Who Says Natural Wine is Good?

I’ve interviewed people actively committing crimes, but doing interviews about natural wine was touchier. Not since I’ve talked to graffiti writers about the difference between graffiti and street art have I heard a debate so fraught with feelings and shadings of terminology. “There’s no legal definition of what it means within the industry, so it becomes super controversial,” Mia Malm of Napa Valley’s Malm Communications, a public relations firm specializing in wine and food, told me. It can be said that “natural wine” means both everything…and nothing.

What is Natural Wine, Anyway?

There are a few guidelines: No fining (aka clarifying), no filtering, minimal sulfur, and minimal intervention. Malm pointed out a contradiction inherent to the whole debate: “All wine is natural in that it all comes from grapes. But, at the same time, there are always interventions that have to be made in winemaking, so it can also never be completely natural. If you leave grapes out in the sun, for example, they won’t just turn into wine.”

In our office, we got into some skirmishes over this. One of us made the bold claim that natural wine “tastes like good wine with old Sweet Tarts dipped in it.” Science offers an explanation for this taste. Our office critic is tasting a combination of Brettanomyces or “Brett,” a volatile yeast that produces a funky scent, and then volatile acidity from the tetrahydropyridines that is sometimes called “mouse” due to its mouse-cage or sock-like smell.

Mouse is a result of not using sulfur. Because it’s activated by saliva, it brings the wine closer to a vinegar-like experience. (These details are courtesy of Ray Isle of Food & Wine’s The World in a Wineglass, an excellent international primer on sustainable winemaking and how to identify terroir). I personally enjoy natural wine, but I went on a mission to discuss natural wine with some professionals.

“When you start associating moralism with it, that’s just bananas.” 

Adam Knoerzer of ‘Burghundy said that “In my view, the problem is that this category has often been co-opted by or associated with only the most extreme versions of the category. We have this expectation that only the funkiest, most out-there examples are ‘true’ natural wines.” People have decided that the funky taste is a natural wine thing, and then become turned off by it. “Plenty of wines on the market would qualify as being natural wines, but because they aren’t cloudy, they aren’t barnyard-y they don’t “count,” he said. “You can find a similar situation in orange wines, another category with a broad range of styles where the loudest voices get an outsized share of attention.”

It’s also not always a staple at fine dining establishments. Armando Vasquez, a sommelier who worked for the Restoration Hardware (RH) restaurant in New York’s Meatpacking District, said that “We didn’t serve organic wine. The closest thing I recall was Biodynamic wine, which was only one wine on the menu.” He also noted that it was not particularly popular. “The customers did not order it as frequently. But when they did, chances were, they would return it due to the ‘foggy’ appearance it gave.” So, not a hit with RH diners.

Sommelier Elizabeth Dames, Wine Director and Co-Founder of The Perlant, a new private wine club in Atlanta, GA, weighed in that “There are plenty of wines with a hands-off approach that are fantastic, and I wholly support them because they consistently produce a stable and clean product. On the other hand, many times I’ll taste a natural wine with obvious flaws that could have been avoided by a small dose of SO2 or fining and filtering. Another issue is bottle variation. Some bottles will be delicious while others will be completely flawed. I once purchased a case of wine from a natural producer and had to toss every third bottle due to flaws.”

Defending natural wines

But it does have its defenders. Tomasz Skowronski of Apteka, which exclusively stocks what can be classified as natural wine said: “When you start associating moralism with it, that’s just bananas. This us vs. them mentality has nothing to do with wine and everything to do with people. It’s just humans figuring it out. I think it dumbs down what it actually is to just call it ‘natural.’ Apteka focuses on winemakers with sustainable agriculture practices. “Broadly, farming is important to us. All the producers we carry are relying on ambient yeast for fermentation, so the winemaking process is then low-intervention winemaking,” he said. “We look for producers that mirror our mission of being a tight knit small group of people trying hard to do a good thing.”

Skowronski made the analogy that for consumers outside the industry, wine types are similar to music. Just because you don’t like a particular ska band doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t like all of ska. You might not like the ska rhythms, but really like something similar when it appears in a jazz or blues song. The same can be true of tasting notes in wine, that have nothing to do with whether’s it’s “natural” or not.

