Natural wines are appearing on a lot of menus around town, but what the heck are they? Are they something we should be drinking? What is a 'natural' wine after all? All these questions and many more are now answered by Boulevard's wine director Lisa Haley. Prepare to become an Instant Expert...
Over the past few years I have grown passionate about natural wines. They have taken hold in Montreal (where I lived until late last year) and with some of the best restaurants there showcasing them I had little choice but to sit up and take notice. Last September I went on a month-long trip to France where I visited 25 natural winemakers in 25 days and fell in love with the beautiful farms (which is what a lot of those vineyards really are) the simple wine making techniques, the people, and of course, the wines. From the crisp sauvignon blancs of the Loire – think natural Sancerre – to the full bodied reds of Bandol in the south, these wines were fresh and alive. When I moved to Vancouver after my trip, I was excited to share these wines with diners here. With a couple of importers focusing exclusively on these wines and others embracing them, Vancouverites have more options than ever if they are looking to try natural wines. Lots of local sommeliers and wine shops are stocking them, so ask them for some recommendations and see what all the fuss is about.
1. Simply stated, they are wines made with nothing added and nothing taken away.
"Natural" wine is really made in the vineyard. Because natural wine producers do not correct for problems in the growing season (they don't add sugar in cold years when grapes don't fully ripen or acidify in hot ones when some growers might have too much sugar in their fruit) they have to be meticulous in their farming and harvesting. Natural wine is made from grapes grown without chemicals and then fermented and aged without the addition of chemicals, enzymes (used to bring out certain flavour profiles), or commercial yeast (used to ensure fermentation and also to influence the aromas and flavours in the wine). Most natural wines are not filtered or refined before bottling - hence the "nothing taken away" adage. Natural wine makers do not rely on technology to make balanced wine, they rely on good farming and clean winemaking. It's a scary business as they have no control over the weather or the yeast and bacteria living in their cellars.
2. You already know and like them.
These wines are not new on the scene, some of the world's best wine producers have only ever made "natural" wine. Many of these winemakers have been hiding in plain sight for years. Their families have been making wine without chemicals or high tech processes for generations. Wines such as M. Lapierre Morgon, available at BC Liquor, is one of the most delicious Beaujolais on the market and is well-loved and completely natural. Burgundy is full of these producers - families who have been farming and making wines for over a hundred years!
3. They are being made right here in B.C.
It's not just producers from old wine making regions who are making natural wines. There are producers right here in British Columbia who are working towards making wines grown without fertilizers and fermented, aged, and bottled with minimal intervention. Lock & Worth, Tyler Harlton Wines and the Okanagan Crush Pad among others are all experimenting with organic farming, natural yeast ferments, and forgoing filtration before bottling.
4. There is no governing body.
Unlike "organic" or "biodynamic" or "sustainable" wines, there is no governing body for natural wines so it is largely self-monitored. Lots of natural wine producers have organic or biodynamic certification but take their clean wine-making practices even further by eschewing the chemicals and treatments permitted even within the rules of organizations such as Demeter or AB. Others prefer not to be certified at all, which makes it difficult for consumers to know which bottles are natural and which are not! The best thing to do is to talk to your wine merchant or sommelier and let them know you'd like to try some of these wines. They should be able to point you in the direction of some of these simply made wines.
5. Best of all: natural wines taste great.
The best natural wines taste fresh and alive, think the difference between supermarket orange juice and freshly squeezed. It's hard to quantify the difference but the freshness and immediacy of the flavours in a wine that is pure fermented grape juice has to be tasted to be understood. And an added bonus: Lots of natural wine drinkers will tell you that they feel better when they drink natural wine. Because these wines do not have chemicals and use minimal sulfur dioxide (which some people are sensitive to), people claim to experience milder hangovers even when they overindulge!