A definition of natural wine in the field

Time for a pit stop

We are now at a point where we have accumulated some baggage about natural wine. We researched the topic quite a bit and interviewed lots of people. Including 8 natural winemakers. To each one, we asked something along the lines of “why do you consider the wine you make to be natural wine?”. As you can imagine, we received 8 different answers.

So we feel that now is a good time to reflect upon the answers we gathered and write down some of our thoughts. And hopefully contribute to the public debate on natural wine.

A definition based on ingredients

Rémy Charest wrote an inspiring and substantive piece in April, where he summed up the online debate raging at the time, struggling to define the term “natural wine”. Toward the end he also provided his own definition:

[…] the definition should be: 100% grape juice. With perhaps a second tier: 100% grape juice, with sulfur added at bottling.

This focus on ingredients was echoed in the answers we received in our interviews. Natural wine producers repeatedly told us that their wine is made of grapes only. This usually means no additives and the use of native yeasts (as opposed to commercial yeasts which are exogenous to the vineyard and the winery). In other words, 100% grape juice.

In the same breath, we need to talk about sulfur. Almost all the natural wine producers we talked to use sulfur at one stage or another. We have come to view that as the norm rather than the “second tier” mentioned in Rémy Charest’s definition. However, a common theme was the cautiousness in the use of sulfur. Natural wine producers would use sulfur stingily, and would certainly use a lot less than what is considered normal in the wine industry at large.

For example, at the NPA, the approach to sulfur is remarkable. They taste test the wine from the barrel every week. Only if the wine needs it, they add a very small dose (5 ppm) of sulfur. The following week, if the taste test is still not satisfying, they repeat with a little sulfur addition. It’s a simple incremental approach to give the wine the necessary amount of sulfur, but never more.

A definition based on the goal

This first definition based on ingredients puts the emphasis on what is happening in the winery. However, all of the natural wine producers we met also shared a concern for what is happening in the vineyard. Most of them would talk about sustainable and organic farming. They frown upon chemical fertilizers and try to minimize the use of resources like water.  At a higher level, it’s about keeping the footprint of the vineyard as tiny as possible.

This willingness to let nature thrive also seems to bring benefits to the winegrower. Gideon Beinstock from Clos Saron claims that the wild patches surrounding his small vineyards help his vines fight off the mildew. His vines survived untouched, despite the fact that mildew was a common problem in California this year.

If the ecosystem in the vineyard is so important, a definition based on ingredients alone seems incomplete. It seems to us that natural wine is less about a strict list of ingredients than it is about making the best effort to make a wine representative of the terroir. The goal is to make the terroir shine through in the glass. The goal is to minimize interference between the wine and the terroir where the grapes are grown.

Shawn Robinson from Renaissance would say that natural wine makers and drinkers are interested in what the grape is saying.

Gideon Beinstock from Clos Saron would say the key is to try not to put any stamp on the wine that did not come with the fruit. Consequently, he sees himself as a midwife whose role is to deliver the newborn from nature to the bottle.

Alex Davis from Porter Creek would say that he makes the roots work hard to get the stuff from the soil. He makes wine with as little manipulation as possible both in the vineyard and the winery.

Further, to have the grapes be as representative as possible of the terroir, the terroir needs to exist. Vineyards that are groomed, perfectly pruned and sprayed with pesticides or insecticides are no longer linked with the original soil. The sense of place is artificial.

By contrast, the vineyards we saw were usually small patches of vines growing in a natural and varied ecosystem. A far cry from large fields of monoculture. Pushing that idea further, the Donkey and Goat winery is experimenting with a vineyard that is untended. Now that’s courageous.

Let’s go back for one second to the definition based on the ingredients. Having 100% grape juice in the bottle will most definitely contribute to have a wine which reflects the terroir where the grapes are from. But that simple list of ingredients seems to be a consequence rather than an objective per se. The goal is to put the terroir in the glass, and in order to do so, winemakers will strive for 100% grape juice. And they will push for sustainable organic farming. Two conditions which seem necessary to reach the goal of making a wine of the terroir: a natural wine.

Trifles, you say? Maybe. But that is how we’ve come to think about natural wine after going through most of our footage.

Pragmatism

There is an attribute that is strongly represented in all the natural wine producers we went to visit, and that is pragmatism. They do not put down rules that they then enforce blindly. They are open and they think their options through every time.

Jared from A Donkey and a Goat would say that the approach to natural wine should be to do as little as you can get away with. But look at the trade-offs. For instance, a stingy use of sulfur translates into a higher risk of losing a wine during aging. And if switching to biodynamic farming leads to 10 times more diesel being used (as opposed to spraying chemicals once a year) then the choice is less obvious.

Making a wine that is representative of the terroir is the goal. Making natural wine should not be dogmatic. The guys at the NPA were rather eloquent on that issue. Their motto is “great wine first, natural second”. They will not make natural wine for the sake of natural wine. The objective is to make a great wine, and they will use natural processes as the means toward that goal.

There. Pit stop over. Your thoughts on those notes from the field are more than welcome.

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