When I first started drinking natural wine, I was constantly reaching for bottles that were funky, wild, and a little barnyard-y. At the time I thought of natural wine as style or a category, like rosé or French wine. I felt in the know drinking these wines. They were all over my Instagram feed. Sourcing and drinking these bottles felt like collecting Pokémon cards. They had unique aromas, crown-caps and vibrant eye-catching labels. I thought this was the brand of natural wine.
“Natural wine is a way of life, and there’s no going back.” - Tim Gagnon, natural wine importer Selection Massale
Over years spent drinking, talking, and working with natural winemakers and natural wine importers, I have been fortunate to be a part of many discussions ---and debates— about natural wine. Currently there is no regulated definition for “natural wine.” This is why the debate surrounding who is and who is not natural is so heated and nuanced. Despite opposing views on what makes a wine natural or if a winemaker considers themselves to be a “natural winemaker,” most everyone agrees on these main points.
1. Natural wine is made by farmers.
When you visit a natural winemaker, you spend more time touring the vineyard than you do the winery. And, winemakers can tell a lot about your intentions by how interested you are in the natural landscape. If you are not interested in walking the vineyard, you are not really serious about understanding their wine.
The land, the terroir, is the most important element in natural winemaking. Terroir is a French word that means the taste of place. It refers to the physical environment in which the grapes were grown, from the soil and weather patterns to the nearby river or dramatic mountainous terrain. All of these elements of the natural landscape have a tangible effect on the wine. A terroir-driven wine is a wine that is reflective of where it was made. This can be specific to a wine region, vineyard site or even a single row of vines! And, no two places have the same terroir.
For natural winemakers, honoring terroir is achieved through a deep connection to the natural environment. The French have a word for this: vigneron. A vigneron is someone who is a winemaker and a farmer. The person in the cellar is also out in the field. In some ways, vignerons can be thought of as farmers who make wine. This type of person is also called a wine grower or wine farmer.
Vignerons believe that great wine is made in the vineyard. Vignerons spend hours walking in the vineyards, getting to know their vines, and tending to the landscape, even in the most challenging environments. Pedro Rodríguez of Guímaro works majestic old-vine vineyards in Ribeira Sacra, Spain by hand. This ancient Galician terrain is so steep that ladders are built into the rocky hillside to allow for safe(r) movement around the terraced vineyards. In some places, flat outward-jutting rocks are used as steps! The wines made from this breathtaking landscape are exceptional, but the dramatic incline is enough to make anyone weary of heights stay away from visiting this vineyard site!
Many vigerons joke that their vines are like their children. They’ve seen their vines grow, struggle and thrive. They’ve seen them through poor vintages and exceptional harvests. And, they worry about their vines' livelihood all the time. Giulia Negri, a young winemaker in Piedmont, once told me, “I love my vines more than I love myself!”
“For me, the real heart of natural wine is about the relationship between winegrower and their vines, the landscape, and the natural world in which they exist. And, the translation and expression of all of those things in the wine itself.” - Deirdre Heekin, natural winemaker and owner at La Garagista in Vermont.
The world’s greatest winemakers, like Guillaume D’Angerville, Christophe Roumier, and Jeremy Seysse (Domaine Dujac) in Burgundy, France, have learned that the best way to capture terroir is to get out of the way of terroir. Let nature do the talking. The less human intervention the better. So, many choose to farm their vineyards organically or biodynamically in an effort to highlight, honor, and preserve terroir. Organic and biodynamic agriculture describes farming without the use of synthetic chemicals, like herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, or fertilizers, associated with commercial farming. Everything is done by hand. Little machinery is involved. Organic and biodynamic winemakers implement specific practices in their vineyards that encourage biodiversity and vibrant ecosystems. And, once the grapes are brought into the winery, every step that follows is done to preserve what happened in the vineyard.
