Most grocery stores, chain liquor stores, and national restaurants sell wines made by the millions of cases—wines made with a recipe, a process more akin to making soda than wine. In contrast, “natural” winemakers have staked their claim as the antithesis to corporate plonk. While “natural wine” is a loose stylistic description, it is generally made from grapes grown organically or biodynamically by winemakers who subscribe to a no-additions and minimal (even no) intervention winemaking philosophy.
So-called natural winemakers wave a banner of purity and integrity. They claim to let the grapes alone dictate the wine and firmly believe less intervention leaves the wine more true-to-place, unique, and alive. A significant amount of press ink has been spilled telling the story of natural wines. And while no official natural wine certification exists, there’s an exclusivity to the club. You’re in or out, praised or… unnatural?
In reality, hundreds, even thousands of wineries have crafted wines with authenticity and minimal intervention for decades. They are small- to medium-scale producers crafting wines that showcase their grapes’ varietals, regions, and vintages transparently. High-tech interventions are eschewed, and cleanliness and terroir motivate their work—traits too often lacking in no-intervention natural wines (we’ll get to that later). Even so, these wineries don’t get invited into the “natural wine club” by the likes of the RAW WINE™ fair organizers or editors at Pipette Magazine.
Before we get to why, let’s meet one such winery.
Anthill Farms is located in the northeast corner of the Sonoma AVA (American Viticultural Area). Anthill crafts small-batch pinot noir, syrah, and chardonnay, and is a joint venture of three industry friends who met while working at Williams Selyem, a producer of pinot noir savored by collectors. Anthony Filiberti serves as both winemaker and managing partner and produces stunning minimal-intervention wines. But he doesn’t embrace the title of natural winemaker. “Raising balanced, delicious wines that hit my mark for quality and complexity drives my work. I don’t want to follow someone else’s prescript of what is good or better, natural or not when it comes to wine,” he says.
While there are many commonalities between Filiberti’s approach and that of natural winemakers, he, and other small-scale producers like him, diverge from natural wine in their openness to deploying common winemaking practices, such as acidification, fining and filtering, and using sulfur dioxide (SO2).
SO2 is often used by winemakers to protect wine throughout fermentation and aging due to its antioxidant and antimicrobial—protective properties deeply valued by wine producers. It is also the most contested element when it comes to defining natural wine.
Again, no law exists that absolutely defines natural wine. That said, several regulations have been set by groups of growers in various countries, France, Italy, and Spain among them. The French S.A.I.N.S. has the strictest rules: absolutely no additives (sulfites included) but gross filtration is okay. Members of France’s Association des Vins Naturels (AVN) must agree not to add sulfites but are simultaneously allowed to use a maximum of 20 mg/l for red wines and 30 mg/l for whites. Italy’s Association VinNatur says members cannot use more than 70 mg/l total SO2. Meanwhile, the Consorzio Vini Veri (CVV), also in Italy, caps limits at 80 mg/l for dry wines and 100 mg/l for sweet wines. And, at the aforementioned RAW WINE™ fair, which is organized by natural wine champion Isabelle Legeron MW, wines made with up to 70 mg/l are accepted.
For Anthill Farms’ Filiberti, SO2 is unjustly demonized. “I like what SO2, at the correct level for each wine, does for wine. Often I find the wines express the individual qualities more clearly with the right amount of SO2, especially over time in the bottle,” he explains. “I can’t figure out how something like SO2, that is needed for healthy [shelf] life, has become bad. The spoilage of volatile acidity (VA) and other things, along with early oxidation, diminishes so much of not just the individuality but the pure delicious pleasure wine brings.”
In the opinion of Filiberti and those who agree with his views on SO2, natural wine producers push too many wines with noticeable levels of VA. VA is caused by bacteria creating acetic acid—the acid that gives vinegar its flavor and aroma—and its byproduct, ethyl acetate. These flavors can wind up masking the flavors of the grapes, putting a blanket over their ability to showcase place and singularity. Ironically, these natural wines, which are supposed to taste more unique due to their purity, end up tasting the same due to VA; they taste “natural,” but little more can be said about them.
