After doing a Paleo challenge at my gym (no processed foods, sugar, wheat or grains, etc.) I became an avid label reader and was discouraged to find all kinds of weird stuff in packaged foods. My new food awareness inspired this article about organic, Biodynamic and natural wines for Local Flavor Magazine’s May Issue. I’m looking forward to trying more of them!
A student of wine takes a look at the natural wine movement and why the ensuing contentious debate is important to you.
In a world where processed foods are ubiquitous and the same unpronounceable ingredients like Polydimethylsiloxane can be found in your shampoo, caulk and food (ever had McDonald’s chicken nuggets?), a student of wine like myself begins to wonder if there are some nasty things are lurking in my glass. The FDA and TTB (the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) allow a disturbing number of ingredients besides grapes to be added to a wine or used in the winemaking process. Consumers are becoming more aware and concerned with the products they purchase and how they’re made. Just as organic, sustainable, local and farm-to-table food movements have gained momentum, the vinous world is witnessing the rise of wines made from organic and Biodynamically farmed grapes. There is also a strengthening niche movement for natural wines.
The term “natural wine” is causing a stir, not least because many people feel that all wines are natural in the first place (grapes are fermented by living microorganisms). In general terms, natural winemaking involves little or no intervention in the vineyard or the winery, whether chemical or technological (like using reverse osmosis to lower alcohol levels). Specifically, nonintervention can mean using wild, as opposed to cultivated yeasts, foregoing new oak barrels and the use of sulfur dioxide. However, there is no legal definition of what a “natural wine” encompasses, in terms of grape growing or winemaking, and things become even more confusing when you throw in terms like organic and Biodynamic.
While the terms “organic” and “Biodynamic” are codified, each country has a different definition, regulating body and set of rules for what is allowed both in the vineyard and the winery. Jancis Robinson states in The Oxford Companion to Wine that organic viticulture is “a system of grape growing broadly defined as shunning manmade compounds such as fertilizers, fungicides and pesticides, as well as anything that has been genetically modified.” In the EU, wines may only be labeled, “made from organically grown grapes.” This means that certification covers vineyard practices but not production practices—there is no guarantee of producers’ practices inside the winery. In the US and a few other countries, producers may choose to label wines “organic.” Robinson explains that wines labeled “organic” must be made from organically grown grapes as well as produced without the addition of sulfur dioxide. This is close to the nonintervention elucidated by proponents of natural wines. However, less than one percent of wines produced with organically grown grapes are labeled “organic” because of the risk of spoilage (I’ll give you the low down on sulfur in a moment).
Biodynamics, first explained by philosopher and scientist Rudolf Steiner, takes things further and incorporates a spiritual and, to some, mystical element. According to Jamie Goode in The Science of Wine: From Vine to Glass, the key to Biodynamics is “considering the farm in its entirety as a living system, and seeing it in the context of the wider pattern of lunar and cosmic rhythms.” In this view, the soil is itself an organism, so instead of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, a series of special preparations (made up of varied materials such as stinging nettles, manure, quartz, yarrow and oak bark) are applied to the soil according the cycles of nature.
Partly because it is undefined and can be confused with other terms, “natural wine” has become a hugely polarizing issue. Some folks have denounced intervention in winemaking entirely, while others like renowned Rhône producer Michel Chapoutier denounce proponents of natural wine as “out of touch hippies making defective wines.” Part of the rub lies in the effect of sulfur dioxide on wine. Sulfur plays an important role in winemaking, particularly as an antioxidant and anti-microbial agent. Without added sulfur wines tend to become oxidized—investment in the vineyards, hard work at harvest, and the expense of vinification and cellaring might yield vinegar instead of vino if oxidation goes too far. Sulfur also kills bacteria in wine, which can cause spoilage. On the other side of the coin, too much sulfur can make a wine smell like matchsticks and burnt rubber. Also, some people suffer allergic reactions to sulfur and so these days bottles require labels that let consumers know a wine contains sulfur, although this is a bit self-defeating—sulfur is a by-product of fermentation, and all wines contain some degree of the naturally occurring element.
