organic” refers to a specific criteria: the absence of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides in the vineyard. On the other hand, the term “natural” in winemaking describes a broader approach, resulting in wines that are made with as little intervention as possible. Natural isn’t a regulated term, but it’s generally accepted that the producer claiming to make a natural wine would, at the very least, use organic practices in the vineyard. A third category, referred to as “biodynamic,” goes further, looking at the vineyard as a holistic system, with the soil and vines working in tandem with the moon, the stars and other forces of nature.
“Organic” and “biodynamic” are regulated wine terms, but “natural” isn’t, so there can be differences in various winemakers’ interpretations of “minimal intervention.”
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That said, there is a shared idea of what natural winemaking entails, says Mark Cuff, owner of The Living Vine in Oakville, ON. Natural wines are generally organic, he says, but that’s not all. They contain very few or no additives and chemicals. In addition, very little is done to the grapes in the vineyard or to their juices in the pressing, fermenting, aging and bottling process, explains Cuff, who imports and represents scores of biodynamic, organic and naturally made wines from all over the world.
To understand how significant this is, consider some potential additives to conventional wines: sugar to boost alcohol; egg whites, milk products, gelatin and fish bladders to remove off-flavours; calcium carbonate (chalk) to lower acid; and tartaric acid or citric acid to increase acid.
Another common additive is sulphur, which gets a bad rap with wine drinkers who worry that it might cause health problems. But Cuff explains that sulphur is a misunderstood ingredient. “Sulphite allergies are rare and don’t cause headaches,” he says. “Headaches are usually from histamines in full-bodied red wines.” He explains that a small amount of added sulphur is helpful to keep wine fresh. Still, he does notice when wines have too much. “Because I drink a lot of low-sulphite wine, I am sensitive to it,” says Cuff. “A lot of sulphites make my hands swell.”
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The other important point of differentiation with natural winemaking is yeast. “It’s 50 percent of the equation,” says Cuff. Every wine requires yeast for fermentation, but while conventional winemakers might use imported, commercial yeast, natural winemakers depend on wild yeast that’s already present in the vineyard. “You pick some grapes and mash them up,” he says. “Then the grape must [juice and skins] ferments using yeast that was already present in the vineyard – a yeast that is in symbiosis with the grapes. It’s terroir driven.”
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On the other side of the country, Matthew Sherlock, co-owner of Sedimentary Wines in Vancouver and Lock & Worth Winery in the Okanagan, is equally committed to wines made with minimal intervention and is an importer of natural wines. “Natural wines are about integrity, honesty and transparency,” he says. Like Cuff, he feels that natural fermentation is important, as is little to no filtration. He isn’t keen on omitting sulphites (“The last thing we need is spoiled or faulted wine,” he says), but he has deep concerns about the type of additives he has seen in mass-produced wines. “Mega Purple is dehydrated grape must,” he says. “It’s like cough syrup.” Years ago, when Sherlock worked at a huge commercial winery in New Zealand, he saw compounds like Mega Purple, as well as oak powder (to simulate oak-barrel aging) and copper sulphate, routinely added to wines. “These were things you had to use gloves and a mask to handle,” he says.
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The answer to this question depends on who you ask and on your food philosophy, in general. If you believe that natural foods are better for you, you’ll probably feel the same way about natural wines. Someone like Sherlock can’t understand why anyone who cares about her body and the planet wouldn’t choose natural wines. “I used to work at a wine shop in Kitsilano, BC, and people would come in with $200 worth of groceries from Whole Foods next door – stuff right from farms,” he says. “Then I’d watch them pick up a mass-produced, highly industrialized wine. If you’re going to ascribe to health in your food, why not ascribe to it in your wine?”
Perhaps. But in the end, everyone feels that the main point of wine is pleasure. “The health benefits are almost secondary,” says Cuff. “It’s about taste.”
MacLean agrees, pointing out that not every single bottle of natural wine is perfect. “Like all products, there are varying quality levels and styles on the natural wine market,” she says. “It should never be work to enjoy wine.”
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Bonny Reichert is in the process of completing her training as a certified sommelier with the Court of Master Sommeliers.