Diving into the World of Natural Wines

As some of you might know, last week I went to a Gambero Rosso wine event together with fellow wine lover Emi. After the tasting we headed to one of Emi’s favorite wine bars, Sarfati which only serves so-called natural wines. A natural wines bar? Yes!

I don’t know how the situation is where you live but in Germany natural wines are a hot topic these days and are becoming more and more trendy. Before I give you my tasting notes on the two natural wines that I tasted at Sarfati I want to briefly discuss the topic of natural wines.

What exactly is a Natural Wine?

Natural wines are a difficult subject and to thoroughly explain them could take days if not weeks. Why? Because the term has neither a legal status, nor is it there an established certification body. So any and all winery could, if they want, call their wines natural wines. This is problematic because different individuals and groups may have different definitions of what a natural wine is. There are some unofficial organisations like the French Association des Vins Naturels (AVN), the Italian Vinnatur, the Spanish  Productores de Vinos Naturales (PVN) and many others that all have their own definitions but most of these definitions are more or less identical. In Italy alone there at least four organisations representing the interests of natural wine producers. For simplicity, I will give you only the definition from Vinnatur:

The natural wine is produced in low rather than industrial quantities by an independent producer. The vineyards have low yield per plant and grapes are healthy and free of pesticides; lands are suited to the production of grapes which are harvested by hand with special attention to the integrity of bunches. The grapes do not undergo any chemical treatment nor weeding, no added sugar, enzymes or additives. The fermentations are spontaneous, without the addition of selected yeasts in the laboratory but only yeasts naturally grown in the vineyard; acidity adjustments are excluded as well as micro-oxygenation and reverse osmosis treatment.
http://vinnatur.org/en/il-vino-naturale

To put it simple, natural wines are produced without or with minimal technological intervention in the vineyard and the cellar. While many these wines are certified as organic or biodynamic, they should not be confused with organic or biodynamic wines. Not all organic and biodynamic wines are natural wines and not all natural wines are from certified organically or biodynamically farmed grapes. Makes sense?

Natural Wines

Photo Credits: Isabelle Legron, MW. License: CC BY-ND 2.0

Natural wines often look, smell and taste very differently than their conventional counterparts. This is why the wine world is heavily divided when it comes to natural wines. Professionals, retailers and consumers are fighting over the term and of the end product.

Opponents argue that the term natural wine is misleading and that the these wines taste and smell often very bad. In 2013, Bettane & Desseauve, two French wine critics, claimed that natural wine is “bad wine whose only intention is to give you a headache”. Bettane & Desseauve are verbally attacking producers of natural wine and its advocates on a regular basis saying that their wines are faulty or oxidized. Some opponents go as far as claiming that natural wines are an excuse for poor winemaking.

On the other side of the spectrum we have Master of Wine Isabelle Legeron who is one of the most vocal advocates of natural wine as well as founder and organiser of RAW, an annual artisan wine fair held in London. The 2015 RAW takes place from May 17-18. In Legeron’s opinion “only natural wines “can be truly great”.

It appears unlikely that either side will give in any time soon and so my recommendation is that you try natural wines yourself and not just once before your judge them as a whole.

Because natural wine producers do not add yeast, among other things, it can be difficult to predict how the finished wines will taste. The influence a cellar master has on the finished wine is minimal.

Further reading:

My experience at Sarfati Natural Wine Bar

We arrived at Sarfati after having tasted about dozens of wines at the Gambero Rosso event (I am a professional spitter). We started with a white wine as aperitif. Emi offered me to choose the wine but since I was completely unfamiliar with Sarfati’s extensive wine list I let Emi pick the bottle. Emi is a regular at Sarfati and knows their wine list much better than I do. He ordered a bottle of NV Feudi d’Ugni – Lama Bianca – Vino Bianco VdT , a Trebbiano d’Abruzzo, but warned me about the wine’s high acidity.

Like many natural wines, this one is classified as table wine. The reason behind this is simple:  It gives the wine makers the most possible freedom and consumers who purchase natural wines are said to care less about appellations. Lama Bianca’s appellation is Italia VdT (vino da tavola/Italian table wine). In Italy, producers may not put a vintage on the label if the wine is classified as table wine. The friendly staff at Sarfati assured us that the vintage is 2013.

