The Basics of Natural Wine Explained in 3 Digestible Steps
No longer considered a mere trend, the natural wine movement continues to garner new converts every day. The unstoppable momentum is fueled in part by industry buzz as well as a rise in health-consciousness, but mostly it’s happening the old-fashioned way, one glass at a time through greater availability. Simply put, more people are trying natural wine and liking it, usually leading them to the question: what exactly is natural wine? How is it different than the conventional stuff?
The Origin Story of Natural Wine
When we think of the origins of wine, we conjure up images of vineyards with abundant grapevines on pristine soil and a backdrop of idyllic sunshine. So it’s completely understandable that the first question people have is “But isn’t all wine natural?” Because, after all, it all comes from grapes and dirt, right? The difference between conventional wine and natural wine really comes down to the production process. But first, a brief history.
The Kermit Gang
Natural Wine isn’t new. It’s actually pretty old, dating back centuries to the Roman Empire. But as winemaking progressed, additives became popular and natural wine inadvertently became not-so-natural. It wasn’t until the 1980’s when 4 winemakers in Beaujolais, France, discovered the work of Jules Chauvet (the grandfather of the natural wine movement), that natural wine was reborn. This group of winemakers referred to as the Kermit Lynch Gang of Four (Guy Breton, Marcel Lapierre, Jean-Paul Thévenet, and Jean Foillard) called for a return of the old way of making wine, initiating the modern-day natural wine movement. But what exactly did the old way entail? Let’s break it down into 3 easy steps.
Step One: No Intervention Viticulture
Viticulture is simply the cultivation and farming of grapevines. Conventional farmers rely on the methods of mass agricultural monoculture, which is exactly as bleak as it sounds. Think industrialization, heavy use of synthetic chemicals to manipulate the crop as much as possible for greater homogeneity, faster output, and predictably larger profits. Natural winemaking, in contrast, advocates for a largely no intervention approach and a return to letting nature do its thing. Natural viticulture rejects the use of synthetic herbicides and pesticides and operates with the philosophy of giving the crop the time and patience it requires, allowing for each crop yield to be uniquely itself. Natural Farmers tend to their vines continuously, awaiting the arrival of harvest, or Step 2.
Step Two: The Moment of Truth AKA Harvest
Harvest, of course, is the process by which wine grapes are picked. A critical step to the end product’s taste, harvest is sometimes referred to as “the moment of truth.” It is the deciding factor of the alcohol, tannin, and acid levels in the wine, the goal being a perfectly balanced wine. In a conventional vineyard, industrial machines are used to pick the grapes while natural vineyards hand-pick the grapes one by one. Moreover, natural wine grapes are held to a much more rigorous standard of selection; since there is no antibacterial intervention in the cellar, grapes harvested for fermentation must be impeccable. This level of care and attention can only be described as a true labor of love, which cannot be replicated with conventional methods. Besides being labor-intensive, it’s a sincere approach that respects the nature of things which continues into the final step, fermentation.
Step Three: Fermentation and Terroir
The cellar is where fermentation happens, which is the natural process wherein the grape juice becomes wine. When it comes to aging and fermentation, there are two main points to consider between conventional winemaking and natural winemaking: choice of yeast and choice of vessel. Conventional winemakers tend towards oak barrels that can impart their own flavor and conceal the wine’s personality. They also use chemically induced yeasts as opposed to native or indigenous yeasts. Natural winemakers, in contrast, select fermenting vessels that will not impact taste and adhere to native yeasts, both in service of exhibiting the wines “terroir,” a French term meaning a sense of place. Terroir refers to all the elements that make up the growing environment of the grapes. From soil composition to topography and climate, terroir should reflect the region and growing conditions as cleanly as possible, lending to the wine’s character and unique taste. Terroir is the reason that all chardonnays or all burgundies do not taste the same. Natural winemakers value this unique expression and celebrate diversity, versus consistency, even in this last step of fermentation.
Ultimately, natural winemakers are often small-scale producers who are passionate about their craft. In the words of natural wine aficionado and advocate Alice Fiering, “natural wine is wine without crap in it.” And while that’s a great bottom line, it’s worth adding that natural wine is a wine with a lot of character, personality, and heart. The level of attention and dedication required at every step of production garners respect for both the maker and the process. It also deepens the connection to every sip knowing that each bottle carries the story of the soil it was grown in, the land it comes from, the hands that picked each grape, and waited reverently for the wine to be ready.