I've been working with wine since I was 18 and I've seen plenty of trends and fads develop in the wine industry. I've never been much for predictions, but I really believe that consumer awareness of natural wine is about to hit a critical mass and take off. People may not have a really deep understanding of what the term and all it's variations mean, but they are starting to care and want to know more.
My career in the wine industry started when I was 18 and with my driving passion for terroir I seem to often find myself on the industry's leading edge. Years ago I was pouring dry rose down peoples throats when everyone still thought pink wine was sweet. I watched as my friend Tabitha (Crush Wines) rode the wave of Austrian Gruner Veltliner. While rose and Gruner are now accepted main stream wines I've seen plenty of other bubbles inflate and then burst. Some of the best examples of wine fads would be chocolate wine, Sideways Pinot Noir, and Central Coast Rhones (sadly some of my favorite wines).
Natural wine is a recently popularized term that means wines made with little or no chemical and technical intervention. Over the past 50 years all kinds of new chemical treatments and additives were created to make mass produced wine taste better. Some of the practices can be useful, but they're also easy to abuse. Natural wine is made with:
- organic or biodynamic agriculture
- no irrigation
- no commercial added yeast
- hand picked grapes
- no addition of sugar or acidity or tannin or color or flavor agents
- no manipulation such as watering the wine down or removing water through reverse osmosis
- very little or no addition of sulfur at the end
There's plenty of human intervention in natural wine making, but it's very primitive manual intervention such as pruning the vines extensively to allow more light to reach the grapes or hand sorting the harvested grapes to ensure only the best go into the wine. The goal is to make a more enjoyable, more alive, and more honest wine by stripping away all the modern tricks that have been developed over the years. Making wine in this hard core labor intensive way isn't easy but it's possible and the resulting wine can be amazing!
I'm putting my money (literally) on natural wine being the next Gruner Veltliner for a variety of reasons. Let me list some:
- People care a lot about where their food comes from and how it is grown. I always thought it was odd that people wouldn't apply the same concern and standards to what they drank. More and more people seem to finally feel the same way, or maybe I've just personally talked to enough of Portland's about it; either way consumers are more aware than they used to be.
- Retailers and restaurants are starting to get on board and promote natural wines. The Rosemont Markets and Joe Appel have made a big push to bring in and feature more of these wines. Whole Foods is working on rolling out a slightly different organization in it's wine area to feature more natural wines that aren't certified organic. Restaurant Bresca and the Farmer's Table focus their wine lists on natural wines.
- Natural wines seem to matter enough that large established wine publications such as Italy's Gambero Rosso are criticizing them as not classic or proper enough and creating even more attention in the process.
- Just the adoption of the term "natural wine" is a big deal. The term natural wine is several years old. People didn't just start making wine without chemical additives and machines a few years ago; this is how wine always used to be made! The practices of natural wine making kept being used by some wine makers because they just thought that was a better way to make wine. The term "natural wine" has been adopted because now it's an idea every body is talking about and thinking of in a different way.
- Other distributors are starting to get talk about natural wines too. Devenish may be on the leading edge of this, but other wholesalers are starting to talk about how natural their wines are. That's a big validation for me.