Why Natural Wine Should Be Your Drink of Choice
And a story of the 4 friends who changed wine forever
What do natural wine and punk music have in common?
They both fought against the norm.
Whilst the late 70s era of overly technical prog-rock was being viscerally assaulted by the raw energy of punk, a group of 4 rebellious winemaker friends in Beaujolais, France were raging against the machine in their own way.
Marcel Lapierre, Jean Foillard, Jean-Paul Thevenet, and Guy Breton (or the Gang of Four as they became known) broke away from the generally accepted, industrialized way of growing and making wine.
They put away the machinery and chemicals and began making wines that were a true reflection of where they came from. Wines without artifice and adulteration. Wines that were better for the planet. Wines that were better for their health.
And like punk music, they made a lot of noise.
The movement grew as more winemakers took influence from these early pioneers. This defiant band of young winemakers often started identifying their wines by replacing the staid classical labels their parents may have used, for more provocative or playful designs.
Decades later, millennials in the coolest neighborhoods of Paris, London, New York, and Tokyo drink the modern incarnation of these wines. The bottles' colorful labels adorning stylish zinc countertop bars. The contents of their glasses sometimes cloudy, sometimes slightly fizzing, and with flavors that can sometimes be unusual to the uninitiated.
Whilst natural wines have converted an army of drinkers they have attracted an equal number of critics.
They were categorized as a short-lived fad by most of the established wine trade and media. Dismissed as a niche group more concerned with funky labels than the quality of the "undrinkable" or "cidery" wine in the bottle. More focused on the style than the process.
But the establishment got it wrong. Natural wine - and the rebellious mindset that it embodies - is here to stay.
So why is Natural Wine so great and why should you be drinking it?
Here we go…
What is natural wine?
Wine is not just a beverage. Wine is food. Wine is culture and history. Wine is people and places. Natural wine celebrates those things rather than trying to hide them in simple marketable products for mass-market consumers.
At its heart, natural wine is about a rejection of the establishment and modernization and a return to traditional practices. The Gang of Four wanted to get back to the way their grandparents made wine, before the industrialization and chemicalization that came along after WW2.
In a nutshell:
The grapes are grown without using any pesticides, herbicides, or other chemical nasties. Many growers also apply Biodynamic herbal tisanes to the vines. You'll often see horses plowing, people working the land by hand, and a return to ancient techniques of farming in time with lunar cycles.
Once picked, the grapes are transformed into wine in the simplest way possible.
They are allowed to ferment naturally without laboratory-produced yeasts, enzymes, coloring, or 100 or so other additives that "conventional" wines may include. No harsh filtration, clarification, sterilization, or manipulation.
The only protection these wines may receive is a small amount of sulfites to help prevent oxidation and bacterial spoilage. Some winemakers choose to skip even this, letting the wine fend for itself.
Natural or no-added-sulfites?
Natural wines and no-added-sulfites wines are often equated with each other but the two terms are not interchangeable. Sulfites are only one part of the equation when it comes to natural wine.
Just because a wine does not have added sulfites does not mean that it hasn't received dozens of other chemical additions or manipulations and would thus not be considered a natural wine.
On the other hand, many of the most iconic natural wines have small additions of sulfites and so could not be called no-added-sulfites.
Why should you be drinking Natural wines?
They taste delicious
A simple, but important point!
Natural wines tend to be fresher and brighter. They invigorate and revive your palate. They nourish. They captivate. They have energy. They feel alive.
Natural wines are better for the environment and the people who grow them
Contrary to the romanticized image much of the wine industry likes to portray in its marketing, growing grapes is generally an industrialized, chemically intensive process. Vineyards are treated like factories. Although they make up only 3% of France's agricultural land, vineyards use 20% of the country's pesticides.
Natural wines are less damaging to the soil and to insect populations because, unlike conventionally farmed vineyards, they do not use herbicides or pesticides. Pesticides and other vineyard chemicals have been linked to cancer, Parkinson's, and various other chronic conditions in the workers who were exposed to them whilst working the vines.
Natural wines are better for your body
The impact of vineyard chemicals is not limited just to those who work in the vines.
Two studies testing bottled wines found levels of three common pesticides that exceeded not only the safe reference dose but, more alarmingly, also the No Observed Effect Level, meaning that they could actually produce an adverse biological effect when ingested.