Skrownowski continues: “In music, people are quick to dismiss certain genres as just noise, but it’s more complicated than that. Depending on who’s saying wine is ‘natural,’ you can wield it in different ways. People regurgitate information about natural wine, thinking that there’s a ton of science about affecting the way they feel. There’s not a lot of consensus. But, in a blind taste testing there are different things you can get from natural wine consistently.”

Taste Test Time

So, we’ve established who’s saying that it’s good. Is it? I tried to find an objective party. My associate editor, Kylie Thomas, had never had natural wine before and is not into wine on the whole. I picked some wines from Apteka for us to try. One white (Stein Wehwasser Riesling Feinherb, which Skowronski recommended as a classic, quality Riesling), and one red (Mélaric Billes de Roche). Skowronski recommended the latter as a unique flavor that needs time to open up. It comes from winemakers Aymeric Hillaire and Mélanie Cunin in the Loire Valley.

“This has an earthier flavor compared to store-bought whites. And it’s a lot smoother,” Kylie said after tasting the Riesling. “It has a little bit more of the alcohol taste but without the alcohol burn. I don’t like the taste of alcohol, and I could see myself buying a bottle of it. It’s so much easier for me to drink!” Publisher Justin Matase, one of the tasters, noted that it meets all the taste criteria of a traditional Riesling: bright, sweet, and crisp all at once.

We did a blind taste test to compare it to Mazzotta Winery’s 2020 Riesling. Kylie could immediately pick out the Stein, thus proving Tomasz’s point.

Complex reactions to idiosyncratic flavors

Our group of tasters greeted the Mélaric with more complicated reactions. One the one hand, the berry-forward flavor was similar to a classic red you might pair with deeply braised beef or pork. On the other hand, a lingering sweetness reminiscent of dried fruits might make it hard to pair with anything other than a great cheese and charcuterie plate.

We also tried the Stavek Ryzlink Vlašský, which in Skowronski’s music analogy he said was the “experimental music” of natural wines. The acidic taste and almost un-grapelike zing was a little bit more difficult to access for some. But, editor-in-chief Keith Recker did note that it might go well with a rabbit or other game, where the acidity might serve a purpose.

The Stavek is an “orange” wine, another somewhat controversial category, as Knoerzer said, between a red and a white. What I found compelling about the Stavek was how unusual it was. I added Chona’s Marani Mtsvane-Rkatsiteli, another “orange” wine that has a heavy tannic presence. The group had mixed feelings about this wine, too, though I loved its peachy notes, despite not being a fruity or sweet wine fan. What i learned from trying Skowronski’s recommendations was that natural wine can have more of a nose than the “conventional” wines I buy, and that it expresses terroir in unexpected ways — some subtle and some not.

“Stay skeptical.”

I don’t know that I changed any of my colleagues’ minds about natural wine, but I got them to try something new. Malm said that there are a lot of qualities that can make wines unique. “Wine has history, science, religion, artisanship…” she reflected. Skowronski also made a point that “Wine is somewhere between a luxury good and a beverage.” People look for different things out of wine.

Elizabeth Dames said of whether to select a natural wine at a bottle shop that “Stay skeptical. We should all be more cautious about what we choose to put in our bodies. However, you should not dismiss or ignore natural wine completely. Since this category has fewer regulations, there is a broad spectrum of practices. Sometimes the wines are great, and other times not so much. Consumers should do some research to find producers who consistently make clean, quality products.” 

It’s easy to gravitate towards what’s cheapest or easiest. But, it can be worth it to look a little bit more into the making techniques behind even the most basic liquor store wines. Give natural wine a chance if you’re a skeptic. It’s an example of a diversity of flavor and an expression of changing ideas within the food and beverage sector. Skowronski likened the interest in natural wine to the pandemic craze over sourdough. People like feeling like they know all the ingredients in what they consume. Adam Knoerzer recommends “Drink what you like and leave the rest to others. Embrace curiosity about wine and all that goes into it and enjoy that it’s a big enough tent with room for everyone.”

Story by Emma Riva / Photography by Keith Recker 

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