In Champagne, Benoît Lahaye encourages native grasses to grow in between the vines, uses only organic compost and manure to fertilize the vineyards, and utilizes draft horses instead of machinery to aerate and maintain the healthy ecosystem of the soil at his small domaine. In Faugères, in southern France, Didier Barral (Leon Barral) is famous for his attention to detail in the vineyard and sustainable farming techniques. He is a mentor and innovator in the way of biodynamic farming. A pioneer of regenerative agriculture in the US, Nate Ready of Hiyu Wine Farm in Oregon, works fervently to reverse climate change by farming in a way that restores soil, prevents erosion, enhances biodiversity, and improves regional water quality. All of this effort translates to healthy vines which means high-quality wine.
“Natural wine is super important. It’s our connection to the people who are farming in the best way possible, really taking care of the land, growing grapes in a super conscientious way, and then making wine where there is nothing added and nothing removed. Just those grapes, just all that work in the vineyard.” - Vanya Filipovic, natural wine importer, Les Vins Dame-Jeanne, and owner of natural wine bar Vin Mon Lapin in Montreal
So, do you need to own a vineyard to be considered a natural winemaker? Not necessarily. Some winemakers rent or lease vineyards. Others are micro-négoces or micro-négociants. Micro-négociants are small wine merchants who purchase grapes or pressed juice for winemaking instead of growing their grapes. This winemaker-farmer, buyer-seller relationship has the power to inspire a new generation of farmers to farm in a way that preserves the land and the tradition of the region. Grape farmers who would normally farm conventionally to sell to large, commercial wineries now have the (financial) incentive to produce more natural, higher-quality fruit. Chris Brockway of Broc Cellars purchases grapes from local organic farmers and produces expressive, natural wines at his urban winery in Berkeley, California. He works closely with vineyard managers to support sustainable farming of these sites. The work of micro-négoces can lead to cultural and environmental sustainability, and promote the preservation of native grape varieties in a region. Many lesser known varieties have been rescued from extinction thanks to these special grape-growing relationships.
2. Natural wine is not a flavor.
As consumers, and especially as wine professionals, we have a tendency to obsess over this. We discuss aroma and flavor, and often use these descriptions to define a wine. This is an important part of the process of understanding a wine (and simply enjoying it!), but it is also important to recognize that natural wine should not be associated with a specific flavor profile.
When winemakers taste their wine they tune in to texture, balance, transparency, the overall drinking experience, and the little nuances that give away vintage and terroir. Does the wine taste good? Is it memorable? Is it well-made? Is the wine reflective of place? Natural winemakers are especially passionate about this. This is what makes great wine transportive.
“Natural wine is made by people working to clean up the signal between the vineyard and the wine drinker.” - Jason Zuliani, owner of Dedalus Wine
Natural wine is a philosophy tied to intentional winemaking. A natural winemaker is committed to letting nature play a major role in the wine’s origin story. Since most natural winemakers implement organic or biodynamic methods into their farming practices, it is no surprise that similar approaches are applied at the winery. Natural winemakers avoid any use of synthetic chemical treatments or additives. The winemaker is doing as little as possible to manipulate the wine in the winery. We call this low-intervention winemaking.
Once in the winery, natural wines are made with spontaneous fermentation by native yeast. This means the winemaker uses native yeast that develops in the vineyard (and naturally lives on the grape skin) along with the natural sugars in the grape juice to initiate alcoholic fermentation. The winemaker allows this fermentation to occur at its own pace without the aid of temperature control or the inoculation of commercial yeast. The majority of wine sold in the US is made with the use of commercially-produced yeast. Natural winemakers believe that native yeast adds a unique character and a sense of place to the wine. It is an element of terroir. The use of native yeast is essential to making natural wine, and is the common thread that runs through all natural wines. All of the wines we carry at Dedalus Wine use native yeast. After the fermentation completes, the wines may skip fining and filtering (which is why some wines appear cloudy) and are bottled with little to no added sulfur dioxide, also known as sulfites.
