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A Journey Through Natural Wine

As a part of WFFT's Industry Support Program, sommelier Chris Kelly recently traveled to the Loire Valley, where he furthered his knowledge of low-intervention winemaking. Here, he delineates the many nuances and considerations between commercial and "natural" wines.

Humans have produced and consumed wine for nearly 8,000 years. Fermentation was largely misunderstood for the greater part of this period, despite its simple formula: crushed grapes, wild yeast, and sometimes sulfur, an antifungal and preservative, implemented by the Homeric Greeks.

While shifts in beverage styles and fermentation changed over the centuries, the two most significant shifts in winemaking occurred somewhat recently. In the latter part of the 19th-century came greater understanding of yeast and machinery and in the mid 20th-century, synthesized agents paved way for enormous leaps in production. Wine laws were written; literature forged, and the birth of conventional winemaking left traditional practices behind.

At the crux of all of this, rose a style and term harking back to an earlier era, before conventional practices were the norm. The term is “natural wine.” Its place in the modern market can be traced from the late 1980s up to present day, where the emphasis of this style is at top restaurant and wine bar wine lists around the globe. Savvy consumers and social media gurus alike have also helped trendset this style lately, but the irony is that many of these products could have been made 2,000 years ago.

The contrast between conventional farming and natural winemaking today could not be more stark; some even liken it to “fast food vs farm-to-table.” Either way they are, in many ways, the antithesis of one another. And with this comes an ocean of misunderstanding, a divide that often further separates both styles. Let’s tap into the origins of each method for a clearer picture.

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Organic parcel of Lavaut vineyard, Gevrey-Chambertin

The Rise of Conventional Farming

Following the Industrial Revolution, yeasts were better understood as being pivotal to fermentation. The improvement of controlled fermentation vessels, refrigeration, and vineyard equipment, along with broader shipping routes, lead to exponential increase in production. The 1920s through the 1940s paved the way for rapid acceleration in non-organic, synthetic pesticides, herbicides, cultured yeast, and grape crossing. These advancements aided growers in unlikely climates, enabling them to foster new regions.

Following WWII, growers adopted these techniques in stride because they were affordable, alleviated many desperate regions ravaged by war, and were immensely profitable. Yields increased, wine growing communities and appellations were established (some again), and small farmers took queue from surrounding successes. Traditional farming nearly disappeared all but from remote places. And this all occurred within a few short decades.

Eric Texier, an icon of low-intervention Rhône Valley wine, says he and his colleagues believe that the rise of synthetic chemicals and techniques were proliferated by wine schools around the globe. He says you can see this in French literature. “There is no mention of synthetic treatments being absolute to grape growing prior to the 1940s,” he says. Following the repeal of Prohibition and the Second World War, “this skyrocketed”. Winemaking schools from Bordeaux to Montpellier to UC Davis adopted the use of these treatments as mantra. Viticulture programs around the globe highlighted the use of synthetic growing materials, some of which were later outlawed in the 1970s and 80s, as known carcinogens. Many are still widely used today.

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85+ year-old organic Pinot Noir vine in Lavaut, Gevrey-Chambertin

The Tipping Point

While industrial farming was beneficial for embellishing appellations (some of which were arguably never conducive to growing grapes in the first place, as seen in Champagne and Bordeaux), smaller producers within or around these regions grew angry. Small farmers were put out. They were forced to sell their grapes to co-ops and larger houses in order to maintain livelihood.

Further along, mass production was heightened in the 1980’s as the global economy soared. A few remote areas escaped this; however, many were islands or countries restricted by the Soviet Union. A few talented producers succeeded in more industrial areas. One was Jules Chauvet, a trained chemist and remarkable Beaujolais winemaker who pioneered modern, low-intervention winemaking by using a microscope. He spread his knowledge of analyzing yeast populations to other vignerons, inspiring “The Gang of Four,” or ‘the microscope gang’ and others in Beaujolais.

Elsewhere, in smaller pockets of the Loire Valley, Italy, and in Eastern Europe, traditional winemaking remained not a choice but a lifestyle. Smaller, family-owned farms continued traditional techniques and were able to remain protected from industrial influences. Many of these small producers’ offspring now make some of the world's best natural wines, such as the Mosse brothers in the Loire, La Stopa in Italy, Sepp and Maria Muster of Austria, Čotar of Slovenia, to name only a small few.

