If you’re interested in wine in a big way, you may have heard some noise about natural wines.
One of the wine world’s biggest trends, natural wine is a hot topic amongst critics, sommeliers and winemakers in regions across the planet — Italy, France, California, even Canada.
Some love the idea. Others hate it.
But no one is ignoring it. Natural wine bars and wine lists are popping up across the planet, including Calgary's Pigeonhole, Montreal’s Vin Papillon and, a little further afield, Terroirs Wine Bar in London, England. Bar Brutal in Barcelona. Manfreds in Copenhagen. GlouGlou in Amsterdam. You get the picture.
Import agencies are dedicating their entire lists to the subject. Blogs talk of it, and books are being written on it. There are even international festivals — The Artisan Wine Fair, The Real Wine Fair, La Dive Bouteille, to name just three — dedicated to spreading the love.
But what are natural wines, exactly? The term literally refers to wines made with grapes, but with minimal intervention — no chemicals in the vineyard and little, if any, added sulfites during the vinification process.
Natural wines may be red, white, rosé, sparkling or still, and typically they’re made by small producers, who grow their own grapes. A natural wine may be organic, but may not be certified. It may be biodynamic, but again, it may not be certified. It may be made with cabernet sauvignon, merlot, chardonnay, you name it. Or it may be made with lesser-known grapes such as ribolla gialla, garganega or furmint.
Whatever way they are made, one thing is certain: according to their fans, these wines represent true terroir, the way wine has been made for thousands of years.
The owner of Elite Brands Wine Distribution in Calgary, Jerzy Maslanka focuses entirely on natural wines, mostly from Italy and Slovenia. From his perspective, the wines he represents — which range from bold reds to light, bright sparkling wines — are important because a. they taste good and b. they reflect the ancient and impressive history of winemaking, not something stirred up in a lab.
“People have been making wines this way for 6,000 years, and now western hemisphere sommeliers call them a new trend,” says Maslanka says.
“As my friend [natural wine producer] Fulvio Bressan often says, ‘When you forget your history, you forget yourself.’”
But the natural wine movement is not without its critics. Renowned French winemaker Michel Chapoutier makes many organic and biodynamic wines, but that is where he draws the line, saying natural wines are “rubbish” made by “hippies from another world.”
“It is extraordinary that people defend products with defects on the grounds that in the past, growers were making wines with defects, so that is good, or natural. Those old wines had defects because people lacked the tools and means not to make fault-free wines,” he told Decanter magazine in 2012.
Others, however, argue that natural wines aren’t faulted. Sure, some are, but any wine can be “off” if it isn’t made cleanly. Natural wines are simply different, expressing the precise terroir around them, everything from natural yeasts in the air to the soil where the grapes are grown.
“Natural wines are the true essence of winemaking,” says Maxim Atanassov, owner of Vino Al Vino, a Calgary-based natural wine importer.
“I’m very much about eating local, organic and raw, with as little interference as possible. I want my wines like that, too.”
For Andrew Stewart, wine director at Pigeonhole and Model Milk, natural wines are about finding authenticity in a world where massive players dominate the scene.
"It's about the conversation: what goes into a wine, and the difference between a micro producer and a mass producer of wine," says Stewart, who has also worked at Bin 905 and Metrovino.
"It's our responsibility as sommeliers to introduce people to the full spectrum of wines in the world, not just the mainstream."
With that in mind, ask for a natural wine next time you’re in a wine shop or eating out, he suggests.
“It’s going to be different, but it’s not freaky,” says Stewart.
“It works. Trust us.”
A version of this article appeared in City Palate.