On natural wine and its influence on my winemaking

I’ve written about it on the blog before, but I wanted to write a more dedicated post on my thoughts on natural wines, why everyone is buzzing about them, and their role in my own wine world.

What is natural wine?

This is the question you’ll see most debated online it seems. Not just the question being asked, but wine-insiders debating the asking of the question in the first place. There are some who want precise, legalistic definitions; and there are those who prefer the rougher, holistic perspective of determining the boundaries.

How much sulphur added is too much? Does the colonization of cellars by commercial yeasts complicate the reliance on native yeasts? Or, ultimately, is the term “natural” simply used to define a millennialhipster culture or is it about greater questions of sustainability? If the former, is that a result of the exclusion of a new generation of wine consumers through the exponential price inflation?

If you squint past the cultural debates and try to focus on the winemaking practices that are connected to what’s considered natural wine, I think it can be boiled down to a few elements: sustainably grown and sourced grapes; no adjustments for acid, tannin, etc.; minimal (if any) sulfite addition; no added commercial yeast.

There are a lot of holes, debates, and expansions in that list above, for sure. But, when you get tired of going deep into these debates, that’s perhaps the least objectionable zone that could get closest to a definition.

Why is everyone talking about natural wine right now?

I linked to a bunch of articles and blog posts above. But, there are many more where those came from.

The general theme you gather from that is that there’s been a shift afoot in the wine world for a while now that’s starting to break through more than it has in the past. Perhaps folks have had experiences like mine that I describe below, or maybe there’s something to this notion that the previous generation of wine consumers created an elite clique, effectively leaving the next set to define their own values and judgments of quality.

Regardless, there are people who are passionate about natural wine (and therefore write about it) and there are people who are pissed off by the hip nature and change in perceptions of quality (and therefore write about it). Which leaves room for posts like this, analyzing the meta-analyses. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

At the end of the day, people give a shit and it’s a fun topic. Ultimately, it’s a consumer product that you’ll like or you won’t; you’ll be swayed by the moral, historical, and technical arguments on either side or you won’t.

My experience with natural wines

I tend to like wines described as natural, though I wouldn’t describe myself as doctrinaire by any stretch (nor do I think that there really are many of those).

My own exposure started maybe 10 or so years ago. I had passing interest in wine (though rather seriously in American distilled spirits) at the time. On a trip to France, I took a tour (which ended up being almost private due to attendance) of Burgundy. On that tour, the wines I had piqued more of an interest than I’d experienced in wine up until that time. They expressed the production and the uniqueness that went into the product and showed flavors that I didn’t really know were possible.

At the time, I chalked it up to the region specificities and moved on in my wine innocence. A few years later, on the recommendation of a friend, I visited Tony Coturri’s place and in a tasting led by his son (who’s now an impressive winemaker in his own right) and got a similar thrill of the sense of production, uniqueness of the materials, and profiles that I could never really find after Burgundy. Not that this was Burgundian at all, but each were their own thing unmistakably.

Fast forward a few more years after I’d moved out here to SF and I was on the hunt for some Coturri wines. An email from Tony directed me to Local Mission Market (now Gemini) and I stopped by. They did’t have any, but the guy running the shop (who is still there) pointed me toward other California-produced wines that he said would scratch that itch. That kicked off a few month period where I’d visit the shop every weekend and pick up a new bottle of what I soon learned was “natural wine”, relying on the in-store advice.

That’s how I stumbled natural wine. I found wines I liked. Thanks to expert guidance, I learned that they were not alone in the qualities I enjoyed. Then, learned that those qualities tended to cluster around certain production practices.

How all this influences my winemaking

This all brings me to the point of things: how does my inclination toward natural wine affect the winemaking that’s going on in the basement?

We all try to make wine that we want to drink. What would be the point otherwise? What got me to the point of truly appreciating wine to begin with was my exposure to wines that didn’t give the impression of being mass produced; wines that showed the unique angles, contours, and curves of production.

The question I’m trying to answer in my winemaking then, is: How do I get there myself? If I don’t add any sulfites to this Riesling kit, will it nudge it closer? If I use one of the commercial yeasts I’m testing on this year’s batch, will I pull it further or will it not matter? Can I steal some of Coturri’s yeast and be done with it? (The answer to that last one is a decided, “no.”)

I don’t think I’ll ever reach a point of 100% satisfaction — and that’s good. The fun part about all of this is the exploration.

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