In the early 1990s, a few rebellious New World wineries driven by Cold War counterculture viewed low-intervention wine as a unique marketing strategy. In the same vein as trending food slogans (like “all natural,” “organic,” and “wild”), wineries began adorning their bottles with the phrase “wild ferment.” The term “natural,” for better or worse, stuck.

"There's something productive about how nebulous the term 'natural' is, how it opens itself up to debate every time it comes up,” says Bradford Taylor of Ordinaire in Oakland, California.

While natural wine is a category largely unto itself, defining it has been a bit difficult. It is especially troublesome for those seeking more uniform wines with an absolute profile. Although with the current demand for transparency in the food industry and growth in farm-to-table restaurants the past two decades, natural wine has seen an upswing. In fact, many of the world’s top restaurants unequivocally use these wines as conduits to enhance their cuisine. While bad wines exist on both sides of the aisle, it’s important to better familiarize ourselves with each style in an effort to find true flavor; otherwise, we risk knowing wines only by masqueraded techniques.

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Entire operations of Xavier Bernier, a tiny low-intervention Beaujolais winemaker heavily influenced by Yvon Métras

Terms for Natural Wine

Because we are obsessed with certifications and genrefication, wines outside of any neat category have readily been challenged.

“It doesn’t always easily fit between experimental rock and jazz,” says Brendan Tracey, a natural wine producer from the Loire. With many affiliate names, some hilarious and some more derogatory (like, “Natch,” “Glou Glou,” “Nerd Wine,” “Biological Sh*t”) natural wine can adopt all kinds of terms that further perpetuate its misunderstanding. This is cool to some and remarkably frustrating to others.

There are a few tenets that are largely universal for “low-intervention” or “natural” wine producers:

  • NO synthetic chemicals, herbicides or pesticides may be used in the vineyard or winery.

  • NO additives (including yeasts, enzymes, vitamins, lysozymes etc) may be used in the winery during fermentation

  • NO blocked “malo” (malolactic fermentation, where bacteria converts malic acid, which is naturally present in fruits like grapes and apples, to softer lactic acid)

  • Indigenous yeast, fungi and microbial life are encouraged in both the vineyard and winery.

  • Grapes are better off hand-harvested. Heavy machinery is not favored.

  • Native yeasts ferment the wine (healthy yeast populations are encouraged in the vineyard and winery by avoiding sulfur dioxide and any peripheral cleaning chemicals).

  • Filtration or removal of anything from the finished wine is unnecessary.

  • Do as little as possible with what you have (the need oscillates based on climate, regionality and proximity to conventional farmers and other influences).

There are more nitpicky terms, but these encompass the idea pretty well. Purists might add that a natural winemaker must grow and harvest their own fruit, which is much more difficult in expensive growing regions (i.e., California, Bordeaux and Champagne).

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Iconic examples of low-intervention winemakers from Alsace, Emilia-Romagna, Rioja, Mallorca and the Northern Rhône

Where Are Your Papers?

An organic wine could be "natural" and so could a biodynamic one. Not all natural winemakers choose to get these certifications because they are often prohibitively expensive, or may not make sense for their particular environment. Many also consider these certifications marketing tools.

“I’m more interested in the taste,” says Benoît Courault, a completely hands-off, additive-free winemaker located south of Angers, making some of Loire Valley’s most compelling and sought-after wines sans “approval stamps”.

Much like a good osteopathic doctor, a good natural winemaker also views the vineyard as a whole. Treating ailments directly with herbicides and pesticides is likened to a doctor prescribing antibiotics too quickly, without full knowledge of a patient, according to some natural winemakers. Spraying with a copper sulfate solution or the “Bordeaux Mixture,” as it is commonly called, is allowed if you are certified organic, for instance, but is largely frowned upon by natural producers. On the other hand, the “do nothing” teachings of Masanobu Fukuoka are pivotal to many, but impractical for others.

All in all, certifications don’t play as much of a role in natural winemaking. It’s more about what works for that particular grower and place — what yields the most transparent flavor.

The Sulfite Conundrum

The addition of sulfur dioxide (S02) is sometimes required, depending on the condition of the fruit and microbial composition in the soil and winery that year. On their own, grapes produce 10 mg / L of naturally occurring sulfites. Many low-intervention winemakers add no SO2 during harvest and fermentation, as sulfur dioxide indiscriminately destroys living yeasts and other wanted bacteria. To many, killing off any native yeasts is a compromise to the authenticity of that vintage. Many add a pinch of sulfur before bottling as a preservative, once fermentation is complete. That seems to be largely acceptable.

