There is nothing more compelling than natural beauty. Ad men always have said that sex sells (such as this photo, above, of Lane Tanner enjoying a “Pinot bath”), but these days, natural sells almost as well. Natural cosmetics, natural clothing, natural foods, and now natural wine. But just how natural do you want to go?
As the wine director at Pico Restaurant, I frequently hear people ask, “What natural wines do you carry?” The increasing popularity of the natural-wines movement seems to be taking the industry by storm. Nonetheless it has many sommeliers searching for answers as to what “natural wine” actually means.
According to Rawwine.com:
“Natural Wine is farmed organically (biodynamically, using permaculture or the like) and made (or rather transformed) without adding or removing anything in the cellar. No additives or processing aids are used, and ‘intervention’ in the naturally occurring fermentation process is kept to a minimum. As such neither fining nor (tight) filtration are used. The result is a living wine – wholesome and full of naturally occurring microbiology.
One of the big challenges in defining natural wine is that no legal definitions currently exist. The most strictly enforced designations, such as the French SAINS, require strict adherence to organic farming and tolerate no additives to the wine whatsoever. The French AVN (L’Association des Vins Naturels), also one of the strictest, allows for up to 30mg/l sulfite additions. Italy-based VinNatur allows for up to 50 mg/l sulfite levels. While all of them share some very similar themes, there is still no world-wide consensus.
The biggest challenge to winemakers is the sulfite dilemma. Sulfites have been used for centuries to help preserve the freshness of flavors in wine, and to give them the stability for extended aging. The chemical agent, sodium metabisulfite, is also a natural byproduct of fermentation – so even wines with no added sulfites actually have naturally-occurring sulfites in them. If you have ever bought dried apricots at the supermarket, you have seen exactly what sulfite additions can do. The apricots with added sulfites are soft, orange-colored, and fresh tasting, while the ones without are brown in color, oxidized in flavor, and harder to chew.
Strict adherents to the “no additives whatsoever” philosophy must eschew sulfites entirely. Yet sulfites are a relatively harmless additive that have been used in wine for eons, albeit at varying levels. Many people claim to have sulfite allergies, yet medical research suggests that less than 1% of the population actually does. I can attest that, after tasting many wines that have no added sulfites, I tend to prefer the ones that do. Wines with no added sulfites rarely have the qualities that I would be proud to put on Pico’s list. They are frequently dirty tasting or “mousy,” they often lack good fruit character, and there is a tremendous amount of bottle variation. Needless to say, if I were spending $150 on a great bottle of Burgundy or Barolo, I would want a little more assurance that what I was purchasing would both taste good and be suitable for aging. .
That being said, many winemakers have made a commitment to using the bare minimum sulfite additions – just enough to keep their wines stable. Others also have a commitment to following good farming practices – organic, biodynamic, or sustainable – that assure the purity of the fruit that they are starting with, and a commitment to low-impact production. Furthermore, many of the winemakers who produce wines in small lots are able to give the kind of hands-on care to their wines to not only limit sulfite additions, but also to steer clear of any other kinds of chemical additions that many larger-scale, industrial-sized wineries do out of a matter of habit.
The winemaking team at Lumen has been committed all along to making wines with as little sulfites as possible, without sacrificing any quality in the finished product. Lane Tanner is one of those few people in the population with a sulfite allergy, and hence for the past thirty years she has perfected a winemaking regimen that uses the bare minimum of added sulfites. The amount of free sulfur in our finished wines is usually under 25 mg/l, which would qualify our bottles as natural wine under most standards. Almost all of our grapes come from vineyards who practice the utmost stewardship to the health of the environment: most of them are either certified sustainable, organic or biodynamic. In our winery we go even further, with hands-on care given to each bin and barrel, allowing us to make pure wines without any harmful chemical additives.
If you have a strong opinion about natural wine, and want a product that is pure and free of chemicals, don’t expect to find it on the supermarket shelves. Find the small-scale, family-owned wineries that are committed to making a superior product, like those of us at Lumen.
– Will Henry, Lumen Winemaker