Filiberti isn’t alone in his opinions on producing minimal-intervention wines while also forgoing the title of “natural wines.” When Graham Nutter, proprietor of Château St Jacques d’Albas in Minervois, France, bought the property in 2001, the fields contained little biological diversity largely due to the pesticides and herbicides used by the prior owners. Through years of careful tending using sustainable, mostly organic practices (the estate will be certified organic as of the 2019 vintage), the health of the soil has flourished and the fruit shows newfound complexity and dexterity. “Our vines are now more resistant to drought and powdery mildew than before,” touts Nutter.
As for his winemaking: “We are minimalist in our wines. We use low levels of SO2 and minimal fining or filtering. Our judicious use of these tools allows us to maintain a level of consistency in what we achieve—we want to show terroir.” But even those small interventions are enough to keep him from qualifying as “natural.” Not that he minds: It’s this desire to show place rather than VA or premature oxidation that drives him and many other minimal-intervention winemakers to avoid a whole-hearted embrace of the title “natural winemaker.”
In Crete, Greece, Bart Lyrarakis of Lyrarakis Winery also takes this approach. “No, we don’t call ourselves a natural winery,” he says. “We try to be at every stage of production, but when we have to intervene, we will do so.”
Lyrarakis simultaneously believes that the natural wine movement is ultimately a positive thing, as it’s led to consumers better understanding the abundant manipulations happening in mass-production wineries. “Concerning the natural wine movement, we are huge proponents and wholeheartedly embrace it,” he says. “I dare to say we are only skeptical of the complete lack of flexibility, as well as the incomplete knowledge, both on the producer and consumer side of this very interesting movement. But you have extremes in everything on this planet, even this great natural wine initiative. Personally, I am really happy natural wine is thriving, as it helps increase the expectations and the general awareness of consumers.”
“I dare to say we are only skeptical of the complete lack of flexibility, as well as the incomplete knowledge, both on the producer and consumer side of this very interesting movement.”
– Bart Lyrarakis, of Lyrarakis Winery
“Natural” or not, Filiberti, Nutter, and Lyrarakis’s personal prescripts result in compelling wines and their labels showcase the regions and varietals transparently. Turn to the 2016 Anthill Farms Campbell Ranch Pinot Noir ($45) for a hedonic and sensual experience. At Château St Jacques d’Albas, the Minervois Domaine d’Albas ($15) showed best on day two, suggesting a life ahead of it if cellared—a feat at such a reasonable price. The Lyrarakis Vóila Assyrtiko ($18), a white Grecian varietal, starts with lemon, sea air, and ginger along with a floral nuance, and also added extra complexity on day two.
These wines demonstrate the tip of the iceberg of what’s currently being produced by the many excellent and honest producers around the globe, a list that also includes such steadfast wineries as L’Ecole No. 41 in Washington, Brooks in Oregon, Leo Steen in California, and Matteo Correggia in Piedmont, Italy.
Despite the fact that most of the wine bottles currently being sold on shelves are produced by a handful of behemoth producers, small-scale wineries still account for a large majority of the producers in the United States and around the globe. Though harder to find, most reputable (often independent) shops and restaurants carry these authentic wines. Ultimately, instead of seeking out a certain label designation, choose a wine for the wine itself. “Our most important goal is to have the very bottle you hold in your hands express itself sincerely,” explains Lyrarakis. “The identity of the place, the grape, the farmer—they are all part of it, as we are, too. We will strive for such wines.”
While not the mantra of all small producers, this sentiment rings true for many. Thanks to the modern understanding of fermentation, spoilage, and tools that keep wineries and wines clean—particularly SO2—wine today can and should taste good. To choose high-VA wines over clean expressions is to embrace ideological purity over deliciousness.