In the 1980s, a small movement in the vineyards and cellars of central France began gathering force: fresh-tasting wines low in alcohol, high in acidity and fruitiness, made in quantities often only enough to fill bottles by the hundreds, were appearing in ever greater numbers throughout Parisian restaurants and wine bars. Their makers defied the wine industry’s ideals of the day by creating bottles that stood against American critic Robert Parker and his points system for rating wine; against their neighbors' big-bodied, recipe-born wines; and against winery practices like fining, filtering, and heavy use of the preservative sulfur dioxide. These wines were referred to as wild and alive by both producers and drinkers alike, and they often, proudly, boasted at least one (by more standard palates, anyway) fault—a telltale barnyard aroma granted by the otherwise maligned brettanomyces yeast. Around the 1990s, these bottles slowly began making their way into the United States.
Taking a Stand on Yeast and Sulfur
France's move toward less manipulated wine "started with rejection of chemical agriculture," explains David Lille, who honed his palate in France during those days and is now a partner in New York’s Chambers Street Wines, a wine shop lauded for its small producer selections. "Most of these people were rejecting inoculated yeast, but they weren’t necessarily anti-sulfur."
That opposition to inoculated yeast—adding purchased commercial strains of the stuff to must, or crushed grapes, in order to start fermentation—went hand in hand with turning to a more traditional reliance on wild, or ambient yeasts, those sugar-loving airborne organisms that are present everywhere, and naturally flock to grapes and grape juice to initiate fermentation spontaneously.
Then, the focus, or rather non-focus, on sulfur began to changed. Revered vignerons like Beaujolais, France's minimalist-minded Marcel Lapierre—whom his longtime American importer Kermit Lynch anointed the leader of the so-called "Gang of Four," an informal, outspoken group that included winemakers Jean Foillard, Guy Breton, and Jean-Paul Thévenet—took up the no-sulfur cry, leading France's charge for a more "natural" approach to producing wine. Parisian gathering spots like Le Baratin restaurant, with an inclusive wine list that drew aficionados from near and far, began serving the results.
"Natural wines are for the people."
For better of worse, depending on one's taste, these "living" wines were a radical turn from more commercial wines: "Some of the producers were not that careful. ‘We don’t care how it tastes,’ was the attitude. If it tasted bad it was a badge of honor; it was funky. The most important thing was that the wine be natural," Lillie notes of those days. Inevitably, the movement expanded stateside in the 1990s. One taste and—while many were put off by Brett-induced off-flavors, daringly fruity aromas, and proud displays of what more commercial makers considered faults—plenty of visitors and expats were hooked on the funky juice, returning home with bottles to share.
"Natural" Wine Gathers Force and Meaning
By the mid-2000s, these curious French bottles were well-known among a growing crowd of cognoscenti in the U.S. and elsewhere, a success driven mostly by word of mouth. They were also being regularly referred to as "natural" wines. As the movement’s better-known winemakers, people like Bourgueil’s Stephane Guion, Coteaux du Loir’s Christian Chaussard, and Touraine’s Thierry and Jean-Marie Puzelat, positioned France’s Loire Valley as the center of it all alongside Beaujolais, their devotees slowly discovered still more producers—in other parts of France and in corners of Italy and Germany—who were working in the same way, making less manipulated wine.
When it comes to wines, "natural" is a contested term among winemakers. There’s no official definition, but there are somewhat standard guidelines—an outspoken, if uncodified, agreement among natural winemakers, sellers, and drinkers, who form a loose community (another tenet).
The grapes must be grown organically or biodynamically, but certification isn’t necessary: often these growers find the official status an unnecessary cost or, worse yet, that the demands from regulating bodies go against what’s true to the actual soil and area in which they’re working. The Earth is highly irregular when it comes to places that are good for growing vines, and for those paying close attention, authenticity and common sense trump labeling.
