Somm Talk

What You Need to Know about Natural Wine

It's more than a trend, and there's a way to get into it while still embracing the classical world.

By Justin Vann

Few subjects in the world of wine have caused more division and confusion than natural wine.

Several organizations, like the Court of Master Sommeliers, and magazines, like The Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator, have been arbiters of taste for decades. They tell us what is right and wrong as it pertains to wine flavor. But natural wines reject those accepted standards of wine beauty, clashing with the old guard and dividing the wine world.

We find ourselves with two separate wine industries in America today, and I find little crossover between camps. I'm an enthusiastic member of both, however, and I make sure to get a little bit of everything into my home and my lists. Most wine professionals are at least financially invested, if not emotionally invested, in their point of view on wine, so opinions are strong. I'm not exempt from this, so this is my suggestion for how to approach the divide caused by natural wine.

First, to define it. “Nothing added, nothing taken away” is perhaps the simplest working definition of natural wine. It's made with as little chemical or mechanical intervention as possible in both the vineyard and the winery. Chemical additives like sulfites, a common preservative against oxidation and microbial spoilage, are rejected by the strictest natural winemakers, but small additions generally don’t get you kicked out of the club when used judiciously to ensure consistency. Responsible agricultural approaches are a part of the definition of natural wine, but it does not have a monopoly on responsible agriculture. The best of natural and classic wine are in agreement that healthy, biologically diverse vineyards make better wine.

Some other ways natural wine is different from classical wine:

  • The idea that certain grapes should taste a certain way is what we call “varietal correctness.” The modern natural wine movement is increasingly unconcerned with adhering to this, and that also challenges the value of the appellation system. For example, Domaine Mosse in the Loire Valley of France has been told it’s not allowed to use the Anjou AOP designation (a designation like this essentially protects an agricultural product's attachment to its geography, making it more classically desirable) on a specific bottling because it has too deep a color than is typical for Anjou blanc. Other times, a winemaker might reject association with the formal appellation.
  • Although mass-produced natural wine exists, many of the biggest names in natural wine are small producers and represented by small-to-mid-size importers. Meinklang in Austria is an example of a great, somewhat widely available natural wine, but it is an exception to the rule for now.
  • Natural wine is more inclusive of so-called faults, or strange flavors that can potentially arise when sulfur—commonly used to make wine—is either subtracted entirely or lessened in the winemaking process. These weird flavors are not intrinsic to natural wine, and many natural wines are clean and varietally correct, and, in the best cases, exhibit a unique vibrancy that is seldom seen on the classic spectrum. However, faults are a new data point for wine consumers and professionals to grapple with.

Faults are the most divisive attribute of natural wine, as they can mean flavors like vinegar notes, from volatile acidity, or barnyard aromas, from elevated levels of brettanomyces, a form of yeast. Natural wine’s acceptance of these “evolutionary alarm bell” flavors has created an aesthetic debate within the wine community that hasn’t been very productive because both traditional and natural makers tend to reject the other side. Or, the state of the wine world today feels like going to a classic art museum, and while you look at the paintings, the docents lean over to whisper, “modern art sucks.” Then you head over to the modern art museum and are told, “modern art is all that matters, and technically all art was modern once.” Yes, museums often have focuses. But they’re rarely rejecting the legitimacy of other forms of art outside their walls.

Through my personal lens, I sometimes find the wide-eyed dogma of some bars’ exclusive focus on natural wine to be exhausting. But I’m not sure it’s different from the thousands of restaurants in Houston that do not carry a single natural wine. While both sides could use a little tempering, I see the absence of natural wine in most programs to be the more widespread slight to Houstonians.

As always, nothing matters more than your personal preference. But there is real joy to be found in stepping outside your comfort zone, no matter where you land on the spectrum.

The following are places to drink and buy natural wine in Houston (* means retail only).

Texas distributors of natural wine:

To learn more about faults and “off-flavors,” check out Marissa Ross’s column on the subject. For an expert deep dive, grab a copy of Dr. Jaime Goode’s Flawless.

Justin Vann is a sommelier who’s the owner and beverage director for Public Services Wine & Whisky. He also serves as wine buyer for Theodore RexMala Sichuan Bistro, and Okra Charity Saloon. His message to you: It has never been more urgent to give support to bars, restaurants, and wine shops as the food-and-beverage industry is being crushed by Covid-19. Your dollars going toward a local, independently owned business in lieu of a national chain can be the difference between life and death for that business.

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