Braving the holiday crowds at Trader Joe's, I came across an end cap display of "natural" wines. Not wanting to play bumper carts for too long, I made a mental note to find out a little bit more about such wines, as I've been seeing and hearing a lot about them lately. My goal was to include them in my list of 2020 food trends from last week, but it turns out natural wine is a complicated thing.
"Well, first-off, I want to make clear that I do not see this movement as a 'trend' or a 'fad,'" says natural wine expert Paul Greenhaw. "As winemaker Hank Beckmeyer, of La Clarine Farm, has said, we need to start calling these types of wines 'traditional' wines, not 'natural' wines. Hank likes the term 'traditional' because it implies a time before the industrialization of winemaking—before reverse-osmosis entered the process, before micro-oxygenation, before copper-sulfate was used to fix reduction, before all the various 'improvements' that the modern wine-world utilizes."
Greenhaw and his wife, Martha Aguilar, are the owners of Taos-based PM Wine Distribution, which has a singular mission of seeking out wines from small producers that are made with minimal intervention. These are wines that are "unapologetic for their 'imperfections,'" according to PM Wine Distribution's mission. "In addition to the strong connection to terroir, these 'flaws' show the unique fingerprint of the winemaker…we believe the manner in which the grapes are grown and how the land is farmed is the primary factor in making a wine with vitality, wines that have not been 'corrected' by chemistry."
So what exactly is natural wine, then? For starters, it's less a product and more the product of a movement. The movement began in the Beaujolais region of France in the 1960s, when a group of winemakers known as The Gang of Four sought a return to the styles of wine typified by their grandparents. These wines, created -before pesticides and chemicals became de rigueur, contained native yeasts and fewer additives. They called it "vin nature" which, in French, has a bit of a different meaning than simply natural wine. It's more "plain wine," reflecting the idea that nothing—or very little—has been added to the wine.
That said, the term is ambiguous and there are different interpretations as to what, exactly, is natural wine. At its most basic, it's made from organically grown grapes using only wild or indigenous yeasts. The Oxford Companion to Wine provides a little more detail, adding that grapes are typically grown by smaller, independent producers, are hand picked and, in production, no additives such as yeast nutrients or sulfites are added.
What people do agree on, though, is the taste. While there are some fruity, clear natural wines, most are less fruity and more yeasty, with a sour smell and cloudy appearance. Many people describe their flavor as having "the funk" associated with brettanomyces, a type of yeast known for its bready or "barnyard" aromas. The cloudiness comes from the fact that natural wines, being left plain, are unfiltered and unfined, leaving proteins and microbes in the bottle. These are wines that could just as easily be called wild, I think, and that truly reflect the terroir from whence they come.
"People often ask how a natural wine tastes different than a conventionally made wine, and there are solid, empirical aspects of natural wine that are different," Greenhaw tells SFR. "Quite often, there is a small amount of datable CO2, not enough to warrant a muselet, like on Champagne, but enough that one can sense a spritzy sizzle."
Another assumption is that natural wines are better for you than the more commonplace vintages. Well, it's just wine, so if you drink too much of it, you're still going to suffer the consequences. Contrary to popular belief, sulfites do not cause headaches, so lesser amounts of sulfites won't help you there. The native yeasts in these wines can produce biogenic amines including tyramine, an amino acid that affects blood pressure, which has been proven to cause headaches. So, there you go.
Asked about recommendations for natural wines readers can get their hands on, Greenhaw and Aguilar re-emphasize that just because grapes were farmed organically, that doesn't make a natural wine.
"It is a start, but what happens afterwards in the cellar is where things become more defined," Greenhaw explains. "I think many wine sellers in New Mexico are not too aware of this difference."
The easiest way to know if you're buying a natural wine is to look for those imported by Louis/Dressner Imports (the most important importer you can find in the state, according to Greenhaw), Jenny and Francois Selections, Critical Mass Selections and, of course, PM Wine Distribution.
Recommended domestic producers include Lo-Fi Cellars, La Clarine Farm, Broc Cellars, Harrington Wines, and Populis/Les Lunes. Many natural wines are available locally by the glass at -restaurant bars like Tonic, Arroyo Vino, La Boca, and Joseph's. Kokoman Fine Wines & Spirits in Pojoaque also carries a broad selection.