Natural wine nerds swear that once you dive into this rapidly expanding niche, you’ll never look back. There’s nothing wrong with a conventional bottle of cabernet if that’s what you’re into, but there’s so much magic to discover in the world of natural wine.
“Foodies” often, inadvertently, become more conscious about food sourcing in their quest for the best bites. The same can be true in reverse for those who seek out natural wines – they often discover a whole new world of more complex and unique flavors. We asked natural wine expert, author and founder of the RAW Wine fair, Isabelle Legeron, to tell us everything we need to know to be in the know….
Natural Wine 101TCM: What is natural wine?
Isabelle: Natural wine is, very simply, one hundred percent grape juice from an organic vineyard fermented into wine. Grapes have all the water, sugars, vitamins, enzymes, yeast and bacteria needed so that when you crush it, it starts fermenting and it can produce wine.
Natural wine producers don’t use any additives and they don’t remove anything. When I use the word natural, I use it in a very pure sense of the word — meaning only grape juice. There are some growers who will add a little bit of sulfite, but those can be found in organic tea, too. Sometimes people can be a little bit liberal and apply the term even to grapes that are not organic. What matters is that there is as little intervention as possible.
TCM: Do natural wines look and taste different than conventional wines?
Isabelle: Many times you wouldn’t really know that you’re drinking a natural wine by taste alone, particularly with a red wine. But they can look a little bit different. Sometimes, because the wine is not refined and filtered, there is noticeable sediment. If you want to get rid of the slight cloudiness, fine, filter or wait for time to settle everything. And over time the sediment will settle, but sometimes it doesn’t happen. If you don’t fine or filter the wine, then you might have a little bit of haziness and cloudiness, for example.
Natural wines tend to be darker in color than conventional because they’re made with very little to no sulfites whatsoever. I think for me, natural wines or low-intervention wines tend to be more up-front in taste, maybe juicier in style. But again, not always. It’s quite hard to generalize because these wines are made from hundreds of different grape varieties in hundreds of different places. So they all have very different identity and taste profiles — which is exactly why they’re so exciting. There is a purity, I’ll say, an authenticity to natural wines and an earthiness, I guess, probably runs through all of them.
TCM: What are conventional winemakers putting into wine that natural winemakers are not?
Isabelle: I’ll walk you through the wine-making process to give you some examples. Many natural winemakers use harvesters — actual people — to bring in the grapes. Whereas nowadays many larger wineries instead use big machinery to do the harvesting. When grapes are brought in with a machine you tend to have quite a lot of bruised grapes.
Very often quite a lot of sulfites are used to dust the berries — this is to basically kill off the bacterial population to stunt yeast population. Then they have to use their own yeast strain, so they start their own colonization process. Yeast is a big additive. Of course, it’s completely harmless, but at that moment you really give the wine a direction. You can impact the wine — you create the type of wine you want rather than letting the wine ferment by itself, with its own yeast population that came in with the berries, and that lived on the vineyard and in the winery.
When the fermentation starts you might want to feed the yeast with vitamins and enzymes because if you have conventional wines the berries are not very strong, they need help. Then you can also add color to make your wine look a very specific way. or, you can charcoal filter your wine to lose a little bit of the color. You can add tannin, liquid oak, gelatin, fish derivatives and more.
Basically, at every step of the wine-making process, people use certain tools to shape the wine the way they want it to be. Very often, the vast majority of growers who make wine on a big scale will look at what the market demands. What do people want? Do we want this specific type of wine, fitting in a shelf at exactly eight dollars or somewhere between seven and ten dollars? How do we achieve this? And then they work backward.
When you work with nature, as it is with natural wine, it’s really dependent on what the vintage gives you. You have a lot less control. You don’t rectify the acidity by acidifying, for example. You have a lot less tools to work with in your vineyard to make sure that the grapes you harvest are really healthy, strong and naturally contain a lot of acidity to make a balanced wine. Done well, however, and you can produce a truly magical and unique product.
TCM: How is the process of going from vine to bottle different in natural wine production?
Isabelle: Your primary job as a winemaker, particularly somebody trying to make natural wine or low-intervention organic and biodynamic wine, is to work with what the vineyard provides. If you have really great raw material to work with, it will be a lot easier. Ninety percent of the work that goes into making natural wine happens in the vineyard.