A conventional winemaker, by contrast, may add sulfur at four stages: after harvest, at crushing, during fermentation, and at bottling. Isabelle Legeron, MW and founder of RAW Wine, stipulates that natural wines must contain less than 70 mg / L. Industrial wineries may use anywhere from 150 mg / L to the legal threshold of 350 mg / L. Good beaks (noses) can usually begin detecting free SO2 in water around 11 mg / L, for those counting.

Once attuned to sulfur, experienced testers may detect overly bright, polished, and artificial candied-fruit aromas on the nose to matchstick aromas, if excessive. But smelling free sulfur in wine is difficult, as esters and pleasing compounds mask ingredients well. The sulfuric, “egg fart” smell is also misleading. That is a result from hydrogen sulfide, a byproduct of all fermentation but it is not related to the addition of too much sulfur.

Sébastien David, a producer in the Loire Valley, whose family established the Central Loire appellation of Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil in the 1930s, has never had to use sulfur. He is in a unique winery environment, but says that others could take it more seriously.

“With the right temperature and understanding of local yeasts,” he says, “it is not necessary ... a healthy batch of wine produces enough on its own for stability (and) if a grape’s natural acidity is in balance too, this acts as a great preservative on its own.” He furthers by asking, “Why kill personality when you are trying to preserve it?”

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Loire native ferment lineup

Commercial vs. Native Yeast

Yeast of any kind is paramount to fermentation. They eat sugars in crushed fruit and convert them into alcohol. Without yeast, we’d be void of wine.

In conventional winemaking, “laboratory” (or commercial) yeasts are standard. Here, selected strains are manufactured to produce specific results. (“You want pineapple flavor in your finished wine? That will be the B packet.”) These yeasts are formulated and propagated to produce specific flavors and aromas a winemaker may wish to highlight.

Ambient yeasts from the vineyard and surrounding climates that end up on the berries are not welcome in most conventional wineries. They are considered dangerous and are euthanized with added S02 or ultraviolet light upon entering the facility. This is to create a ‘blank canvas’ that the winemaker then can inoculate with a strain of his or her choosing. Cynics of this approach liken it to fast food restaurants: industrial yeasts are big sugar eaters that are super predictable and satiate the masses.

There are of course, many advantages to commercial yeast. They speed up fermentation and overcome “stuck ferments” where native yeast may be too weak. Cultured strains also excel in challenging environments with less oxygen or higher alcohol because they are generally more predictable. Winemakers with high demand or producing in more extreme environments can rest easy knowing that industrialized yeasts will finish the job and keep the product under control.

For decades, winemakers have been able to shop for yeast strains. In fact, freeze-dried yeast packets became so utilitarian in the 1970s that regions around the world began developing similar aromas in their wines simply because they were using the same strains.

On the converse, native yeasts are ambient, diverse, and often specific to each plot. A healthy vineyard in the right climate, produces them prolifically. They may range in strength each year depending on the insects, soil and unique microbial life of that region.

According to Lou Amdur, owner of Lou Wines in Los Angeles, “if you remove or tinker with an element in the vineyard, yeast populations that year change... the winemaker’s dog carries them places, and so do you— on your clothes.” The resulting flavor in a finished wine is unequivocally tied to these yeasts.

Making wine in this way also takes much longer — upwards of months, especially in cooler climates. Although with this effort comes a host of complex flavors and textures. Longer fermentations typically yield more complexity in the finished wine because of the extending contact with spent yeast cells (called the lees).

There are, of course, major disadvantages to those not inoculating. A winemaker’s entire batch could get stuck not fermenting. Or worse, it could be ruined completely if too many strains of the wrong bacteria or yeast take over. It is a very fine balance but not impossible.

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Yvon Métras, 'Le Printemps' Fleurie Beaujolais

Alcohol on the Rise

Many native yeast populations tend to die off around 4 - 6% alcohol if they are not able to colonize and reproduce quickly enough. As alcohol levels rise in fermenters, keeping native yeasts alive and populating becomes increasingly difficult. Cultured yeasts were created to withstand higher alcohol levels of 14 -15%.

Not surprisingly, alcohol by volume in conventional wines grew in the 1970s, congruent with the rabid use of cultured saccharomyces strains (many still blame this entirely on global warming). Wine writers and publications also began praising higher alcohol wines then. From the 1980s through the 2000s, select yeast strains were implemented to reflect these favorable reviews. It wasn’t until recently that industrial wines started trending backwards, favoring less “hot” wines.

