I’m in Estoril (next to Cascais, on the coast, near Lisbon), Portugal, for the inaugural MUST fermenting ideas wine summit. Things kicked off yesterday with a talk by Alice Feiring, on Natural Wine. It was a good place to start.
‘I’m much more comfortable in front of a computer than an audience,’ began Alice, as she then proceeded to give a tight and engaging talk on natural wine. Feiring is the author of four books, including one that’s coming out next week, called The Dirty Guide to Wine. She began by telling the story of how she discovered the world of natural wine. ‘In 2000 I got a commission from Food and Wine magazine for a wine guide. I got carpal tunnel from opening so many bottles,’ she recalls. This wasn’t a good experience for her. ‘It was the height of wine internationalization. I started on the path of figuring out what had changed in my wine.’
Initially, she thought the problem was one of the new found obsession with new oak. But it was meeting Joe Dressner, a New York importer of natural wine, that led to her discovery that the problem of internationalization was more than new barrels. ‘It was enzymes, flavoured yeasts, tannins, microoxygenation, mega purple, any of the 100 or so approved additives.’
She quotes Baldo Cappellano, a Barolo producer: ‘the more there is fake the more the world needs real.’
‘Wine adulteration is nothing new,’ says Feiring. ‘There has always been adulteration in wine to make money from it.’ She mentioned John Penroe, who was punished for selling adulterated wine by being forced to drink it. Then came phylloxera. ‘These were the golden years of wine manipulation: there weren’t any grapes.’ Someone even published a book in France listing recipes for making wine without grapes.
Feiring mentioned a film made in Soviet Georgia by Otar Losseliani, called Falling Leaves. A young guy gets a job in a wine factory in Tblisi, and has to confront his conscience when he’s ordered to make chemical manipulations.
So where did the natural wine movement come from? After World War II, mechanization in the vineyard and winery started in earnest, with dire consequences. In 1978, Marcel Lapierre, in Morgon, Beaujolais, is making wine he can’t stand, and tries to figure out why. He goes to Jules Chauvet, a scientist and winemaker in the same village, who is trying to research how to make a sound wine without sulphites. One of the major problems at the time was the lack of life in the vineyard. ‘The two tits of Beaujolais were sugar and sulfur,’ jokes Feiring. Everyone loved Marcel’s new natural wines. Jean Foillard, his friend, took notice, and soon there was a core group of natural wine producers in Beaujolais.
In 1980, the first natural wine bar opened in Paris. By 2000 there were 40 of them. Then natural wine tastings started happening, such as Dive Bouteille. The whole movement grew incredibly.
Why were people so excited? Feiring suggests that natural wines are more expressive of place, more lively, and more healthful. She also suggests that their popularity may in part be because you can (allegedly) drink more without hangovers.
Specifically in New York, in 2000 there was only one natural wine importer; by 2017 there were more than 15, plus major importers who have started a natural wine component. In 2016, the USA had one natural wine fair; last year saw 10 of these events. ‘Bruce Sanderson of the Wine Spectator said that natural wine would die,’ says Feiring, ‘but he’s wrong.’
How do you define it? ‘You must start with organic or some form of natural farming,’ says Feiring. ‘It has the philosophy of nothing added or nothing taken away.’ She’s not against use of sulfur dioxide, suggesting that 20 ppm or so of added SO2 is OK. ‘It’s no big deal. There will always be some extremists.’ She finds it useful to separate the natural wine world into two categories: hardcore natural and natural enough.
‘The impact of the natural wine world has been huge,’ she says. ‘It has challenged it and redefined it. Major wineries are now experimenting with natural and many are rethinking sulphite additions.’ There has also been an increase in native yeast ferments, and more organic and biodynamic farming. ‘Skin contact is out of control: it has got to the point of being a fad.’ There have even been new wine styles: orange, vin de soif, pet’ nat, and glou glou wines that are so easy to drink.
Alice has spent quite a bit of time in Georgia, and touched on the use of clay in fermentations as alternatives to oak. She showed a picture of a Georgian Qvevri maker, who was practicing a craft on the brink of extinction. Now he and his two sons have a 2 year waiting list. These qvevri live underground. ‘The Georgian way of making wine seems sane for a way of making a minimalist natural wine,’ says Feiring. ‘It gives instant temperature control, important for making a sound wine.’
She thinks that natural wine has made wine more fun, and has revitalised wine fairs. ‘Young people are having fun and there is curiosity,’ she says. It has encouraged traditional methods and has revitalized hard cider. It has revitalized ailing regions such as Ribera Sacra. It has opened up the debate on wine flaws. Is cloudy wine a flaw? What about brettanomyces of heightened volatility?
Natural wine has the power of emotional resonance; it has the power of grassroots; and it has the power of story – people want to write about it.
‘It has vitality and authenticity, that little thing you can’t buy,’ says Feiring. ‘Overall, it tastes good.’
‘The trend is not going away, it is here. Wines made with minimal intervention and will continue to spread outside of the big cities. I believe that big companies will establish a natural wine segment.’
She concludes by saying, ‘natural wine will redefine the parameter for fine wine.’