You need to have grapes that come from really vibrant, healthy, biodiverse vineyards — and also live soil, because when you have a vine growing in really alive soil full of microbiology, there’s a connection between the plant, the soil and the nutrients around it. The plant is able to take in all these nutrients, which you then find in the berry itself. If you farm conventionally and you kill off the life of the soil, you have soil compaction. There’s no connection — the vine only relies on the nutrients you feed to the vine, so when you have a berry that comes from a really beautiful organic vineyard, that berry is full of life and full of the ability to actually fight for itself and have an existence.
It’s very much like bringing up children on constant antibiotics — they are may lose some strength in their natural self-defense system. Whereas if you have kids that eat off the floor, and you’re not really worried too much about them catching bugs — it’ can actually make them stronger. If you have really strong vibrant grapes when you ferment them, and you don’t kill off the life with sulfites and other preservatives, then that berry is able to transform into wine in a very strong, powerful way. It’s able to sustain and create wine that actually doesn’t need anything to protect itself because it has all the protection within the berry already.
TCM: It sounds like natural wine is better for the environment. Would you say that’s true?
Isabelle: Without a doubt that is true, on multiple levels. First of all, if you’re a farmer and you farm organically, which you have to if you want to claim you’re making low-intervention or natural wine, you don’t pollute the planet with tons of chemicals. These chemicals end up in the bottle and in the water system. It’s a very simple question of farming — farming organically versus farming conventionally.
People who make natural wine are also really conscious of their carbon footprint. They recycle, they use very light bottles, they try and have as little an impact as possible on the environment. A lot of people move away from excessive irrigation, so they don’t really tap too much into the water system and, in some cases, only irrigate when absolutely necessary. But a lot of vineyards are planted in areas where they really shouldn’t be planted — they only survive because they use so much water to keep them going.
When you work organically, you also try to bring biodiversity into your vineyard. You should have multiple types of grasses, plants, insects, animals — you almost create little heavens. Heavens, protected area where the wildlife will be booming and coming to spend time in it, in your little area.
There are a lot of aspects to farming organically and being a keen observer of nature because you want to make the best grapes possible — and it’s the only way you can make the best wine possible. So I think that these growers contribute a lot to the environment. And in a way, it is really the whole point of what we are doing and what wine is in existence. Because at the end of the day, collectively, we can make a difference. We can have a big impact. We can, together, convert more and more acres to organic farming, and together we can have an impact on the environment.
TCM: For those interested in learning more about natural wines, where should they start?
Isabelle: It all starts with farming. I think people need to be a bit more sensitive to farming. It’s very easy to forget that wine is a result of agriculture because you see it in a bottle. You order it on the wine list. Wine has a social connotation. Somehow it’s become this very intellectual product that people write about and discuss, which is really great. But, fundamentally, I think people need to really think about the work that’s gone into it.
A bottle arriving on your table, and especially a bottle that has been made naturally, is literally the result of years of work. A lot of people working in the vineyard, a lot of people caring about the vineyard and then doing the vindication. It’s really important that we understand the value of that work because otherwise, people may feel that natural wine is unnecessarily more expensive and not worth it. But making really great natural wine is an art, a craft and is very demanding. It’s not a nine-to-five job, and it requires a lot of commitment and a lot of hours spent in the vineyard and in the winery. I think that’s why our RAW Wine fairs are so important because when you come and meet the growers and you look into their eyes, you’ll realize the amount of dedication that goes into it. Suddenly things are very different.
Of course, people should ask more about additives because it’s easy to hide behind the label — there isn’t an ingredient labeling law. So I think it’s important to ask questions: How was this wine fermented? Was it fermented on its own yeast? I think the concept of yeast is a very important one because yeast is a part of terroir. Also, ask: Was this wine fined? Are you familiar with the concept of fining? The fining process is when we precipitate some of that sediment in the wine. And you do it with, typically, egg whites, bentonite, fish derivative or gelatin from an animal source. A lot of winemakers want their wine to be super bright and super clear. They don’t want any haziness. But if you are vegan or vegetarian, and feel very strongly about it, I think you have a right to know what was used during the winemaking process that might impact your choices.
Asking these questions is really important. I think you should be familiar with the concept of sulfites if you’re into natural wine. Sulfites are a preservative. They are a result of the petrochemical industry. I would say ninety-five to ninety-nine percent of the sulfites used in winemaking is from the petrochemical industry.
They’re additives and preservatives, and they’re used at all stages of the wine-making process. But you can use numbers like ten parts per million (tiny) or you can use 200 parts per million (a lot). The problem is you can’t tell this on the label — even if there’s only trace elements of sulfites, legally they have to put that on the label. It is quite good to be able to ask the question: How much sulfite is in the bottle? I personally don’t want to drink anything that has more than 30 parts, 30 ppm or 30 milligrams.