Feudo d'Ugni Vino Bianco Natural Wines

Quite a cloudy color! See the yeast in the glass? (I admit it can be difficult to spot)

Lama Bianca is produced with 100% Trebbiano. After a brief maceration with the skins the wine underwent a fermentation and further aging in terracotta amphoras. 13% is the label-listed alcohol by volume.

After pouring a glass I noticed immediately a turbid color which reminded me of freshly squeezed lemon juice. I know on the photo it might be difficult to spot but there was lots of yeast in the bottle/glass, too. A mix of mature fruit and herbs on the most unique nose. The wine had definitely oxidized but I was told this a quite normal behavioir for natural wines. Dry and fresh with a present acidity on the palate. Highly mineral with notes of candid fruit and herbs. Good length. Lama Bianca had a most-interesting smell and taste.

2010 Guttarolo Joha Natural winesI freely admit that I have not tasted that many natural wines in the past and so I am a slightly undecided on my rating and will hold off rating it until I have more experience with natural wines but here comes the problem: I was told by the Sarfati staff that two bottles of the same natural wine could very well taste completely different making the whole process of rating natural wines even more challenging.

After our aperitif we decided to have dinner at Sarfati and Emi went looking for a red to pair with our main course which was baked pigeon with asparagus and eggplant. We went with  a 2010 Guttarolo -Joha – Primitivo Puglia IGP. This proved to be a highly interesting wine because the Sarfati staff explained to us that after a fermentation in amphora the wine aged in parts in stainless steel tanks and in parts in oak. The wine has a indicated ABV of 14.5%.

2010 Guttarolo Joha back natural winesJoha had a garnet red color with ruby red shades in the glass. On the nose, fruity and spicy with aromas of blackcurrant, raspberry jam, nutmeg, cocoa and pepper. In the mouth, very dry, warn and medium-full-bodied. Good balance, smooth tannins, slightly sapid and well-structured. Notes of blackcurrant and dark chocolate.Lingering aftertaste.

This wine tasted less “unique” or “odd” than other red natural wines which I have tasted in the past. I liked it this one a lot. Joha was an excellent pairing with our baked pigeons. Pigeon at Sarfati

Let’s talk money. The bottle of Lama Bianca was priced at €33 at Sarfati and Joha at €32. Their corkage is reasonably priced and they also sell all wines without corkage for take-away clients. I’d pay any time €32 at a restaurant for such a well-made Primitivo but I felt that the Lama Bianca was too expensive for what the wine offered.

Parting Words

I find natural wines interesting but I reserve judgment on whether I really enjoy this stylistic or not until I have tried a few more. So far, the majority of natural wines which I have liked were reds. I am curious what your standing on natural wines is.

Cheers!

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13 comments on “Diving into the World of Natural Wines”

  1. Sean P. Reply

    So basically natural wines is just another term for orange wines or what’s the connection between these?

    • Julian Rossello Reply

      No. While most oranges wines are also natural wines; only a minority of natural wines are also orange wines. That is because the term orange wines is used for white wines which underwent maceration with the grape skins.
      Cheers!

  2. Jeff Reply

    Hi Julian,
    I’m a fan of natural wines and have tried a variety of them. Like many food/wine arguments, I would hope there is room for all tastes! I do think there is a full continuum of approaches to winemaking and there is no such thing as a purely technical product nor a purely, truly natural product. Vive la différence!

    • Julian Rossello Reply

      Jeff,
      I like that through natural wines the wine world has a new style. More styles are good because it makes the wine world more interesting but I still have to get used to the taste of some of the natural wines. Especially white natural wines can have a slightly strange taste when one is unfamiliar with this style. Cheers!

