Natural wine has for decades stayed within nerdy oenophile circles. But that could change soon. This growing trend, which began in France in the ’80s and has taken root in other wine-producing countries, is starting to catch on among vintners and wine appreciators. Few people can speak better to this phenomenon than Isabelle Legeron, a Master of Wine (the only French woman to hold this title) who literally wrote the book on natural wine. Her London-based RAW WINE fair debuts in New York City this weekend, from November 6 to 7, and will offer tastings and lectures for both trade members and consumers. We caught up with Legeron this week and asked her for an overview on natural wines; here, she offers her tips on how and where to sip them.
What is natural wine?
There’s no regulating body with a definition, but very simply, natural wine is made without adding or removing anything. It’s 100 percent grape juice fermented into alcohol. The issue is that most people believe all wine is made this way, but this definition describes only a tiny proportion of wines. Most wines today have dozens of additives, sulfites, yeasts, coloring agents, gelatin, milk protein, egg protein, plus all sorts of stabilizers. Whatever makes the process quicker and more stable and more predictable, they have an additive for it. At RAW, we do a very strict analysis of all the wines that participate. Natural wines are actually becoming quite trendy, but because there’s no official definition, people are using the phrase “natural wine” to describe even wines that aren’t made organically. For me, it should always be organic.
How do organic and biodynamic factor into this definition?
The common denominator between organic, biodynamic, and natural wine is the farming process. All of them avoid the use of synthetic chemicals. Biodynamic is a farming method coined in the 1920s by a European named Rudolf Steiner, and a biodynamic farmer will consult things like animal husbandry and the positioning of the stars and the moon for pruning and harvesting. Definitions for organic vary from one country to the next according to national legislations. For example, organically made wine in the U.S. can’t have sulfites, but in Europe, it can. But even if your grapes are organic or biodynamic, you can use quite a lot of additives later in the winemaking process. Sometimes you can even find traces of animal products in wine, which most people don’t know.
Yes—people often add fish derivatives as a refining agent, particularly when making white wine and sparkling wines. Sometimes you can find pig derivatives and other gelatins derived from an animal source. If you pick up a bottle of wine in the supermarket, chances are it won’t be vegan friendly because a milk or egg derivative may have been used to refine the wine. Even when most or all of an animal product gets refined out, there’s still a philosophical debate if you’re someone who believes you shouldn’t be using any animal sources in the process.
How much natural wine is being made?
There are about 500 winemakers who make very good low-intervention wines. But if we’re talking hardcore natural wine producers, that number is closer to 200. It’s very hard to make. At the RAW WINE fair in Brooklyn, there will be more than 700 wines to taste representing more than 120 growers, about two dozen of which are from the United States. Natural wine is a bit more expensive, but not wildly more expensive, given that it’s made in smaller batches, and the grapes are organic so you have a higher likelihood of losing some of your crops. But you’re paying the fair price of somebody’s work for 1 to 2 years, and often it’s the same person who farms and who makes the wine.
More restaurants in major cities are serving it. If you talk to growers, they’re expanding their markets everywhere. If you look at all the top restaurants in the world, especially Noma and others who are part of the Nordic movement, they all sell natural wine because in a way it’s part of their philosophy. Traditionally a lot of chefs have focused on the food and then they’ve relegated the management of the beverage offerings to somebody else, but I think that’s changing.
Where can you find natural wine in the United States?
You can definitely find it in California, especially in Sonoma and Paso Robles. You can base yourself in San Francisco and visit people like Tony Coturri in Sonoma or the guys in Berkeley who created the urban winery Donkey & Goat. AmByth in Paso Robles is interesting because they farm without irrigation. I think you could have a fantastic trip tasting natural wine in Oregon, too. Joe Pedicini, who has Montebruno in the Willamette Valley, says sometimes he can hear the wolves howling near his vineyard because it’s still so wild there.
What’s the best city in the world to visit for natural wine?
Paris is at the forefront in terms of the diversity and availability. The 11th Arrondissement is a real hub for natural wine. I love Aux Deux Amis, which is a wine bar with small plates. Le Verre Volé by the Canal St. Martin is a tiny wine shop with a handful of tables with only a couple of dishes on the menu, and they have a really nice selection. And there’s a place called Clown Bar, a gorgeous old bar dating to 1902. It’s so beautiful that you want to go there for a glass of wine just to look at the place.
What should we keep in mind before we try a natural wine?
My advice is to forget everything you know about the taste of wine. We’ve been making wine for 8,000 years, but we have shaped the process to such a degree over the last few decades that people from 100 years ago wouldn’t recognize the technology. We have this idea that wine is a polished, finished product and that there’s no space for inconsistencies or differences—we’ve edited them out through additives and stabilizers. If I give you a sauvignon blanc from the Loire Valley, in your head you might know what it’s going to taste like. But if it’s natural wine, it’s going to be very different from year to year, based on weather and other factors, because nothing has been added or taken away. It can look different. The aroma can be different. It can be cloudy or have bits floating in it. So keep an open mind, and be prepared to be challenged, because some of these wines will be quite different from your expectations.