With wine, the key is to get people to ask all the right questions. The more questions we ask, the more the wine industry will feel like we have a need and a duty to inform. At the moment, there’s no requirement to know anything about how wine is made. We have no idea. And I think, collectively, this is what we need to push for.
TCM: Who is best to ask? where should we direct questions?
Isabelle: That’s a great question. I think there is an increasing amount of people opening wine bars, restaurants, small shops and small bottle shops. So it’s a unique opportunity to support local businesses and support people who are trying to find out and who are trying to be responsible and ethical in the way they sell wine. Also, online there are more and more resources. Our website is quite a substantial resource for information. We have a whole bunch of shops and restaurants listed as places where you can go and drink wines, and then they’re a good place to go and talk to people. So I think you have to tap into your local independent network of small shops and small independent retailers who list those wines because they tend to know.
TCM: Many natural wines have unique, somewhat surprising flavor. For someone who is just getting started, how can they develop a palette?
Isabelle: They are to un-prepare. People are too prepared. People are focused on what they think they know. People are too focused on the way they think wine should taste like, or what they’ve been told about wine. Revert back to thinking about wine as food — you don’t prepare yourself to go and buy a piece of very good cheese. You don’t prepare yourself for that. You don’t think, I need to be prepared to taste this very strong piece of cheese. You just taste it and enjoy it for what it is. And I think this is exactly what people need to do.
People need to go back to tasting and drinking wine with their stomach, gut, reactions and instincts, rather than with their heads. If I give you a sauvignon blanc or a chardonnay, and in your head, you think you already know what it’s going to taste like, it’s very ruined for actually tasting the wine. Because in your head you’ll already be there, and you always assume what the wine will taste like.
I think the key is to actually taste wine, drink wine the way you would food and always pretend you don’t know anything about wine. Because some of these wines, as you say, can be a bit surprising or unusual. They haven’t been formatted or globalized. To make a sauvignon blanc on a very large scale using a very aromatic yeast, you could be in South Africa, Chile, Argentina…you could be anywhere in the world, you could be in France. Why? Because the wine is made from a recipe and it always tastes the same. It’s incredibly difficult nowadays to do a blind tasting and actually be able to pinpoint where a wine comes from when they’re made with the same yeast.
I think you need to drink natural and conventional wine the way you would food. You don’t go into a restaurant thinking I have to prepare myself for this type of cuisine. You just go and are prepared to be challenged or surprised by the dishes you will be eating. It’s exactly the same with wine.
TCM: Do natural wines have a different shelf life?
Isabelle: They have a better shelf life than conventional wines, for sure. They’re all filtered so that it has no microbiology, no life. It’s just an inner liquid. There’s no evolution. It’s almost like a mummification of the moment. It doesn’t really evolve particularly into anything. It’s almost like a decaying process, which can take a long time.
I would say most of the natural wines I know actually taste a lot better after one or two years when everything has settled down. And they have a tremendous aging capacity because the bacterial life inside the bottle keeps going. There’s an evolution. There’s a life there that keeps changing. They only see them on minute traces of sugar and other nutrients. And they just keep evolving. So you can definitely age and mature natural wines. I’ve tasted stuff from the 20s, the 40s, the 50, the 60s, the 70s, the 80s made completely naturally. And it was amazing.
TCM: What is the proper way to store natural wines?
Isabelle: Yes. It needs to be kept fairly cool. But that’s the case of any wine, really. If you store wine in a warm environment, it will evolve a lot more quickly. So it’s definitely best to keep it in a cool, fairly sort of humid environment — one you would with the storage of any wine, really. Because that’s how you can slow down the evolution process. So I would say to accelerate or keep it like you would any wine. It’s much better to keep it at cooler conditions (14, 15, 16 Celsius, for example).
TCM: Can you recommend some resources to learn more about natural wine?
Isabelle: My book is a good resource. Alice Feiring is a really good author. I think the best is just to read about the growers because you really begin to understand a little bit more about the farming, the importance of farming, the importance of certain aspects of the wine-making environment. Meet the growers and just even spend ten minutes asking them: Okay, why do you do what you do? Tell me more about your farming. Tell me more about the importance of the whole diversity of your vineyard.
If you can’t come to our RAW Wine fairs, you can do a wine tasting directly with one of the growers and learn from them. I would highly recommend checking out The World Wine and looking at World Wine Week. See if there is an event happening near you because that’s the best way to engage and to learn.