Natural winemakers share an ethos of hand-off-ness, too. Along with native yeasts, they avoid chemical manipulations, additives, and, very often, fining, filtration, and added sulfur. Decisions vary from producer to producer, and often from vintage to vintage. As some of these practices fall outside the rules of controlled appellations—quality-regulating and labeling laws that protect what are thought to be an area’s best practices and traditions—some natural producers will forgo the prestige, and higher price command of, say, a French A.O.C., and opt for the looser regulations of a Vin de France. There’s a simple reason behind it all: "They realized that the wine was better. [Industrial-age conventional winemaking] is like making cheese with pasteurized milk; it’s not really cheese, it’s a product," says Lillie. The natural mindset is one of honesty and transparency, one of expression of place, and of biodiverse vineyards and healthy yeast-filled wineries. It stands for accessibility, too, and against turning high-quality wine into a commodity: "Natural wines are for the people," Lillie explains.
Natural Goes Global
"I think the same thing that’s going on in the food world, when you have people like Michael Pollan writing about food, people are going to start questioning everything, we’re starting to use that conversation in the same way for wine," notes Lee Campbell, organizer of New York’s The Big Glou natural wine festival. Demand for sustainability and clean agricultural practices, a new focus on both local flavors and discovery of new ones, and a steadily increasing wine consumption in many parts of the world (the United States is now the world’s largest wine market), are now heralding a second wave of natural winemaking, from all corners. "I pretty much never drank New World wines before and I’m starting to enjoy certain New World wines, now. It’s kind of strange. I’m excited to see things that are going on in California, and people in Australia. But the place I’m the most personally stoked to see what the winemakers are doing is in Spain. Their wines are getting much more interesting, and I think the natural wines there are really quite compelling," Campbell says.
Spain Lightens Up
Importer Álvaro de la Viña agrees. His eponymous New York City–based company Selections de la Viña brings in wines from his native Spain, from areas as diverse as Granada, just across the Mediterranean Sea from Morocco to Catalonia, bordering on France in the Northeast, all made in ways that grant them a spot in the growing natural wines pantheon. Moving away from the Alta expression-style Spain is usually known for—heavily extracted, big-bodied, and uncompromisingly oaked—these producers are recasting those winemaking methods as miseducation, instead calling for experimentation and reclaiming obscure regions and grape varieties, with an emphasis on terroir and elegance that sees the vineyard as most important. "Our grandfathers were doing it right, our fathers messed it up, now we’re fixing it," states de la Viña. "Natural wine has been around forever. It was a peasant wine, always sold locally, but you’re starting to see a lot more being made and being exported now."
The country’s recent economic crisis has served its oenological aspirations well: many who once migrated to the cities in search of work have returned to more rural areas for a better-quality, more family-oriented life, resuscitating abandoned vineyards and replanting under-serving ones, with an eye to the thousands of grapes indigenous to the region and to getting them onto the global market. De la Viña points to Barranco Oscuro from Granada and Carriel Dels Vilars from the Empordà region as pioneers in these lands.
From France to Eastern Europe
Jenny Lefcourt, who founded importing company Jenny & François Selections in 2000 to bring these bottles to New York City shops and dining spots, found herself in France in the early days, too, with her first husband. "We were drinking [natural wines] and didn’t know much about them, but we realized these wines were alive and pleasurable. When we moved back [from France to the U.S.], we were looking for similar pleasure to share with friends and family." Lefcourt began bringing bottles to the attention of places like New York's Best Cellars and Garnet in the 1990s, selling them slowly at first, sometimes just two at a time, then quickly establishing herself as a source for natural. For many years, even as the wines caught on, Jenny & Francois only brought in French wines. The company is now in 22 states, and works with producers like Milan Nestarec in the Czech Republic, Switzerland’s Mythopia, and Strohmeier in Austria, a country whose relatively recent bounceback from a reputation for low quality can be almost entirely attributed to its high-quality small winemakers.
"... the place I’m the most personally stoked to see what the winemakers are doing is in Spain."
Australia Turns Rogue
In the New World, Australia, one of the world’s most guilty when it comes to over-worked commercial styles, now has a tenacious natural crowd as well. One whose ethos, and winemakers, have much in common with California’s recent natural boom, too. "It was a reaction to wine styles of the ‘90s, which was overly manipulated, overly extracted wine. It’s like punk rock in the ‘70s, it so much was a reaction to the stuff that came before it all, the stadium rock, things getting stripped down," says Ronnie Sanders, whose Vine Street Imports is an exhaustive source for Australia’s oeno-outliers.
