Inside The Bottle: Why ‘Natural’ Isn’t a Dirty Word in Wine

Launching our Inside The Bottle Series—a regular column about what goes on behind-the-scenes of winemaking and wine drinking—I’m taking on the oldest movement in the industry: Au Naturale.

There’s whispers in cellars and tasting rooms around the County about wine that is natural, non-interventionist. It’s a somewhat controversial wine category, in part because there has always been natural wine — it has existed for as long as wine has, and in some circles never left the conversation. But there’s a growing movement of County winemakers embracing a return to the traditional methods of vinification. The result is a purer form of wine, prone to quirks and inconsistencies that would otherwise be reigned in through various chemical and mechanical interventions. Most wine regulating bodies have strict guidelines that tell us what a wine should taste like, how much alcohol it should have, and which naturally occurring compounds are considered faults in the winemaking. Pushing through these boundaries opens the door for consumers to discover something new, exciting, and perhaps previously untasted.

I tried my first natural wine in 2012 at the Terroir Symposium in Toronto, Canada. The theme of the year was “New Radicals” and I was in a breakout session focused on natural wine, attended by local sommeliers and winemakers. Several of the winemakers present raised issues of quality control and questioned why they should sacrifice the consistency of their product for an ideal that doesn’t produce a wine that tastes very good. They had a point; the wines I tasted that day were unbalanced, unstructured, and generally fell flat. But access to good natural wine has drastically improved over the years, and while these wines may still be considered faulty by some, for a growing group of aficionados, they have personality and life.

By nature, the category of natural wine is difficult to define. At its core, natural wine begins with natural grapes, farmed with organic and sometimes biodynamic practices. It’s made without adding or removing anything in the cellar—that means no additives or processing aids, no fining or tight filtration. The goal of natural winemaking is to shepherd the grapes into the bottle while protecting all of the naturally occuring microbiology from the soil, so that you end up with a wine that is living, stable, and balanced. The definition exists as a gradient, with 100% natural wine making up a very small volume of global production, and more interventions added in layers until the wine can no longer be considered remotely natural. No legal definition exists today, but there are groups of growers in France, Italy, and Spain that have self-regulated charters of quality that are stricter than the official organic and biodynamic regulations. The two interventions generally allowed by these charters are coarse filtration and the addition of sulfur, although at far lower levels than typically found in conventional winemaking. Conventional wines may contain anywhere up to 350 mg of sulphur per litre in the United States (300 mg/L in Canada), while natural wine usually has no more than 50 mg/L.

This all contributes to three main benefits of natural wine: It puts the winemaker back in touch with grapes, relying on a close relationship with the vines to produce a quality product. The reduction of pesticides and herbicides in the vineyard has a positive impact on the world around it. And, perhaps most importantly, natural winemaking means that the consumer can experience a more dynamic product.

While this blooming love affair with natural wine shouldn’t excuse bad wine plagued with faults and mistakes, it’s an ideal that pushes the mainstream a little bit closer to something more sustainable, with a focus on freshness, energy, individuality.

Something that has stuck with me for years is Virginia Madsen’s monologue in the 2004 film Sideways: “I like to think about the life of wine, how it’s a living thing… I like how wine continues to evolve, like if I opened a bottle of wine today it would taste different than if I’d opened it on any other day, because a bottle of wine is actually alive. And it’s constantly evolving and gaining complexity. That is, until it peaks… and then it begins its steady, inevitable decline. And it tastes so fucking good.”

6 Ontario Wineries Doing It Natural

Cape Vineyard uses biodynamic farming practices to produce wines that are made with wild yeast and zero additives. Try their Loyalist Red, a blend of Cabernet Franc and Petite Pearl.

Grange Winery produces a few non-certified organic wines fermented with wild yeast and zero sulphur. Try their Wild Ferment Chardonnay, currently available in magnum.

Lighthall Vineyards focuses on Old World techniques and non-interventionist winemaking. Try their Pinot Noir, the only Prince Edward County red wine fermented in concrete.

Pearl Morissette has an ethos of minimal intervention and low sulphur winemaking, frequently utilizing concrete and clay fermentation vessels. Try their Cabernet Franc, a favourite of vigneron François Morissette.

Tawse Winery produces organic and biodynamic wines from their Quarry Road estate vineyard. Try their Quarry Road Chardonnay, fermented with wild yeast.

Trail Estate Winery uses a minimalist approach in their winemaking, using wild yeast whenever possible. Try their ORNG and Pét-Nat wines, two quintessential styles of natural wine.

Looking further than Ontario? Local wine agent Nicholas Pearce has a selection of raw, organic, and biodynamic wines from around the world that you can order online by the case.

Source: Legeron, Isabelle. Natural Wine: An Introduction to Organic and Biodynamic Wines Made Naturally. CICO Book, 2017.

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