De Vinis Naturalibus
On Natural Wine
By Marshall Davidson
Having worked in wine shops since college, it has been a pleasure to see the popularity of natural wine grow over the years. I remember being at Total Wine when I was twenty-two and asking my manager what it meant when a label proclaimed that a wine was natural. “After all,” I asked, “isn’t all wine natural? It’s just fermented grape juice, right?” My manager thought for a moment, shrugged, and said, “It’s just a marketing gimmick I think.” Oh, how wrong he was.
Still, while I’ve learned the term and its implications better over time, the meaning is not entirely self-evident. So, let’s dive into the wonderful world of natural wines.
What is natural wine?
Natural wine is a nebulous term with no official definition. Generally speaking, it refers to wines made with as little human intervention as possible. The majority of natural winemakers use organic farming methods, avoid pesticides and herbicides, use indigenous yeasts, add few if any sulfites, and for the most part, do not filter their wines. Essentially, natural winemakers tend the land, harvest the grapes, press them, and let nature do the rest.
To some people, like my old manager at Total Wine, natural wines seem like nothing but a fad, a gimmick, a passing fancy of everyday connoisseurs. The truth, however, is that natural wine is as old as wine itself. After all, the means to mass-produce or control the vinification process have only come about in the last couple of centuries. Historically, wine was produced by simply picking, pressing, and fermenting the grapes. Today’s natural winemakers have basically gone back in time to revive these ancient practices, so in many ways, when you drink a natural wine, you’re getting a taste of history.
Natural Wine Producers and Their Practices
Of course, there’s a bit more to natural wine than this, and each winemaker has a different approach. For example, the Brand brothers, wine producers from Pfalz, Germany, allow other flora to grow alongside their vines. This creates an environment where bees and other natural pollinators flourish, which in turn yields less of a need for human intervention in the actual process of grape growing. Then, once the winemaking process has truly begun, the brothers allow wild yeast to nest in the wine creating spontaneous fermentation. They then let the wine rest for a while on the lees- residual yeast particles- until they determine the wine is ready to be bottled by taste. The results speak for themselves. Their wines are stunning and full of unique character; I recommend trying their Weissburgunder or Electric Chardonnay Acid Test. You won’t be disappointed. Purchase Brand Weissburgunder HERE!
Marilena Barbera and Rino Sottimano are two other natural wine producers from Italy who follow similar principles. Both eschew herbicides and synthetic fertilizers and, like the Brand brothers, use only wild yeasts. These masters of the craft know that when it comes to making top-quality wine, nature will provide. Beautiful examples of these wines are Marilena Barbera’s Fuorizona, a lovely herbaceous Frappato, and Sottimano’s Maté, a dry Bracchetto ripe with rose, cherry, and licorice root. Purchase Marilena Barbera Wines HERE & Purchase Sottimano Wines HERE!
Valdonica is another exceptional producer of natural wines from Italy, Tuscany, to be precise. The founder, Dr. Martin Kerres, carefully planned the vineyard and thoroughly analyzed the soil to determine which varietals would flourish on that land. Valdonica uses organic farming practices- rain is its only irrigation- hand harvests the grapes, then lets wild yeast do their work. Because of this, Valdonica wines are lush and deeply delicious. Their Arnaio, a blend of Sangiovese and Ciligolo, is one of my go-to’s for any pasta or pizza. Purchase Valdonica Wines HERE!
So How Does It Taste?
Because natural wines depend so heavily on the environment they’re grown and developed in, there is a wide swing in their flavor profiles. The combination of organic farming and wild yeasts show off the unique characteristics of the land; therefore it’s fair to say that natural wines are prime examples of their terroir. Some will exhibit gorgeous fruit and earth tones, while others develop herbaceous and savory characteristics. Sometimes, the wild yeasts will cause what some people describe as a “funk,” a term used to broadly cover an array of those hard to define flavors reminiscent of wet soil, barnyards, or even wild grasses. However, these flavors are by no means universal, as every natural wine has its own unique characters that make the field so exciting to explore.
The world of natural wine is both new and old, esoteric and wildly accessible. While much of the wine world has gravitated to homogeneity over the years, with many of the largest producers reaching for regularity and mass appeal, natural wines have gone the other direction focusing instead on the authentic expression of both the grapes and land. The practices are more arduous, true, but they often produce superb wines that are expressive of their terroir and have wonderfully unique characteristics that show off the full degree of their winemaker’s art. What may have initially seemed like a fad is an innovative, environmentally conscious practice that yields some of the most exciting wines I’ve encountered. Pick one up, give it a try, and see what this ancient frontier has to offer.