It started there a few years ago, when a group called Natural Selection Theory was formed by the late Sam Hughes of Dandy in the Clos, Tom Shobbrook of Shobbrook Wines, James Erskine of Jauma, and Anton von Klopper of Lucy Margaux. The four-man group made it their mission to promote natural wines in ways especially irreverent to the Australian Wine Board: bottling in 1-liter ceramic eggs; making white wines the red-wine way with grape juice in contact with grape skins for color, tannins, and flavor; and refusing to fine or filtrate so that the final wines were not clear, but hazy with yeast and grape particles. Outfitted in pink hot pants and using punk-style promotional posters, they spread their message in person throughout Sydney and Melbourne.
And it seems to have worked. With a natural wine scene in those two cities to rival New York, San Francisco, and Paris, there are now many more Australian natural producers beyond the movement’s epicenter in South Australia's Adelaide Hills. From Ochota Barrels in McLaren Vale and Ruggabellus in the otherwise big-bodied enclave of Barossa, both in South Australia, to Harkham Wines (who also makes the only natural—no flash-pasteurization—kosher wine in Australia) in Hunter Valley, north of Sydney. But the downside is that there's not much leftover for importing.
The United States, Naturally
In the U.S., along with increasing attention being paid to AVAs—the American Viticultural Areas that correspond roughly to appellation systems like France and Italy’s, but with far less requirements—insistence on transparency and experimentation is defining a new branch of winemaking. In Oregon, Joe Swick, a winemaker with previous experience in conventional circles only, launched his own cellar, Swick Wines, with the 2013 vintage. Self-taught when it comes to natural, he takes pride in doing things differently from his more consistency- or profit-minded neighbors. And how he makes his wines depends on what the grapes are like each year. He sources his fruit from dry farmers only—"We get plenty of rain here, the only reasons anyone irrigates is to maximize yield, for cash crops," he notes—who are less than an hour from his winery, and who handpick the grapes they sell to him, so that they arrive damage-free and therefore suitable for fermenting by native yeasts. Swick made his first unsulfured wine in 2014 to such a success that his entire 2015 line—which includes a Portuguese-style field blend (grapes grown together in one vineyard) with Oregon-appropriate grapes (a half-and-half of pinot noir and pinot gris)—is 100 percent naked—his term for the word natural, which he doesn’t use.
A Millennia-Long Natural Movement
Transparency and experimentation is defining a new branch of winemaking.
There’s a relative newcomer on the natural scene who is also one of the world’s oldest wine regions—some say it’s where winemaking started, 8,000 years ago. The Republic of Georgia got a Western nod back in 1999 from Darra Goldstein’s book The Georgian Feast, and these days is getting a warm stateside welcome by the likes of natural wine writer Alice Feiring’s latest, For the Love of Wine, published earlier this year. If those 1990s Loire Valley wines were the Western epitome of natural, Georgian wines are the essence of the Eastern world’s: grapes of all colors are fermented skins, stems, and all in large clay jugs, or qvevri, often buried deep in the ground to keep the fermenting wine cool and flavorful—the way it’s been done there forever.
Below, a taste of second-wave natural wines, from the Republic of Georgia to the State of New York, from Australia's Adelaide Hills to the slopes of Switzerland, from Spain to the Czech Republic.
Natural Wines From Around the World
Albamar oenologist Xurxo Alba descends from generations of winemakers in this albariño-heavy region of Spain. And until Fusco—his first red wine, made from the mencía grape, and named the Galician word for darkness—he was known only for his Rías Baixas whites. His sensibilities transfer well: mencía grown on terraced vineyards of slate-based soil and fermented in stainless steel with ambient, or native, yeasts, leads to a funky red with flavors of sour cherries and plums, enriched by notes of sage, bay leaf and clove, and a refreshing bitterness and acidity. This wine is a lighter, and more complex, than most reds from Spain. Its bright earthiness is meant for sweetbreads, breaded veal cutlets, or portobello mushrooms.
Opaque and spicy, this wine is made from the Georgian grape saperavi. It's fermented with wild yeasts in large clay qvevri jars, and is bottled without filtering, for a rich, meaty mouthful, and a sturdiness that means you can open a bottle then drink it for days afterward. Concentrated flavors of ripe red cherries and fresh prune plums, baker’s chocolate, clove, cardamom, and dried herbs, along with a meaty savoriness are further boosted by huge sweet tannins—all of which show up best after a few hours, or by decanting. For food, go rich, rich, rich: allspice-and-cinnamon-laced moussaka, larded breads, or anything covered in one of Georgia’s walnut-based sauces.