I accept an occasional hangover as an unfortunate side effect of overindulgence. But I'm not so keen on putting measurable amounts of compounds that have been linked to asthma, reproductive dysfunction, diabetes, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, and several types of cancer into my body.
Since natural wines are grown without the use of these chemicals you can drink them without having to worry about ingesting a chemical cocktail.
They can give you less of a hangover
It had long been anecdotally claimed that natural wines make you feel less drunk and give you less of a hangover the next day. But it wasn't until recently that we had any scientific evidence to back these assertions up.
A 2019 triple-blind study comparing the effects of conventional wine and natural wine revealed that natural wines produce a measurably lower blood alcohol concentration than conventional wines.
This is thought to be because your body is able to metabolize the alcohol in natural wines faster because it is not simultaneously having to break down other toxins such as sulphites and pesticide residues.
Your body's ability to better break down alcohol results in less drunkenness and less of that fuzzy head the next day. Having rigorously tested this hypothesis I can report that it seems to work.
Natural wine detractors like to characterize natural wines as not being proper wine.
You don't have to look very far to read comments from skeptics proclaiming that customers "don't have time to listen to the holistic cosmic healing voodoo of biodynamics" and they "won't order a second glass of orange wine AKA cider wine if they have more than three taste buds."
The world's most famous and influential wine critic Robert Parker even described them as an "undefined scam".
So what are some of the myths that get pedalled about natural wines?
All natural wines taste the same
To traditionalists who are used to drinking polished predictable wines, natural wines can be a surprise. They claim that they all taste the same: sharp and stinky. But this couldn't be further from the truth and simply shows a lack of experience.
To say all natural wines taste the same is like saying that all French cheeses taste the same. Some are bland and some are more challenging. Likewise, natural wines come in all guises.
At one end of the spectrum is Domaine de la Romanée-Conti in Burgundy, the Biodynamic domaine that makes the most compelling, sought-after - and expensive - wines in the world. Their wines are indisputably made naturally.
Then there's the more esoteric and experimental wines of Patrick Sullivan in Australia. The man responsible for making a wine called Bonkers - a chaotic blend so unusual he wasn't even sure what had gone into it. The taste of which is certainly less conventional, but no less delicious for it.
Both are natural wines, but they couldn't taste more different.
Natural wines are all faulty
Natural wines are frequently associated with faults. Even some lovers of natural wines often accept faults as part and parcel of that style of wine.
But again the situation is more complicated. Some natural wines will be affected by Brett (a type of yeast that can produce farmyard-like flavors), or have high levels of Volatile Acidity (producing a smell like vinegar or nail polish remover).
But these faults equally exist in conventionally made wines too.
We're just more attuned to look for them in natural wine. We're more ready to pounce on them and decry the bottle as just another faulty natural wine. When the same fault in a classic Bordeaux wine might be attributed to the wine perfectly showcasing its terroir.
Plenty of natural wines are clean as a whistle and would defy even the harshest critic to find fault.
Natural wines can't age
Natural wines are made without many of the stabilizing processes that conventional wines receive. They are bottled with little or no preservatives, perhaps maybe a small amount of sulfites or maybe none at all. Many natural wines are also intended to be drunk young and fresh as a 'vin de soif'.
Because of these factors, there is a myth that natural wines are fragile and cannot age.
But as with so much in life, the reverse is often true. Conventional wines that have been made in excessively sterile conditions and protected from oxidation or other spoilage can often fall to pieces once exposed to the real world. And some natural wines that have to rely on their own 'immune system' turn out to be much hardier than expected.
In my personal experience, a 2005 vintage of Jean Foillard's Morgon 'Côte du Py' natural wine opened nearly a decade after it was bottled remains one of the greatest wines I've ever tasted. Jean, one of the original gang of four, remains one of the best makers of natural wine to this day.
Where to find natural wines
Intimidated by these young upstarts, the Big Guys of the wine industry are attempting to jump on the natural wine bandwagon and wines proclaiming to be natural are now hitting supermarket shelves.
But steer clear of these phoneys and head to small independent restaurants, bars and stores to find the real deal.
Natural wine bars are cropping up in cities all around the world. Simply try searching for 'natural wine' on Google maps and see what comes up in your area. Or download Raisin, an app dedicated to helping you find outposts of natural wine around the world.
Natural wine doesn't have an official certification body. There is no natural 'seal of approval' to look for on the label. But everyone who works in natural wine does so because they love and care about the wines.
So, go with an open mind, ask for some recommendations and start your natural wine journey.