Oh, millennials. They’re so hard to keep up with, with all their abbreviated words and vegan, plant-based burgers.
Snark aside, millennials have an overwhelming amount of consumer power—so what they want, they get. The wine world is no exception, and right now, what millennials want is the wine equivalent of the unbathed, unshaven hippie—the un-photoshopped, makeup-free, I-woke-up-like-this wine … otherwise known as “natural wine.” Given that kids these days can’t seem to use words in their entirety, these wines, of course, are also called “natty wines.”
So what, exactly, is a natural wine? For starters, “natural wines” have no clear and regulated definition. They are absolutely not the same as being organic or biodynamic, although it’s safe to say all winemakers who adhere to the natural-winemaking philosophy wouldn’t think of using grapes that were not organic or biodynamic. However, organic and biodynamic wines are a result of grape-growing and grape-farming practices in the vineyard that are closely monitored and have strict guidelines for certification. Natural wines are created based on decisions the winemakers make in the winery—without any specific criteria. That said, there is a common approach to natural winemaking: The ideology across the board is to have minimal intervention.
The largest and perhaps most controversial aspect to natural wines is the exclusion of sulfur. If you want to sound like a cool kid, the term is sans soufre. Simply saying “no sulfur” is really quite pedestrian. Call it what you want, but sulfur dioxide is a naturally occurring byproduct of wine fermentation. What we are talking about here is the addition of sulfur dioxide to prevent bacteria growth and spoilage. I, for one, will never be mad at the necessary addition of sulfur as a preservative. After all, I don’t want my wine to taste like a dirty diaper or a mouse cage that hasn’t been cleaned for seven years.
Another benchmark for natural wines is not filtering out particulates—so your bottle of “natty juice” is probably going to look cloudy with little “thingys” floating around. These little “thingys” aren’t bad for you and (probably) won’t make you sick, but the presence of all those proteins, microbes and organisms floating around can make the wine unstable and quick to spoil—not to mention taste sour, tangy and a little bit like my father’s barn.
By not filtering or adding more sulfur dioxide, winemakers are attempting to retain the “purity” of the wine. I totally get it: In an industry that’s been plagued by winemaker over-manipulation, thus creating homogenized and industrialized wines, it’s refreshing to try wines that are left the hell alone. But to what end? Liking a wine that doesn’t have additional sulfur dioxide just because it doesn’t have additional sulfur dioxide is like liking a wine just because it’s $300. At some point, we need to recognize that the proof is in the pudding.
Other aspects of the natural-wine movement include whole-cluster fermentation—the act of not destemming the grapes, but rather throwing the whole bunch into the tank to create depth of flavor and heightened textures; and allowing the wine to ferment with native yeasts as opposed to controlled, cultivated yeast strains. So whatever wild yeasts hitched a ride on the grapes on their way into the winery is whatcha got. Fun! If not a little unpredictable.
Oak barrels have also fallen victim to the natural-wine craze. This is not a bad thing; I’m happy to see the over-oaked pendulum swing in the other direction. Honestly, I loathe oakiness in wine, so the rise of alternative aging and fermenting vehicles is a happy sight. So, what is the new winemaker fermentation device du jour? Vessels like concrete eggs are ideal at fermenting without imparting flavor, and clay pots like ancient amphorae are used in an attempt to get back to our Roman winemaking roots. (I guess?)
Again: Purity and an honest, untainted expression of the wine is the goal—allowing the wine to be the master of its own fate and unveil its unique personality without a winemaker fingerprint. It’s actually a really exciting and profound thing, if you think about it—almost Daoist in its simplicity. But I have to wonder if the lack of winemaker intervention is creating a new kind of homogenized wine, where all the wines have a strange kind of kombucha-esque quality and really don’t offer that clean, terrior-driven sense of place that is sommelier cat nip. Has the pendulum swung too far in the other direction?
I clearly remember my first natural wine experience. I was at a Calistoga party house—an exquisite home owned by a wine family where nobody actually resides; its purpose is to host epic parties and have attendees crash out—with a dear friend who had a bottle of Cruse Wine Co. St. Laurent Petillant Naturel. I’m pretty sure it was the first time I’d had the St. Laurent grape, and I know it was the first time I had experienced a sparkling wine called petillant naturel, also known in its abbreviated form (natch) as pet nat. This little darling is quite simply a sparkling wine made in an ancient—or, as it’s called, “ancestral”—way by bottling still-fermenting juice, and sealing it with a crown cap (like a beer); this allows the carbon dioxide to continue to build and finish fermenting in the bottle. The result is a delicately sparkling wine that’s a little fuzzy-looking, but delicious as hell.
Wanna jump on the natural wine bandwagon? Elisabetta Foradori is always a go-to for me, as is anything made by Marcel Lapierre. If you want your mind blown, Josko Gravner is the Holy Grail. Domestically, you can find some unique versions by Donkey and Goat, and Tendu by Matthiasson is an awesome summer sipper.
Those millennials. They’re a pretty hip and thought-provoking group. Just maybe, they’re onto something.
Katie Finn is a certified sommelier and certified specialist of wine with more than 15 years in the wine industry. She can be reached at email@example.com.