Natural Wine

Natural Wine

Some "Unpopular" Takes on Everybody's Favorite Wine Trend
One of the greatest shifts in the wine industry these last few years has been an increased passion for what people consider to be natural wines. As someone who works in the industry it is one of the most common requests that I receive, and my friends are constantly asking me to explain the concept to them. Different people have different philosophies on what fits the criteria, but this is my take on the age-old question of “what is natural wine?”

Organic/Biodynamic farming are the easiest places to start. Many people I work with wont even consider buying a wine that isn’t farmed with these practices. The problem is that being one of those options doesn’t mean it’s a good wine. A misunderstanding of these practices and a new generation of winemakers who don’t know how to yield them properly has created an influx of wines in the market that, for lack of a better word, are flawed. But many people love them and unfortunately it has created a base of consumers that think “Natural” and “Funky” are synonymous with each other. There are many factors that go into winemaking, and what ends up in the bottle, but I’ve put together a short list of what I call: “The Misunderstood Villains of Natural Wine.”

Sulfur: Sulfur is an important preservative for wine and its vilification has come from widespread overuse of it in many wines, and a misconception on its effects on the body. Many winemakers have taken a stance to use zero sulfur in their wines and are thus creating very unstable wines. Now this doesn’t mean the wines will be bad by the time they make it to your table, but they will be different. Sulfur also helps wines in their ability to be aged. The sulfur stance excludes so many of the greatest wines in the world which are made to be aged. Does their use of sulfur make them unworthy of being considered natural even if they check all of the other boxes?

Actual Winemaking: There is a big sense in the natural wine community that a good wine needs to have basically nothing done to it. Proper farming is the most important part of any good wine, but the work doesn’t need to stop once you get the grapes to the winery. Don’t get me wrong some wineries do exceptionally well with the hands-off approach, but it requires a number of factors all coming together in the right way. Growing grapes is very much at the whim of nature, but winemaking is still chemistry and there are tools in the toolbox to help fix things when the weather goes wrong. Mass produced wines use many of these techniques to basically create a wine that is consistent, and that’s where they are bad. But if you’re a good winemaker that does everything right and you find that a warm year has yielded grapes that don’t have as much acidity, is it wrong to add acidity that is naturally derived from grapes to help make a better product? Because guess what, some of the best winemakers in the world use those tools (whether they want to tell you or not)

Sustainable Farming: One of the most frustrating aspects of selling wine that I deal with is the dogmatic need for organic/biodynamic farming. I find that it excludes such a vast group of wines that are properly made and delicious, but don’t get invited because there is maybe a box that they don’t check off, or simply can’t afford to get themselves certified (It’s very expensive). Our society celebrates small farmers more than ever before; farmers markets are mob scenes and restaurants strive to source from them. And in that context everyone praises sustainability and seeks it out. But because of the widespread labeling of wines as organic or biodynamic, I find myself saying the word sustainable as if it’s a bad word instead of something to be celebrated just as much. If I know somebody is very particular about a wine being organic, I won’t even consider showing them a sustainable wine that is as well made. For so many if I can’t say organic/biodynamic, they won’t want it.

For years we’ve been obsessed with Whole Foods and all things organic, it’s no surprise that we as a society have started to seek out wines that are made with good practices. It’s important when seeking out these wines that you don’t take their “naturalness” at face value. Talk to the person at your wine shop, ask your server questions when eating out. Amazing wines can be “unnatural” and very bad wines can be “natural,” you don’t want to miss out on a great wine because you didn’t ask the right questions. Everybody’s palate is different, so it’s important for you to try as many things as you can to figure out what you like. Don’t let other people’s tastes dictate what you think is good.

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