  3. Kent Micho Reply

    Julian,

    I thought you might be interested in this excerpt I wrote for a wine tasting I held. The title was “Earth Friendly Wines” and it focused on sustainable winemaking. Here is the excerpt:

    The U.S. government, the EU, and many other countries regulate the use of the term “organic,” (all differently, of course) but most other terms have no legal definitions and may or may not be associated with private certifications. In addition to the environment, many wineries which focus on sustainability also are very active socially. Some of this is noted in the wine notes. In order of decreasing “strictness”, here are the major sustainable wine-making processes:

    • Sustainable wine making is a general term referring to natural and human resources, involving environmental health, economic profitability, and social and economic equity. It requires small, realistic, and measurable steps as defined in the Code of Sustainable Winegrowing Practices Workbook published by the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance. Many sustainable farmers will grow organically or biodynamically, but it’s not required. They will also tend to focus on energy and water conservation.

    • Natural winemaking is a style of winemaking that can be applied to any wine. It is loosely defined as using native yeasts in the fermentation process and minimal or no sulfur dioxide in the winemaking process. It would not be as strict as organic and may or may not involve the use of organic or biodynamic grapes.

    • LIVE is an acronym meaning Low Input Viticulture and Enology. This name refers to the practice of reducing the amount of raw materials (inputs such as pesticides, fertilizer, water, chemicals, fuel, etc.) used in vineyard and winery production. It requires wineries to follow specific practices in their ongoing operations.

    • Organic: There are two types of organic listings on wine bottles. Wines can be made from certified organically grown grapes, avoiding any synthetic additives, or, “organic” wines are made from organically grown grapes, and are also made without any added sulfites.

    • Biodynamic winemaking stems from the ideas of Rudolf Steiner in 1924. The principles and practices of biodynamics are based on his spiritual/practical philosophy, called anthroposophy, which includes understanding the ecological, the energetic, and the spiritual in nature. For a vineyard to be considered biodynamic the wine-grower must use the nine biodynamic preparations described by Steiner.

    • Julian Rossello Reply

      Thanks for sharing your insights on sustainable wines, Kent! Much appreciated. Organic/biodynamic and natural wines are a huge thing these days and the topic is worth to be further explored. More and more wineries in Italy are changing to organic farming methods.
      A few years ago, the EU changed the requirements regarding organic wines. In the past, wineries could label their wines as “wine produced from certified-organic grapes”. Now they cannot do that anymore. The new law, which does not affect older vintages, says that the whole wine has to be certified-organic and so wineries have to label their wines as “organic wine”.

      Cheers!

  4. Pingback: KENT MICHO - Earth Friendly Sustainable Wine Production

  5. Tracy Lee Karner Reply

    I’m in favor of sustainable agricultural practices, but I get a little weary of the people, agencies and sellers who put on a superior attitude and bicker about it all. That’s because there’s a wine merchant near me, who does that. Makes for very unpleasant wine shopping.

    I think you handled the topic very well, Julian. Quite informative, thank you!

    • Julian Rossello Reply

      Thanks for the kind comment, Tracy! So sorry to hear about your unfriendly wine merchant! I hope you have more friendly ones near your home, too 🙂
      Personally, I gladly buy an organic wine IF that wine tastes good and is of good quality. I would not simply buy a wine just because it is organic if it tastes terribly and I dislike retailers who want the consumer to buy an inferior wine (or any other food) just because it is organic.
      Cheers!

  6. talkavino Reply

    Natural wines is unfortunately, an extremely polarizing subject for many – I personally don’t understand this – people should be able to do what they want – of course without claims of supremacy. I discovered Natural wines in 2011, in the tasting at that same PJ Wine – I hope you don’t mind me sharing a link: http://talk-a-vino.com/2011/08/05/terroir-unaltered/ – I think you will find it interesting.
    Overall, natural wines can be defined as the wines made with minimal intervention – in the vineyard and in the winery. Same as with all other wines, there some good and there are some which a person might not care for – but this is what is great about the world of wine… Cheers!

    • Julian Rossello Reply

      Thanks for your comment, Anatoli, and I don’t mind you at all linking back to your blog. I added your link to the further reading list.
      Very much agree that it’s a polarizing subject. I like that natural wines add a new stylistic to the wine world – Diversity is always good. Natural wines can be very interesting but I feel like I need to try more to broaden my experience with them.

  7. winetalks winetalks Reply

    Don’t think I tried one of those natural wines yet. I like my whites and reds so no reason for me to switch.

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