Jauma founder James Erskine’s spiritual roots lie in Spain’s Catalonia, and it's this region's independence he fosters in his grenache-driven wines back home in South Australia's McLaren Vale. At 15 percent grenache, "Tikka the Cosmic Cat" is a sensual, playful take on the shiraz for which his country is known. Erskine makes wines using grapes grown in accordance with organic and biodynamic principles, harvested by hand, with ripeness and sugar levels determined by sight and smell. Yeasts are native and he doesn't filter his wines. The result here is a fresh, gamy, and juicy medley of sweet maraschino cherries, ripe plums, fruit leather, eucalyptus, and something definitively capers-like. Big-bodied even at a relatively low 13 percent alcohol, with chewy tannins and mouthwatering acidity, this wine is a play between earthy and light, meant for barbecued pork’s brown sugar and vinegar notes, or the seared sweet-and-smokiness of a grilled steak.
Experimentation drives the vineyard practices behind the Mythopia label. Producer Hans Peter-Schmidt runs the land—officially the Mythopia Experimental Vineyard, Delinat Institute for Ecology and Climate Farming—to study the effects of biodiversity on wines themselves. Plants from flowers to fruit trees fill the soil alongside vines, with a fauna-rich scene of birds and dozens of butterfly species, too. It all works: this pinot noir grown in calcareous-schist soil is hand-picked, grapes and some stems are fermented with ambient yeasts in stainless steel. The wine is aged for two years in giant oak barrels, then bottled without being filtered. Peter-Schmidt describes his wines as "grapes and air," and there is something magical about this Swiss pinot noir: bright, buttery flavors of juicy cherry pie, grilled meatiness, and violets, with lush tannins, low alcohol, and refreshing acidity make for a body that feels richer than it is. Pour it with warmed, melty raclette cheese or use a bottle as an excuse to make the area’s Rösti Valaisanne—crisp pan-fried shredded potatoes topped with bacon, fried egg, and more raclette.
A well-guarded secret of Prague’s natural wine scene, winemaker Jakub Novàk relies on hand-harvested grapes, fermenting them with natural yeasts and leaving juice and skins together for up to a month to take advantage of pinot noir’s signature fruit and floral aromas, and frankovka’s (Austria’s blaufränkisch) dark color and spiciness. A further year and a half of barrel-aging, then bottling without filtering, produces an elegant, minerally wine with low alcohol, startling acidity, and an array of flavors: stewed blueberries, fresh cherries, tomato jam with sumac, and dusty violets combine with a brambly leafy quality in a light creamy body. For food, think Czech-style roast duck, or potato dumplings.
Located in New York’s cold, damp Finger Lakes AVA, Bloomer Creek Vineyard does what is usually thought of as impossible there. Producers Kim Engle and Debra Bermingham farm and make wine naturally, working to showcase the differences between their two vineyards. This cabernet franc, grown in the area’s limestone-based llima silt and loam soil, is harvested by hand, then fermented with wild yeasts along with some stems for astringent tannins that soften during the 10 months it ages in years-old Hungarian oak barrels before being bottled unfiltered. Juicy raspberries and blueberries, black licorice, and spearmint flavors are balanced by tingly acidity, sticky tannins, and an earthiness that makes this wine both serious and fresh. Match its wild elegance with equally savory ramps when in season, and garlicky lamb when they’re not.
Winemaker Jérôme Jouret has been running his small family-owned vineyard for only a few years, doing both the plowing and the harvesting by hand, and earning a name for himself as one of the zone’s natural voices. A Southern Rhône varietal grenache, the Jouret "En Avant Doute" is the product of his certified-organic vineyards in the higher-elevation, cooler-climate hills rising from the Ibie RIver in the Rhône’s Ardeche region. This aromatic, light red, with lively wild strawberry and menthol flavors, and warm star anise notes, is structured softly, with gentle tannins and acidity. It's a fresh counterpart to sausages made from veal, pork, or chicken, or to match the funk, tablier de sapeur—the area’s traditional dish of fried breaded tripe.
Editor: Kat Odell