Say the words “natural” and “wine” in the same sentence among wine people and you are bound to either win or lose friends. Few topics seem to be more polarizing among wineos than natural wine. But why? One of the main issues seems to be surrounding the definition of natural wine. What is it? Or better yet, what isn’t it?
Whether Mega Purple is your poison or pleasure, there are a few basic elements of natural winemaking that all can agree on; namely, the use of organic farming methods (e.g. no chemical herbicides, pesticides or synthetic fertilizers), and low-intervention winemaking, including the use of minimal or no sulfites. But these aren’t actually hard and fast rules — at least not for most winemakers. Many view natural wine as more of a spiritual movement.
This situation might change, however. In 2019, the Institut National de L’Origine et de la Qualité (INAO) approved the creation of a natural wine certification proposed by a group of natural wine producers in the Loire Valley. Wineries may label their wines “Vin Méthode Nature” if they adhere to certain standards. Grapes must be certified organic and hand-harvested, fermented using native yeasts, and made without the use of available technologies (you know, like reverse osmosis, thermovinification or cross-flow filtration) in the production process. There are two levels of certification — one which allows for a minimal use of sulfites, and the other which allows for none.
It remains to be seen whether something like this will be introduced in the United States. In the meantime, there seems to be a growing trend toward wines that are produced using these same “clean” techniques that the natural wine movement favors, and marketed broadly this way, which has some wondering if natural winemaking should be more formally regulated. Either way, there is something to be said for paying greater attention to how grapes are farmed and how wines are made, and consumers seem to appreciate this transparency more and more.
“I think the natural wine movement is at the cusp of moving from niche to broader commercial potential,” says Wei-En Tan, owner and proprietor of Portland, Oregon-based Stem Wine Bar, which stocks a fair share of natural and low-intervention wines. “In general, especially with younger people, there is a growing recognition that respect for the earth means respect for ourselves, and it should be reflected in the wines that we drink and love as well.”
The second most important question surrounding natural wine is, of course, “is it any good?” While some natural wines have been criticized for being flawed or overly funky (which, for some die-hards, is part of these wines’ appeal), there are plenty out there worth checking out.
We have curated a list of producers on the whole spectrum of natural winemaking, from those who simply believe in low-intervention winemaking practices, to those who take it all the way to a full-on no sulfites added approach, and everyone in between. Whatever your funk threshold, you’re bound to discover some that you like.
Powicana Farm, Mendocino County, California
“We strive to grow living soils, and to produce beautiful, healthy grapes in harmony with natural cycles,” say the owners of Powicana Farm in Mendocino. French transplants Zoubeida and Rémi Zajac consider themselves artisanal growers focusing on natural farming, biodiversity in the vineyard and minimal intervention during fermentation and aging. Many wines in their portfolio contain no added sulfites.
Wines to try: Petite Sirah; Pet-Nat Rosé from Petite Sirah
Zafa Wines, Isle La Motte, Vermont
It’s hard not to fall in love with Zafa owner/winemaker Krista Scruggs’ blunt description of her philosophy: “No fining, filtering, additives or funny business in the winery. No herbicides or synthetic pesticides in the vineyard. Just fermented juice from responsibly farmed living fruit.”
Scruggs has become somewhat of a celebrity in the natural wine world, but her down-to-earth — literally — approach to her wine and cider production has drinkers of all kinds talking. Plus… Vermont! How often do you get to sip wines from there? Hopefully more now thanks to the groundwork Scruggs has laid.
Wines to try: The Visions of Gideon Collection “Carver” — a blend of hybrid grapes and wild apples.
Day Wines, Dundee, Oregon
Day Wines was founded by winemaker and owner Brianne Day, who is a rising star producer of natural wines from Oregon. They source fruit from the best organic and biodynamic vineyards from Applegate Valley in the South to Yamhill-Carlton in the North, to produce a range of truly interesting, truly natural wines that have a seriously devoted following.
Wines to try: Malvasia Bianca “Petit Doré Adoré,” Evee’s Block; A Peridot Afternoon
Lady of the Sunshine, Central Coast, California
Founder and winemaker Gina Hildebrand is California born and bred, having grown up on her family’s 90-acre biodynamic-certified farm the Sierra Foothills of Northern California. This upbringing drove her passion for biodynamic farming and terroir-driven wines, and ultimately inspired her to launch Lady of the Sunshine. This Central Coast winery focuses on regenerative, biodynamic farming, with the simple goal of leaving the land better than they found it.
Her winemaking philosophy is to produce make fun, fresh “breakfast wines” as she affectionately calls them, using native yeasts, neutral oak, and minimal sulfites, and no fining or filtration.
Wines to try: Chene Vineyard Pinot Noir; Coquelicot Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc
Otra Cosa, Temecula, California
Joe and Alec Wiens, the younger generation of the Wiens family (of Wiens Family Cellars and Wiens Brewing in Temecula Valley), started Otra Cosa out of a desire to experiment with styles outside of the big, robust flavor profiles of many Southern California wines. While winemaker Joe wouldn’t classify the wines as “natural” in the purest sense of the term, they are certainly made in the spirit of natural wines.
“While we use grapes from some vineyards that are practicing organic, or mostly organic farming, none of the fruit I use is certified,” he says. “I will also use small amounts of SO2 when I feel it’s needed. Whether this puts us in, or out of the ‘natural wine’ club is not an argument, or discussion I’m looking to have. My only goal is to produce fresh, exciting wines, with low intervention, and easy drinkability.”
Wines to try: Pillar of Earth Red Blend; Carbonic Grenache
Inconnu Wine, Berkeley, California
Believing that, “Less is more, and that honest wine speaks for itself,” Founder and Winemaker Laura Brennan Bissell aims to make affordable, inherently “crushable” wines.
Originally from DC, Laura moved to San Francisco originally to become a tattoo artist. She fell in love with low-intervention wines while living in Barcelona, ultimately finding her way back to California in 2011 to cut her teeth at world-class properties like Matthiasson and Unti.
“My wines are made with spontaneous ferments, low sulfur, low intervention, and ethically farmed grapes,” she explains. “All of that said, I am not dogmatic in my practices, and believe that good wine is the ultimate goal.”
Wines to try: “Kitsune” Red Wine; “Lalalu” Cabernet Franc