Why Winemakers are Going Au Naturel
The trend for organic, biodynamic, minimal intervention wines is hot, but what does it all really mean, and which producers are the ones to watch?
So-called “natural” wines are considered by many to be more authentic, expressive of terroir and respectful of the earth than those that are manipulated in various ways during the winemaking process. And we agree: When successful, natural wines can exhibit unique and nuanced characters.
Unlike organic grapes and wines, which follow a rigorous certification process, there are no specific requirements for using the term “natural wine.” But it’s generally agreed that they should be made from grapes certified organic or biodynamic, and should be fermented with indigenous yeasts.
The mantra of its proponents? Let the wine make itself. It sounds simple, but it also has its pitfalls.
Some natural wines are prone to problems like stuck fermentations (common with some yeast strains), oxidation, funky aromas and off flavors. Even worse problems can occur when the winemaking is entirely hands-off.
To be clear, “organic wine” can have no added sulfur dioxide (SO2), and naturally occurring sulfites less than 10 parts per million (ppm). Wine “made with organic grapes” may contain up to 100 ppm of SO2. Organic wines may be natural, but not all natural wines are certified organic.
Confused? Try some of our recommended natural wines. Decide if it’s just the latest buzz, or a way to make wine better.
Birgit Braunstein 2012 Magna Mater Chardonnay (Burgenland); $75
It’s the healing, life-giving energy of nature that Birgit Braunstein wants to honor in her “Magna Mater” or “Great Mother” wine, named after her childhood pilgrimages to the shrine of Magna Mater, the Virgin Mary, in Mariazell, Styria. The Chardonnay is fermented on its skins in 300- and 500-liter amphorae—clay vessels that spend eight months submerged in the soil behind Braunstein’s family winery in the village of Purbach, in Austria’s most easterly wine region.
Braunstein wanted to make a wine like just her Celtic predecessors—who introduced viticulture to the region—may have made, acquiring her her first amphora in 2009. Braunstein’s amphorae have exactly the same onion-dome shape as the region’s churches, but upside down.
“This way, you draw and focus all of the energy into the wine,” says Braunstein.
After eight months, the wine is scooped out of the amphorae by hand and transferred to used barrels to mature for another one to two years. The wine is then bottled without added SO2, filtration or fining.
Domaine de l’Ecu 2013 Granite (Muscadet de Sèvre et Maine); $23
Guy Bossard has long been a pioneer. In the Muscadet region where, in the 1970s, volume and chemicals reigned equally supreme, he gradually did away with both—proving that biodynamic methods could work even in this cool ocean climate. He uses wild yeasts, replants with massal selection (choosing the best vines from which to propagate), and uses minimal sulfur in the winemaking.
Although he sold Domaine de l’Ecu in 2010 to Frédéric van Herck, Bossard is still at the domaine overseeing the production of what remain exemplary Muscadets. The range is large and includes a sparkling wine, La Divina, named after Maria Callas. However, it is his terroir-driven wines that best express the impressive intensity he can draw out of the Melon de Bourgogne grape: Gneiss, Granite and Orthogneiss.
Cappellano 2010 Otin Fiorin Piè Rupestris (Barolo); $100
The late Teobaldo Cappellano, a trailblazer in the natural wine movement, took over the family firm in the late 1960s. His dedication to traditionally crafted wines—and his condemnation of over-oaked, over-concentrated wines—won him the respect of winemakers throughout Italy.
Teobaldo was one of the founders and longtime president of ViniVeri, an association that seeks “to restore the harmonious balance between man and the land.” Members shun chemicals in the vineyards and additives in the cellars.
Today, Teobaldo Cappellano’s son, Augusto, also uses no herbicides or chemical fertilizers, and uses only organic means to combat vine diseases.
In the cellars, he carries out spontaneous fermentation with wild yeasts, ferments in wooden vats with no temperature control, shuns supplements and doesn’t fine or filter his wines.
“Natural wines express their unique growing area and the individual story of the winemaker,” says Augusto. “To this end, I intervene as little as possible in the winemaking process.”
Ferdinand 2009 Rebula Brutus (Goriška Brda); $40
Matjaz Četrtič is creating excellent natural and organic wines from an indigenous grape variety called Rebula at his winery Ferdinand, named after his great-grand-father who originally planted
the vines. His first wine was bottled in 1997.
“In the Ferdinand wine cellar, we produce only organic, grape-based, high-quality wines,” says Četrtič. “The creation begins
in the vineyard, we use no herbicides, artificial fertilizers or insecticides. Our vineyards are grass-covered, enabling easy growth and no need for
Rebula has been cultivated for centuries in both Slovenia and Italy (where it’s called Ribolla Gialla). It’s often fermented in stainless steel to produce a fresh wine, but it can also show great aging potential when it’s aged in oak barrels prior to bottling.
The Eyrie Vineyards 2014 Original Vines Pinot Gris (Dundee Hills); $41
Jason Lett grew up making wine in the Dundee Hills of Oregon. His parents, David and Diana Lett, pioneered the region some 50 years ago. Their wines from The Eyrie Vineyards used non-interventionist methods long before the term came into wide use,
and Jason is taking that approach a step further.
“All of our wines are minimally manipulated, and low enough in SO2 to be below the 100 ppm European standard for organic wine production,” says Lett.
The Original Vines Pinot Gris, made from the first planting of Pinot Gris in the U.S., is the only wine he releases with no sulfur added. In order to eliminate SO2 and still retain the wine’s aging potential, “you have to be really on top of your tasting game to weed out any component that might bring an awkward strain of yeast or bacteria,” he says.
Eyrie’s ultra-natural, no SO2 approach works. It brings out subtle nuances that are too easily lost when designer yeasts, added nutrients and new oak barrels are used.
Donkey & Goat 2014 Linda Vista Vineyard Chardonnay (Napa Valley); $32
After making wine in Berkeley for just over a decade, Jared and Tracey Brandt are working for the first time with Napa Valley fruit for this wine, sourcing the grapes from grower extraordinaire Steve Matthiasson. The vineyard is in the relatively cool Oak Knoll District, its 25-year-old vines originally planted by Beringer.
Calling their philosophy of minimal intervention a “manifesto.” The Brandt’s methods include picking early, with their white wines frequently at under 13% alcohol by volume and their reds near 13.5% abv. They focus on cool-climate vineyards to help achieve these alcohol levels. However, the Brandts let native yeast handle the fermentations, and they won’t add water or employ reverse osmosis to bring alcohol down.
They add nothing to the wines except for minimal amounts of SO2, when necessary.
“It is an often confusing and ill-defined category,” says Tracey. “But the driving philosophy we learned back in 2002 (from Eric Texier), not the marketing spin widely employed, is what guides us.”