If staying at home indefinitely has revealed anything, it’s that Americans sure love to drink. In fact, during the first few months of stay-at-home orders, alcohol purchases soared, with people stocking up on cases of wine, beer, and anything else needed to stock a bar cart—bar closures be damned.
For those who did, indeed, subscribe to liquor delivery services—perhaps finding a new favorite wine label in the process—you may have decided that it was time to actually do some research on natural wine, rather than simply pour yourself a glass. After all, you’ve probably been hearing about natural wine a lot more in the last few years, thanks to many sommeliers and wine bars putting this popular variety on menus. Luckily, there’s plenty of literature to dive into, but right now we’re into this easy-to-digest book from wine connoisseur Katherine Clary, “Wine, Unfiltered,” a book that’s geared toward both oenophiles and newbies alike.
Wine, Unfiltered: Buying, Drinking, and Sharing Natural Wine, $17.99 on Amazon
Her book explores the intricacies of natural wine, allowing readers to fully understand the wine they’re tossing back, with sections devoted to showcasing how natural wine is better for the environment and whether or not these bottles can actually prevent hangovers (you may be surprised!). Katherine also takes time to map out growing regions, provides tips on how to navigate wine shops, and offers advice on building your own wine cellar and how to host a (socially distant or Zoom) wine tasting party.
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Check out a sneak peak of the book below, where Katherine reveals her reasoning as to why everyone should drink natural wine. For one, she writes, all the grapes used for natural wine are harvested by hand, not by machine, and these very grapes are grown without synthetic pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides. Once you’re all caught up on the educational side of wine, you might as well treat yourself to a bottle. Luckily, we’ve got plenty of wine delivery options that’ll make quarantine that much easier to swallow.
Excerpted from WINE, UNFILTERED: Buying, Drinking, and Sharing Natural Wine by Katherine Clary. Copyright ©2020. Available from Running Press, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.
Today, the tenets of natural wine are not much different. Remember, tradition reigns in this camp. You’re not likely to see natural wine techniques evolve dramatically over the decades, because that’s really not what this sort of winemaking is about. And despite not having any legal definition or regulation, there is a general understanding about what practices natural winemakers follow in the vineyard and the cellar.
The guidelines below are by no means written in stone and are gathered from various sources throughout the world of natural wine, from the aforementioned Gang of Four all the way to present-day natural wine advocate, founder of RAW Wine Fair, and Master of Wine Isabelle Legeron. She shared her perspective on the wine she likes to drink: “My personal preference is to drink wines that are as close to 100 percent organic fermented grape juice as possible, which means no additions and nothing removed (no fining, no filtering) either. I can tolerate up to about 50 ppm total sulfites (or 50 mg/l—the two measurements are equivalent) for wines I drink, but ideally under 30 ppm is definitely preferable.”
A commitment to adding no synthetic chemicals and preservatives, including animal-derived enzymes.
Additives are put in wine for a variety of reasons: to give a wine more depth and body, to clarify or alter the color, and to add certain aromas or flavors, such as oak. Fifty (or more) ingredients other than grapes can end up in a single glass of wine. No wonder it’s so difficult to get ingredients added to a wine label—how would it all fit? For instance, in conventional winemaking isinglass is often used to fine, or clarify, the product. This is a kind of gelatin derived from the bladders of fish. Egg whites (or albumen) are also frequently used to mellow out red wines by absorbing harsh tannins as well as to fine a wine.
Made with grapes grown without synthetic pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides, otherwise organic (or noncertified organic).
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, in 2018, synthetic pesticide residue was found to be present on 83 percent of grapes grown in the United States. These chemicals have been linked to all sorts of illness and disease—and their presence isn’t just limited to the offending vineyard. The chemicals used in conventional vineyards are frequently found in adjacent properties after being carried over by the wind. (One winemaker I spoke to in California actually maintains the first two rows of a conventional vineyard that abuts his property to treat it as a “buffer” from the chemicals being sprayed). On the other hand, grapes grown naturally use nonsynthetic treatments to ward off insects, weeds, and disease, such as cover crops and plant-based sprays. Sulfur is also used as a spray in the vineyard to combat certain diseases, such as powdery mildew, and is considered a key fungicide in organic vineyards.
Only using native or indigenous yeasts.
Yeast is a crucial component in the fermentation process—when it’s added to or present on grapes early on in the winemaking process, it eats the fruit’s natural sugar and converts it to alcohol. Instead of the commercial or cultured yeast strains used in conventional wine, natural winemaking utilizes native—also known as indigenous, ambient, or wild—yeast that is already present in the cellar and on the grapes and their vines. By contrast, cultured yeast is typically used to kick off fermentation in conventional wines. It’s often employed by winemakers working with huge quantities because of its consistency and strength. Natural yeast is slower and more difficult to control, but it can contribute to more complex aromas and textures in a wine.
A minimal amount, if any, of added sulfur dioxide.
The presence of sulfites in wine is perhaps the most widely debated topic in the natural wine world, and most agree that the least amount possible is what winemakers should strive for. To be clear, sulfur dioxide is a natural by-product of fermentation, so there will always be trace amounts in wine. However, winemakers will also add sulfur to stabilize and preserve their wines at bottling, sometimes in excessive amounts. As for final sulfur levels in a wine, natural wine tends to have anywhere between zero and 30–40 parts per million.
Grapes must be harvested by hand, not machine.
There is a good reason behind the decision to hand-harvest grapes. Hand-harvesting allows winemakers to choose grapes that are at the optimal ripeness and condition for winemaking and lowers the likelihood of grapes being broken prior to fermentation, which can introduce bacteria and start fermentation earlier than preferred. Debra Bermingham of Bloomer Creek Vineyard (US) explained it this way: “Have you ever picked raspberries at a berry farm? If so, you know that not all of them are ready at the same time. You always want to pick the best berry, right? That’s how we feel about grapes. A machine would just pick everything, whereas we want to choose the best grapes for what we’re trying to do.”
No flash pasteurization.
Flash pasteurization is the process of heating up a wine dramatically in a heat exchanger to kill off bacteria, then cooling it down. As one might imagine, this kills a lot of the original qualities of a wine, and it’s not something that is permitted in natural winemaking.
Minimal to no filtration and no fining.
As I mentioned before, fish bladders (isinglass) and egg whites (albumen) are two substances used to fine, or clarify, conventional wines. However, fining and filtering have the unfortunate effect of stripping a wine of tannins and other molecules that can define its character. A conventional winemaker will typically filter a wine using various materials to remove sediment and dead yeast, which is discouraged in natural wine; that’s why you’ll often see sediment at the bottom of natural bottles.
No heavy manipulation or advanced technology in the cellar.
Cellar technology in modern winemaking arose in the 1960s and has only become more and more prevalent in the modern cellar. This includes reverse osmosis and spinning cone technology, which are both methods that can reduce alcohol levels in wine, and cold stabilization, which chills wines in order to keep tartaric acid crystals from forming after a wine has been bottled. (Natural winemakers will simply leave these crystals if they form—they’re harmless.)
This is the process of adding sugar to wine in order to spike alcohol levels and increase the its body. A winemaker will do this for multiple reasons, one being if the grapes are picked when they are underripe—often an issue from machine harvesting and not knowing what grapes you’re working with—and therefore unable to produce the desired alcohol levels or body in a wine.
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