While high alcohol wines are not as fashionable as they once were in previous decades, evidence of cultured yeast are still extremely apparent today. One good indicator is the alcohol content. In California, for instance, a label may show 14.5% ABV, but it can legally vary by 1.5%, meaning it is possible for that wine to actually be 16% alcohol. No native yeast strain is capable of withstanding alcoholic environments that high. Buyers see this frequently when they are told the wine is “native ferment.” It is especially apparent in wines marketed as “meant to age” where ABV is intentionally higher as both a preservative and, a trend.

A Sense of Place

Native yeasts and bacteria can also wield more unconventional aromas in finished wine, sometimes challenging to articulate. Many tasters say “funky” or “wild” and many conventional winemakers find a large number of these traits to be absolute flaws. Others embrace these so-called flaws as personality.

Either way, some of the world’s most celebrated wines, for their uniqueness and collectability, are ones fermented with wild yeast. Henri Bonneau in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Clos Rougeard in the Loire, Métras in Beaujolais, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti in Burgundy, Valentini in Abruzzo, Gravner in Friuli, Gabrio Bini in Pantelleria, to name a few — all hold wild yeasts responsible for their strong identity.

In blind tastings, many often prefer wines fermented with native yeasts. Is this because localized yeasts yield more unique flavors? Or is it the novelty of ‘wildness’ that people are seeking after years of straightforward wines? A wine’s texture, aromatics and flavor are heightened by native yeasts. In the right hands, a winemaker can really express the ultimate sense of place, or terroir. If we talk about terroir being the sun, soil, elevation, exposure, etc. — all of the physical characteristics of a vineyard — why exclude the microbial ones? After all, they are the most responsible for life.

Fortunately, with new technology, rationalizing this concept isn’t too hocus pocus. With modern sequencers, investigating microbial ecology has opened, in a sense, Pandora’s box. We will begin to challenge varietal characteristics as we know them. Imagine a wine description mentioning a yeast strain native to a vineyard rather than verbose soundbites of appellation features and grape pleasantries. While this may take time, it is a very real possibility.

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Loire roadside river hang between Anjou and Saumur

Who Would You Allow To Play In Your Vineyard?

As conventional winemaking is as much about control, natural winemaking is about encouragement. Native yeast is more prosperous in healthy environments, and we can see that and certainly taste it. After all, wine is an agricultural product. Consumers and sommeliers often forget this. We easily synthesize wine further by default, through our penchant for journalism, lists, scores and the heralded “testable wine.” We curate entire programs catering to our own devices; we mold them to our knowledge and path for self-growth, sociability within the industry. In this process, we lose touch with what is in the package.

Low-intervention wine offers a unique counter-perspective to the consumer obsessed with scores and linearity. Native ferment wines challenge modern sommeliers to think and taste outside the box. These wines challenge producers to farm without chemicals and synthetic treatments in a world all too ready to use them. The best wines produced in this style, offer shocking transparency of place because little is hidden. Reciprocally, the worst examples of this style exploit flaws with no veil. It is this bareness that attracts the common drinker, beverage professional and collector alike. It is this exposure, too, that critics often attack.

For the winemaker, low-intervention is not about following a recipe or catering to reviews. A great natural winemaker is akin to a great chef: they are both tasked with elevating the most simple of ingredients. Take the egg for example. We taste its environment with great transparency. Few chefs will argue a mass-producing farm will yield a quality-tasting egg. Conventional chemicals, additives and synthetic ingredients are considered acute and consequential shortcuts in the process of making both great wine and food.

While this type of farming may not ever substantiate or be able to support the masses, we now have the wherewithal to pause and reflect on history and ruminate on what conventional wine is and what it is not. As Olivier Cousin says, “would you allow your kids to play in your vineyard?”

Chris Kelly was certified as a sommelier in 2012, after moving to Austin in 2010. While testing and wine scores led his early career, Chris has developed the mantra 'wine is not a competition' and has become a chief advocate of low-intervention wines for their accessibility. Chris has written the Lenoir list since 2013 and founded his own consulting, branding and design firm, Vintel, with partner Rania Zayyat. Chris currently consults and designs for beverage companies in the beer, wine, and CBD industries while teaching seasonal wine classes that focus on transparency in the wine world.