“Natural wine is fermented grapes that haven’t been messed with. It’s the purest and most authentic expression of place achievable in wine. And, when it’s done right, it’s also the most delicious.” - Anthony Lynch, wine importer Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant
But, why are some wines made naturally described as funky? Some practices associated with low-intervention winemaking, like the lack of added sulfur dioxide, the absence of filtering, and fermentations featuring native yeast, may create wild, earthy, boiled egg-y and animal-like aromas. Sometimes decanting or aggressively swirling the wines cause these aromas to dissipate. You can aerate these wines by pouring them back and forth between decanters before letting them rest on the table. We call this “beating up the wine.” Temperature also changes our perception of a wine’s aromatic profile. Drinking some red wines at a cool temperature (think around cellar temperature, like 52 - 55F) can make them appear more vibrant and juicy. We love Loire Valley Cabernet Franc, Jura reds, and Beaujolais with a slight chill. But be careful: too cold and you will completely mute aromatics. If your wine frosts the glass, it is too cold! In general, if you are intrigued by natural winemaking, but not excited by the funk, just let us know. We can find the natural wine that fits your preferences and instruct you on how to best enjoy it.
3. Natural wine is not new.
When I shop at Dedalus Wine, I like to imagine I am shopping at the farmer’s market. The mantra “know your farmer” created by the US farm-to-table and local food movements of the 1990s completely applies to how we should be shopping for wine. The more you know about the farmer, the more you know about the product. And, you tend to feel a connection to the person growing your food. It adds value. Wine, at its core, is an agricultural product. And, every natural winemaker has a story. Some natural winemakers are on a multi-generational quest to produce the best wines representative of their family’s land while others try to push boundaries and discover new ways of doing things. No matter their background, natural winemakers’ stories all have something in common: they all look to the past for inspiration.
Natural wine has been made for thousands of years. It is just cool again. A new generation of winemakers are educated and empowered to make sustainably-raised wines.
Winemakers like Danilo Marcucci of Conestabile della Staffa in Umbria, Italy— who calls himself a wine farmer— works tirelessly to help local winemakers restore vineyards and resurrect ancient methods in their regions. He travels to different places in Italy, researching each village terroir, asking, “what grapes grew here? What was the method for caring for the vines? What type of vessel was used to hold the fermentation or age the wine?” His efforts rescue culture. The work done by these natural winemakers also allows us to travel back in time a bit.
“Natural wine is the courage of honest people to embrace the unpredictability of the natural world, and to simultaneously both honor the past and also carve out a meaningful and more delicious future for them and their community.” - James Hull, natural wine importer SelectioNaturel
Post WWII, chemicals were seen as the answer to scarcity. Producing large quantities of produce with less work was seen as a great victory. Technology brought modern techniques and the mechanization of farming created distance between the farmer and their vines. The intimate connection was broken and traded for commercial production. Vintage variation and terroir was traded for consistency and homogeneous wine. Visionaries, like Jules Chauvet (who is considered the “French father of natural wine”) and Jacques Néauport, challenged these new norms. Their work advocating for a return-to-the-land approach inspired a generation of curious and passionate growers, like Marcel Lapierre and the Gang of Four in Beaujolais.
“Natural wine is a community of idealists trying to resurface history. It is a swirl of ideas and questions, and it is beautiful, and totally worth exploring.” - Jason Zuliani, owner of Dedalus Wine
Natural winemakers, like Luis Rodriguez in Galicia, Spain, Envínate on the Canary Islands, Thierry Germain in the Loire Valley, Christian Tschida in Austria, Jean Charles Abbatucci in Corsica, and Saša Radikon in Friuli, Italy and Slovenia are protecting wine’s cultural diversity by restoring forgotten and malnourished vineyards, resurrecting ancient wine styles, reviving neglected native grape varieties, mentoring neighboring winemakers, and, ultimately, rescuing lesser known wine regions from extinction.
Natural winemakers are also preserving regional traditions by going back to the original way of farming: polyculture. Many natural winemakers farm tiny family estates that grow more than just grapes. The Cantarelli family at their winery, Montemelino, in Umbria, Italy produces olive oil from their family olive groves under the same name. Some winemakers also produce cheese, raise animals, or cultivate honey. Michèle Aubèry-Laurent of Domaine Gramenon in the Southern Rhône in France applies her uber natural winemaking philosophies to the food and animals she raises at her homestead.