Natural Whine: Gaining a fresh perspective on “no-manipulation” vino

Illustration by Michael Iver Jacobsen

Illustration by Michael Iver Jacobsen

I hate #naturalwine.

Okay, not quite, but parts of it, anyway. It’s a trend (both hashtag and wine) that has exploded in the last few years as consumers, led by millennials, become more concerned about what’s in their glass. They want “authenticity,” whatever that means, and they’re willing to pay for it. But like any trend, it’s become a marketing game—producers who not five years ago touted their use of “selected yeasts,” are now noting their practice of “native” or “natural fermentation.”

Natural wine is a confusing topic because, from the start, there is no consensus on what “natural” means. You may have some vague understanding that it points to a beverage that’s free of onerous chemical and industrial manipulation, but you haven’t put in a bunch of hours into dissecting the processes at play behind each bottle. Take heart—even us somm nerds who have put in the time can’t agree on what constitutes “natural.”

Here’s the general spectrum of wine processing: At one extreme are the bulk-produced wines that are heavily manipulated and chemically shaped to fit a familiar taste profile. They’re not something I want to drink, but hundreds of millions of dollars in annual sales says that someone else does. On the other extreme are the most ardent of “natural wines” that are, at minimum, picked, pressed, fermented, and aged in a variety of vessels and bottles, with barely a finger lifted to direct quality.

In the middle—by my estimation a good 60 to 70 percent of wine out there—is everything in between, from large production but not overly adulterated wines of varying quality, to extremely well made, limited-run boutique wines. “Natural” is an extremely gray set of requirements. The wines of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, considered to be some of the best wines in the world, made by firm believers in biodynamic agriculture and minimal manipulation in the winery, would not pass muster under the eyes of most #naturalwine zealots.

Whatever the philosophy, I’ve always been focused on the finished product. It’s a sommelier thing—I want a good quality, consistent wine every time I open a bottle. Small variations, fine; it happens. But not rampant faults and wide swings in quality and flavor. Oftentimes that’s what happens with #naturalwines because of the lack of problem-solving in the winery: the hands-off approach can lead to dramatic bottle variation due to bacterial flaws.

The thing I’m starting to realize, however, is that many people don’t seem to care about these preventable faults. Some even cheer dramatic changes from bottle-to-bottle. It goes against everything—everything—I’ve learned over my career. Because of this, I knew I had to get a fresh perspective.

Jill Mott, co-owner of GYST Fermentation Bar // Photo by Wing Ta

Jill Mott, co-owner of GYST Fermentation Bar // Photo by Wing Ta

To get it, I went to a class taught by Jill Mott, the owner of Jill Mott Selections, an importer specializing in natural wines. I feared I might be greeted like a carnivore in a meeting of evangelical vegans, but it turned out to be not the case. The group was varied, from those just trying to figure out what natural wine is all about, to a young couple who practically jumped with joy at the taste of each wine.

Mott quickly addressed the controversy and confusion of what comprises “natural” and prefers the term “no-manipulation,” which I agree is a better term, but a more cumbersome hashtag. There are 62 additives currently allowed for use in winemaking in the United States, from the common ones like sulfur dioxide (a preservative to prevent oxidation) to the extreme manipulations like Mega Purple (a concentrate that adds color and sweetness.)

A small dose of sulfur dioxide at bottling isn’t a bad thing in Mott’s eyes. Rather, it’s dousing grapes with SO2 as they come to the winery, killing all the natural yeast on the grape skins, that should be avoided. But the various organic and biodynamic certifying bodies have a range of tolerances for this practice, so if you absolutely insist on no sulfur additions, then you’re going to have a very small list of wines from which to choose.

Related Post: Minnesota Spoon: Wine Pairing with Jill Mott

After tasting through four wines in the class, it was clear that accepting natural wine is a matter of perspective. These “no-manipulation” wines all had faults, without exception. All had noticeable volatile acidity (VA), a set of acids that in small amounts give wine a beautiful “lift,” but in excess can accumulate to become vinegar. Some had Brettanomyces issues. Another was flirting with near-undrinkable levels of ethyl acetate, the compound in fingernail polish remover.

Sounds horrible, right? Maybe not. With any fault, it’s about balance. A little Brett or VA can be beautiful; classic Châteauneuf-du-Pape is known for light Brett and many Italian wines rely on VA for their aromatics. But these were all in excess of what I would call balanced. These wines were faulty. And that’s bad, right?

Well, not to everyone else at the table. I was the jerk finding all the half-empty parts of the wines while everyone else seemed to find them half-full. An older couple asked thoughtful questions, clear they were simply concerned about additives in food in general. A few across from me were in full-on discovery mode, excited by every new piece of information. Were the wines tasty? I thought they lacked fruit, but again, if you’re not analyzing every sip like I do, then you may not notice or even care.

Three natural wines sold at Henry & Son in Minneapolis // Photo by Dan Murphy

Three natural wines sold at Henry & Son in Minneapolis // Photo by Dan Murphy

Mott was very clear to note that if it was true “natural” wine you were after, go ask a bird to peck a grape and let it ferment for a day or two and attempt to drink it before it turns to vinegar. The very act of viticulture is manipulation and it’s a point I make frequently. But the goal of “natural wine” is “nothing added, nothing taken away.” The result will yield variation, sometimes extreme, bottle-to-bottle. And if you’re drawn to “natural” wines, you just have to accept that, like you accept variation (and fault) from person to person. I liked her perspective, though in a restaurant environment, I’m still wary of highly variable wine the way I’d be leery of variable quality in steaks or seafood. But if you don’t mind it, though, then I say drink up!

That these variations aren’t a big deal to consumers makes complete sense, really. Sour beers and ciders are rising in popularity, and sours are, by definition, fault-ridden with Brettanomyces or bacteria. A mentor of mine (who’s studying to be the first Master Sommelier/Master Cicerone) loves Brett in beer and hates it in wine. I’m apparently a stick-in-the-mud, but the rise of “natural” wines has come on the coattails of similar tastes in the craft beer movement, and it doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon.

We can debate specifically what “natural” means, but I see the demand for less-manipulated wine as a positive direction for wine in general. And perhaps that comes with some faults and variations, but it also leads to some spectacularly unique wines that capture the story of their origin in ways wine shaped by a marketing focus group never could. Sometimes it just takes a little more patience to understand them.

So maybe I don’t hate “natural” wine (sorry, “no-manipulation” wine) after all. But I still hate the hashtag.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated Jill Mott’s position. The story has been revised.