I experienced firsthand the success and failure of natural wines on a recent trip to the Suisun Valley (just outside Napa), where I visited the Scholium Project, headed by Abe Schoener, a professor of philosophy-turned-winemaker. Abe practices natural winemaking’s finer points: he does not add sulfur, but he also doesn’t top off his aging wines, which means they become oxidized. He favors simple cold water for cleaning in the winery, shunning common hygiene practices. Abe defines himself as a student whose projects are sometimes experiments. I tasted barrel samples of several of his wines, including a Sauvignon Blanc that had been fermented on its skins, giving it a strong tannic character, as well as a white wine made from Cinsault, a grape usually used for making red wines. Some of the wines were yummy (I enjoyed a light, juicy and fruity Gewurztraminer) but others were entirely undrinkable. If I was unsure what volatile acidity smelled and tasted like in a wine, I’m certain of it now—it’s like trying to drink a glass of vinegar.
Walking this line between success and failure seems to be an inherent aspect of natural winemaking, and why some people are so averse to the idea. While working on this article, I tried another natural wine: Frank Cornelissen’s Munjabel 8MC, a Nerello Mascalese from Mount Etna in Sicily. Cornelissen eschews absolutely any intervention in the vineyard and winery, which for him actually includes organic and Biodynamic techniques. He uses no compost on the land, no barrels in the winery, and instead ages some of his wines in neutral tubs or buried terracotta vessels. I enjoyed the wine for its weirdness: aromas of hothouse and perfume, herbs and dirt. Others who tasted it were completely put off, and one person dubbed it, “drinking potpourri.” Natural wines like Schoener’s and Cornelissen’s beg the question: why do we drink wine? Is wine only valid if it’s delicious and brings us palatable pleasure, or can a wine also be appreciated solely for its intellectual and experimental value?
I can’t come to a conclusion about which side to take, but I can understand that this debate is important. Can one take natural wines too far, into the land of dogma? Yes. Many of Cornelissen’s wines don’t even make it through shipping because of the way they’re made. But at the same time, do we want to drink wines souped up with additives like Mega Purple, a concentrate used to enhance color and texture? Consumers have a right to know what’s going into their wines, both in terms of additives and process. I spoke with Derek Werner, at La Casa Sena wine shop, who made the point that a better template for vetting wines is knowledge of the producer, not wine labels or certifications, which can be an ordeal for a producer to obtain and cost a pretty penny. Derek says, “Things like estate ownership of vineyards and lower production levels can be just as important for understanding how nonintervention can be actualized.”
Matthew Slaughter of Arroyo Vino agrees with Derek. As someone who buys organic food and practices a vegetarian lifestyle, product knowledge is hugely important for him, and he likewise chooses wine producers for their commitment to responsible grape growing and integrity in the winemaking process. He points out that the role of the wine merchant is important for providing consumers with the information they need to make informed decisions. He says, “Part of the role of the wine merchant, or of me standing on my two feet in Arroyo Vino, is talking with customers about the wines. You can’t always find information on the label and without the merchant, the consumer is left in the dark.”
Santa Feans have always been concerned with the quality of their food and have been part of the organic, local and farm-to-table food movements. It follows that we are concerned with the quality and integrity of the wines we choose to drink. I can proudly say that our wine shops carry a huge array of sustainably and ecologically focused wines. Susan’s Fine Wine and Spirits and Kokoman Fine Wine and Liquor each have a specific section for organic wines, as well as plenty of other bottles that aren’t labeled in this way from producers like Frog’s Leap in Rutherford and Alois Lageder in the Alto Adige in Italy. La Casa Sena carries Robert Sinskey from Napa and Bonny Doon, whose wines are made using Biodynamically farmed grapes and whose winemaker, Randall Grahm, follows a hands-off philosophy in the winery. Kelly Liquor Barn offers plenty of choices—ask for Denisio and he’ll help you find something you can feel good about buying. A large portion of the selection at Arroyo Vino comes from importers like Giuliana Imports and Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant, companies concerned with the integrity and sustainability of the wines they import.
There’s no excuse for not trying them—these wines are everywhere. Give natural (or organic, or Biodynamic) wines a try. Whether you love or loathe them, the most important thing is that people are talking about them. Discourse is a powerful tool for change, and what’s in our favorite beverage is just as important as what’s in our food. Cheers!