What's in a glass of wine? The answer might be surprising. Wine is basically spoiled grape juice. (Whoever first ingested it millennia ago: hat tip.) But these days wine's ingredients can also contain a laundry list of adds in's: sulfur dioxide, egg whites, oak chips, water and numerous chemical additives, in addition to the base of fermented grape juice. As chefs and home cooks have turned to farmers markets for organic and small batch-grown produce, wine drinkers are increasingly seeking out natural wines, in response to the preservatives and stabilizers found in conventionally-made wine.
Natural wine is more than just winespeak or a marketing gimmick. Artisan winemakers are essentially going back to basics when making wine in a non-interventionist way, with as little manipulation as possible, avoiding mechanization in farming and production (foot stomping grapes is now in vogue), using grapes grown without chemical fertilizers or pesticides. Some words frequently used to describe natural wine's flavor profile: alive, snappy, complex, dense and fuller on the palate. Natural wines do taste and often look differently than conventionally made wine. Turn the page to discover why.
Those in the wine world debate its definition because there is no official standard of natural winemaking in the U.S. or internationally. Here France's morethanorganic.com provides clear terms and an authoritative philosophy on the process. Berkeley winemakers Tracey and Jared Brandt of Donkey & Goat explain their natural winemaking do's and don'ts. Some essentials from these manifestos follow, tested in whole or part by many winemakers.
The source: Wine begins in the vineyard. Natural wines come from vineyards where the farmer has used no chemical fertilizers ("no spray") or pesticides. Sometimes certified organic, sometimes not, the grapes might also be grown following biodynamic precepts. Biodynamic vineyard management is the opposite of industrial farming in every way. (Portland Oregon's Brooks Winedetails the care taken in a biodynamic vineyard.) Among biodynamics homeopathic practices: using crop covers between vineyard rows, supplementing soil with herbal teas and keeping owl houses so that predator birds (instead of poison) reduce a vineyard's rodent population.
By moving away from chemicals in the field, Hank Beckmeyer of La Clarine Farm (his wines are available at downtown's Buzz Wine Beer) elucidates on his winery's website what these vineyard practices mean, "In essence, the farmer/winemaker/vigneron becomes the crucial link in allowing a vineyard, its grapes and the vintage to express itself," he writes. "He or she allows a terroir to become explicit. "
Jamil Williams, buyer and a manager at Buzz Wine Beer, punches it down: "If you had to make a hard definition of natural wine, it means minimal chemical and technological intervention in the vineyard and winemaking process."
Yeasts from the vineyard wild. For more than 30 years California winemakers have utilized native yeasts (rather than laboratory-grown strains) to ferment wines. (Chalk Hill's estate Chardonnay from Sonoma County is one example. Bonny Doon Vineyard's Le Cigare Volant is another). "The micro-biology of a vineyard drives the characteristics of a bottling," explains winemaker Greg Bjornstad of Pfendler Vineyards. Using wild yeasts is another way to express native terroir, he adds.
Once grapes are harvested and set out in tanks or bins for fermentation, winemakers typically inoculate them with yeast -- this jumpstarts fermentation. As a comparison, a baker has the choice of store bought packaged yeast or a cultivated starter with the end result: Wonder Bread vs. an artisan made sourdough baguette. In a similar way, winemakers rely on airborne ambient yeasts present on the grapes and in the winery to propel fermentation spontaneously.
"Wild yeast turns out wine with soul and complexity," contends Dieter Cronje, winemaker at Presqu'ile Winery in Santa Maria Valley. "The wild yeast comes with our terroir; if we are making terroir driven wine or sense of place, using natural yeast is essential to reach that."
Aging, filtering and fining: Wine distributor and importer Amy Atwood finds that although the definition of natural wines is contentious, she feels there are some absolutes. Neutral oak barrels should be used for aging (they won't import that toasty, buttery oak flavor), and no filtering or fining (adding egg whites to remove sediments) should be in the natural winemaker's playbook. Sulfites should only be added minimally at bottling for stability purposes.
Atwood finds natural wines slightly more elegant, and definitely more food friendly than conventionally produced wines. (She distributes Andrea Calek's yeasty low alcohol (9%) Blonde (pictured above), a blend of hand-picked Chardonnay and Viognier). "Angelenos are open and are interested in how their wines are made," she says. Because so many now shop at the farmers market and question their foodstuff's sources, "It hasn't taken too long to question how wine is made and grapes grown." She recommends reading Alice Feiring's The Battle for Wine and Love, for a deeper understanding of the subject.
At Salt's Cure restaurant, the almost all California wine list features natural winemakers like Donkey & Goat and Sonoma's Scribe Winery. "We're bringing in what is the best representation of the grape in California rather than what is commercially popular," explains co-owner Zak Walters. He continues, "Our wine list is a direction reflection of what we doing with food, how we're making food, and knowing where our food comes from."
As always, there's more to wine than what's in the glass -- more food for thought while sipping that summer rosé.
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