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Wine Advice that Nobody Asked For: Wine, Naturally.

Any keen eyed reader of food and drink publications probably will have noticed that the term “natural wine” has normalized in the lexicon. This of course shouldn’t be confused with “clean wine” which is a marketing gimmick that I’ll rant about another time. Though it’s been covered in a variety of publications, how about another take on it that nobody has asked for.

This trend has been growing in commonality for years now, and we’ve been asked often enough for the stuff that we’ve developed a selection of wines located near the front of the store. There is still a fair bit of confusion around the category, so allow me to add to the bewilderment.

If the wine is natural do they use sulfites? Maybe. Is natural wine organically or biodynamically farmed? Not necessarily, or maybe it is, but it isn’t certified, unless it is. Is natural wine regulated? Depends where you make it. Is natural wine better for you? It’s wine, I’m not drinking it for my health, but yes… maybe, I don’t know. If I’m not drinking natural wine, am I drinking unnatural wine? Depends on what you think is natural.

Depending who you ask, the natural wine movement started in 1950s Loire Valley, or 1970s Beaujolais, or some will say that it’s always existed and we’ve only recently started making wine in an unnatural way. I think a good starting point is the idea that all winemaking is in some way interventionist, where we go from here is how interventionist winemaking ought to be.

Post World War 2, there was a lot of “better living through chemistry,” and herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides were promised to make life easier for farmers. And let’s be frank, farming is hard work, so who can blame them. However after some experimentation with synthetic pest control and fertilizers, grape growers realized that the result was often more scorched earth than prodigious bounty. Pesticides and herbicides can often kill the good with the bad.

Enter 1970’s Beaujolais where the Gang of Four (Marcel Lapierre, Jean Foillard, Jean-Paul Thévenet, and Guy Breton) was inspired by winemaker and chemist Jules Chauvet. After seeing vineyards transformed from biodiverse plots of land interspersed with all sorts of life to near dead plots of soil and vine kept functioning by synthetic fertilizer, the pendulum swung and the Gang decided to try an alternative. Eschewing synthetics and pesticides, these guys leaned into cover crops, integrated pest control, spontaneous yeast fermentation, and minimal sulfite additions.

These decisions still form the backbone of what is considered natural wine today. So there’s the elevator pitch version of natural wine’s history, but what does that mean for wine drinking right now? Still a fair bit of confusion since natural wine can be, but doesn’t have to be: organically farmed, biodynamically farmed, fermented with natural yeast, have limited sulfite additions, may be unfined, may be unfiltered, may be aged with extended skin contact in the case of white wines, and may be intentionally (or unintentionally) sparkling.

Natural wine is such a wide spectrum, that the best advice I can give is to approach the category with an open mind and a willingness for conversation. Some wines considered natural wouldn’t raise an eyebrow, while others will have flavors and textures so extreme it will make you question what is real. I don’t want to spook anybody here, but we have to know what we’re getting into.

If you’ve come away from reading this with more questions than answers, and feel like you’re under informed but slightly intrigued, then you’re ready for natural wine.

-Joe Buchter, Import Wine Buyer

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