What is a natural wine? How is it different from an organic wine or biodynamic wine? Are all organic/biodynamic wines natural? Who makes these wines anyway?
First and foremost, let me start by saying that this simple maxim will sum it up neatly: organic and biodynamic grapes can be made into conventional, industrial wine, but natural wine cannot be made from conventionally grown grapes.
Natural wines are an extension of organics. Natural winemakers start the experience in the vineyard and extend it into the cellar. They never use pesticides or mildew sprays, plow their vineyards to promote healthy soils, always handpick their grapes, and so on. This would all be considered in organic farming also. It’s when the grapes arrive in the cellar that separates natural wines from non-natural wines. Natural wines always are fermented with native yeasts, are never chaptalized (the addition of sugar to the must to boost alcohol levels), never acidified, never micro-oxygenated nor put through reverse-osmosis. They are rarely fined (if they are it would be with organic egg whites) and rarely filtered. The other major element not often involved in the making of natural wine is the use of sulfur dioxide. Sulfur dioxide is a common ingredient in most wines, especially white and sweet wines. If a wine maker must use sulfur dioxide, it is used sparingly, and always just before bottling.
I’m certainly not panning all other winemakers for not making natural wines. Of course I love wine above all and understand that it’s hard enough to make good wine year after year in any setting or circumstance. Natural wine makers though have to be even more hands on every step of the way, and can never be huge operations, which in my eyes, makes them producers of artisanal wines that are extremely unique to the vineyard, the weather, and the wine maker in that specific vintage. And there’s certainly the argument that natural wine makers will compromise the final product if the vintage is tough. Well then, if a wine is going to be from a bad vintage well then let’s taste it! It’s the ultimate terroir experience. We live in a world where there’s wonderful, unique wine being made in all climates and all countries that express a real sense of place. For me natural wines aren’t about getting on a soapbox and being dogmatic. They are simply about a lifestyle that isn’t motivated by scores and money, and I am firm in their camp for that reason.
At Tabla I’m lucky to have my hands on some of the natural wines that are available to this market (and there’s more great stuff on the way!). Here’s a few of my tasting notes on two natural wines that I carry at the restaurant and that I adore.
Domaine des Sablonnettes, 2007, Gamay, Coteau sur Layon, Loire Valley, France :
One of my favorite (and inexpensive) glass pours. This wine is made by Joel Menard, and he farms 13 ha organically and produces 13 cuvees from them. An ambitious man for certain. His property is around Bonnezeaux, which is known for its transcending sweet chenin blancs. This wine, 100 % gamay, is a classic example of gamay from the Loire. It’s bright and peppery on the nose. Fruits notes suggest raspberry jam and strawberries. But there’s something else . . . it’s that funk that makes these natural wines stand out from conventionally made wines. A wine that goes through reverse osmosis will never taste like this. It’s alive!!
Beauthorey, 2004, Danse des Ceps, Coteaux du Languedoc, France:
Another fun wine I just stumbled into a few weeks back. This guy, Cristophe Beau farms 6 ha biodynamically around the village of Pic St. Loup in the Languedoc. He makes a number of cuvees, but this the only one I’m familiar with. The Danse des Ceps is made from 80% Syrah and 20% Oeillade. Yes, Oeillade. Oeillade is an ancient varietal, planted by god knows who, god knows when. It’s said to be a cousin of Carignan, and is virtually extinct. The wine is cloudy and deep in color, your first impression of the wine in your glass being that this wine is not worked in the cellar. It’s classic, dark, stewed fruits and broad, glycerol Syrah mouth feel are balanced on the palate with high tones of spice and acidity. Is it the Oeillade? I have no idea. But it’s delicious, and ultimately, nothing else would matter unless that were true in the first place.