Maybe the best place to start talking about natural wines is to acknowledge upfront that it’s not only about the physical characteristics of the wine itself. If a full wine experience for you is covered by aroma and taste characteristics, comparison with other wines of similar style and region, and assessment of quality along a linear scale, then many of the more fascinating aspects of natural wines and the “movement” that has grown up to support them will hold little appeal.
If instead you hope to know the story behind a wine, made choices to align what you do in your life with how and what you consume and matter to you but only when they make the journey from theory to practice, then you ought to be exploring natural wines.
No pausing here to weigh relative merits of these distinct approaches.
So by all means shut the door, pour a glass of something and attach every last neurological receptor to that liquid as it courses through your physiological systems. If you stop there, you’re engaged in something valuable, but I’ll talk to you in a year or so. If the olfactory/gustatory experience suggests something else, read on.
I turned to Zev Rovine to help define the terms. Rovine started importing wine a little over four years ago, quickly allied himself with the growing number of European producers crafting natural wines, and has since become one of the movement’s more prominent American advocates. A small (for how long?) handful of natural-wine importers now has distribution presence in Maine. (Rovine distributes through Devenish Wines.)
Rovine’s definition includes both technical and attitudinal realms. “The technical side,” he told me, “is how the wines are made. Grapes are grown organically and biodynamically first. Secondly, fermentation is without additives: No added yeast, which is super important. The more complex the microbiology in your vineyard, the more complex your fermentation is going to be. If you add industrial yeast or anything else, you compromise that complexity.”
Sulfur is probably the greatest source of dispute. Wines made with no sulfur added at all can taste generic (a well-known, ubiquitous sulfite-free wine fits this bill), or they can taste wild and unique. They can be amazingly fresh and alive, or so off-kilter you run screaming. Regardless, spend any significant time with sulfur-free wines and you begin to notice the substantial taste alteration that added sulfur induces: A flinty, sharp bite often mistaken for “acidity.”
Rovine distinguishes between himself and more hard-core anti-sulfuristas. “I consider a wine natural if sulfur is added but only at bottling. If you add sulfur before then (the way most industrial wine is), you’ll kill a lot of the yeasts and alter the fermentation process. I’d say a maximum acceptable level is 50 parts per million at bottling; most of our wines are 10 to 20 parts per million.”
Then there’s what I call the “attitudinal” side; Rovine calls it “spiritual.” “There’s a spirit of natural,” he said. “We’re talking about people who aren’t looking to make a ton of wine. Once you get to a certain size … you’re not doing all the work yourself anymore and something gets lost. Scale is very important. The idea is to make your wine better each year, not to make as much wine as the market will bear.”
Here’s the problem with labels. Rovine knows and loves the producers he works with. As anyone who’s ever tasted even a single wine in the vineyard it came from can attest, it’s incredibly difficult to communicate to someone else everything going on with a wine understood in context. How can importers, distributors, retailers and sommeliers hope to convey the whole human-natural character of a given wine to their clients?
They can’t, though their attempts yield important parts of the picture. But a wine made with less human manipulation has its own ability to transmit, much more clearly than over-made wines, that nexus of factors inherent in the place that reared it.
“A good natural wine has a spirit of itself,” Rovine said. “Each cuvee (particular blend), each vintage, should be considerably different. It should have its own identity. This is part of why I hate talking about vintages in a broad sense, like, ‘2009 was a good year in Burgundy.’ At least for wines of character, in tune with nature, nothing is the generic case. I prefer to talk about a particular wine through different vintages.”
To approach a glass of wine with particularism rather than classifications is unconventional. To approach anything without classifying takes tremendous reserves of conscious willpower, a vigilant resistance, because it’s not what the establishment media, corporations and marketeers have an interest in supporting. Language and consciousness arranged the way they are, it’s often not even what your friends have an interest in supporting.
But it is what I have found natural wines are best at nurturing. Each glass a new opportunity, each taste a different moment. Some pretty, some not; some unruffled, some jagged. A tree, then another, and another, until eventually you become aware of a forest. Which is still composed of individual trees.
Next week, more from Zev Rovine, and more on particular wines.