Making Sense of Natural Wine
Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the Summer 2010 issue. Since that time, Palate Food & Wine in Glendale closed, and Steve Goldun became the owner-operator of Eno Fine Wine.
By Lisa Kring
Can wine make itself? A rapidly growing movement embraces this radical idea. In response to the soullessness of commercial winemaking, a new breed of artisan wine producers is going native. For this clan, less is more.
Many call the philosophy behind these natural wines “non-interventionist.” All additives, such as chemicals, pesticides, sulfur, commercial yeasts and oak, are renounced with a kind of fundamentalist fervor. The finished product is less precious and more straightforward. Imperfection is embraced with a knowing sense of pragmatic wisdom. In essence, choosing a natural wine over a commercial wine is much like choosing the blemished, misshapen apple sold by the organic grower at your local farmers’ market over its perfect, genetically engineered cousin found at a chain supermarket. Increasingly, natural wine embodies the impulse to go au naturel—free from human meddling, always skating around the precipice of failure. The finished product may be awkward or even botched, but these wines are always fascinating and pure.
Wine makers once considered a lunatic fringe are now being pushed into the spotlight. One can now locate adherents to this hyper-natural winemaking popping up in nearly every grape-growing region. By far the most radical and most talented, however, toil mainly around Anjou in the Loire Valley of France. It is here that off-road wine radicals can still afford to rent or even buy a small piece of vineyard. Many live among their vines in trailers. In addition, the proximity to Paris (only a hour away) also allows for easy transport to the most influential wine bars in the world. These wines are have gained street credibility among the Paris wine elite, and the word has spread fast.
Because these wines are unusual in appearance, taste and presentation, they definitely need this PR. They are cloudy, even murky; their aromas and flavors can be funky and unexpected; and their labels can be free of all the usual regional and varietal descriptive information. Natural wines are outliers. Understanding them takes some education.
So, when it came to natural wine I had many questions. I needed a well-traveled off-road wine guide to help me navigate my journey. I found the perfect person in my friend Steve Goldun, the wine director of Palate Food & Wine in Glendale. When it comes to wine, Steve is tapped in like no one else I know. He travels to Paris regularly, and tastes in all the right circles. Steve is passionate about natural wines, and can speak in depth about all the producers, quirks and all.
I sat down at Palate recently with Steve and tasted and talked about natural wine. Below are excerpts from our talk.
Lisa: “What is natural wine, exactly?”
Steve: “Wine that makes itself, with no intervention. All fermentation vessels are neutral, so that the wine is not influenced by wood. Sulfur is added minimally, and preferably not at all, because it kills the natural yeasts. These wines are made to drink now. [The winemakers] are trying to go beyond the tags of organic or evenbiodynamic, because they feel that these have become co-opted. At the end of the day, they are looking for an honest expression of place, period. To this end, we can trust these guys, and you can taste it.”
Lisa: “Why natural yeasts?”
Steve: “Yeast, especially cultured yeasts, flavors your wine just like a new barrel. With natural yeasts, however, which occur naturally and which are released only in that place, you arrive at something completely true and alive. The native population of yeasts, through natural selection, have figured out who they are and that they thrive there, rather than mixing your own cocktail.”
Lisa: “Why no sulfur?”
Steve: “It’s a lighting rod for discussion. Lots of super-natural producers will never use sulfur, because it can subdue the life of a wine, much like an antibiotic. But it makes these wines potentially unstable and volatile. They need to be kept cool or chilled. More pragmatic makers add minimal sulfur to stabilize the wine for exportation. Sulfur is a tried-and-true ancient method for winery health because it preserves and stabilizes. The Romans used sulfur, through trial and error.”
Lisa: “Is there a philosophy behind the winemaking?”
Steve: “I think it is definitely an antidote to the fast pace and the lack of diversity and character of modern life. With these guys, imperfection is embraced in a radical way. It is also about being inclusive and accessible. These wines are a reaction to wine as a cult or status symbol. Wine is seen as something you just drink, as a natural part of life. That’s why the labels give no indication of anything—region, grape type, etc. It’s just wine, period. They are made outside of AOC [the French government certification of regional origin] designations and regulations. The ego of the winemaker is taken out of the process. These wines are paradoxical—they are completely handmade, but not made at all. There is definitely a revolutionary spirit behind it all.”
Lisa: “What are the pros and cons of natural wine?”
Steve: “Well, they are less stable, so they don’t ship very well. But, there are no other cons. They are made in small quantities, so selling them is not a problem. By nature, they are boutique products, but they are not precious. They are more expressive, and less pretentious. Also, they are incredibly affordable. There is little overhead and there are no marketing costs. You are paying only for the wine, period.”
Lisa: “Is natural wine better for your health?”
Steve: “Broadly speaking, yes. Commercially made wines are often made from grapes grown with fertilizers. These promote nitrogen, which finds its way into the grapes, which in turn promotes histamines, which can often trigger allergic reactions in people. Natural wines will minimize allergic reactions.”
Lisa: “Where in the world is the movement the strongest right now?”
Steve: “France, Loire Valley … [influential wine critic] Robert Parker has always hated Loire wine, so these guys are not concerned with making wines that please anybody. These wines are irreverent. To drink them is to thumb your nose at the Establishment. They rely less on press to sell their wines, so they are not corrupted by marketing forces. They are liberated—it is really about wine for wine’s sake.” As we spoke, Steve and I tasted through a sampling of natural wines. It was mind-blowing. Below is a list of these wines, along with tasting notes. A week later, I hosted a natural wine dinner, and these wines sparked great conversation and conflicting reactions. Some people loved them for what they were, others balked in disbelief. But, everyone came around in support of the spirit in which they are made, which insists that a wine can only communicate clearly when captured in its whole, living and un-manipulated self, no matter how strange.
Lastly, one of the guests, who had long suffered allergic reactions to wine, ventured a few glasses in the hopes that these wines would deliver relief. She loved wine, and yearned to again sip wine with her husband. The next day, I received an excited email from her, reporting that for the first time in years, she experienced no allergic reaction. So, while natural wines are unexpectedly unique, they restore balance, which may improve our health. These modern-day wine ecstatics may be onto something.
Lisa Kring lives in Los Angeles with her husband, two children, dogs and biodynamically farmed home vineyard. She is a sommelier certified with the Master Court of Sommeliers, the International Sommelier Guild and the UCLA Vintage Program, but her passion for honest wines that taste of place is experienced most happily at a table with friends and good food. She is on the steering committee for Slow Food Los Angeles, and values and supports all products that are good, clean and fair.