If you’ve been happily going through your life thinking that all wines are created equal, sadly – they’re not. On one hand you have the McDonalds of wines, the Yellowtails and Apothics, the antithesis? Natural wine. Erik Mercier, co-owner of Juice Imports, DipWSEt and Alberta’s most devoted natural wine champion answers five questions to help you better understand natural wine!
VS: Natural wine doesn’t have true definition (yet), what does the term mean to you?
EM: For myself, Natural Wine is a spectrum of wines that contain as few additives as possible without compromising the quality of the final product. Anything that doesn’t need to be used in winemaking is eschewed. The mantra is often “Nothing Added, Nothing Removed” as most Natural Wines are also unfined and/or unfiltered. To pull these two things off you need exceptionally healthy grapes which means paying more attention in the vineyard, better vineyard sites, and generally using organic practices. It’s primal, it’s pure, it’s a little rustic, and it’s wonderfully delicious.
Here’s an analogy:
Remember when your mom used to cook you steak? She wouldn’t necessarily buy the best cut but she would marinate that sucker in everything you could think of to give it flavor. She’d then proceed to overcook it (for safety, obviously). You’d then smother it in BBQ sauce to save the poor beast. And you know what? It tasted darn good! This is how many conventional wines are made: the addition and correction of flavors.
Natural wine on the other hand is how you’d cook a steak. You get the best cut you can find, season it with a little salt and pepper, grill it to perfection and skip the frilly garnishes. It’s primal, it’s pure, it’s a little rustic, and it’s wonderfully delicious.
VS: How does that make it different from wines most people are used to drinking?
EM: Mass produced wines (and even some premium ones) are often heavily manipulated and contain a handful of additives. These things don’t need to be included on the label and there are very few laws preventing wineries from doing whatever they’d like to their products before sale. For example, many conventional wines are given a healthy dose of sulphur at bottling as well as at every other step in the process whereas natural wines only receive a tiny amount of sulphur is often added only at bottling, for stability.
|Conventional Wine||Natural Wine|
|Often famed with systemic pesticides, herbicides, and artificial soil supplements||Often farmed sustainably, organically, or biodynamically|
|Exceptionally high yields for quantity||Low yields to ensure perfectly healthy, ripe and flavorful grapes|
|Often harvested by large machines||Always harvested by hand|
|Laboratory cultured yeasts and yeast nutrients added to the wine to start fermentation||Ambient yeasts from the air carry out fermentation|
|Color, flavor, tannin, acidity, enzymes and sugar are added||Nothing is added|
|The wine is fined using fish bladders or egg whites to make it clear||The wine is left to settle naturally, or bottled cloudy|
|The wine is sterile filtered, run through a reverse osmosis machine, and spun at super high speeds to remove certain flavors||Nothing is done to the wine|
|The wine receives a healthy dose of sulphur at bottling as well as at every other step in the process||A tiny amount of sulphur is often added only at bottling, for stability.|
VS: It’s a pretty hot topic, Calgary is starting to catch on, but it’s quite popular other places in the world. Natural wine obviously has roots dating back to the beginning of wine-making, but where/how did the modern era catch on?
EM: Natural Wine may not have caught on in Calgary yet, but all the top food cities in the world are rejoicing over these wines. Noma (the number one restaurant in the world) converted their wine list entirely to Natural Wines several years ago. The same can be said about Eleven Madison Park and other top restaurants around the world. Natural Wine Bars in Barcelona, London, Paris, and Tokyo are quickly out pacing their conventional counter parts. Like with fashion and music, it’ll take us a couple years to catch the wave, but I’m incredibly excited!
Natural Wine has always existed, but the 80s, 90s and 00s were all about ‘big flavor’ wines instead. We were demanding wines with high octane fruit and plenty of oak. These wines were admittedly delicious but it left some Sommeliers searching for wines that showed real local character. They ended up in the Jura, a gorgeous and secluded corner of France. Over the last 10+ years, this region and its wines have inspired legions of loyal followers: sommeliers, winemakers, and consumers. The cult spread like wild-fire, an underground cultural upheaval of the wine world.
The advent of new technologies (not unlike those that have made fast-food the center of our gastronomic universe) allowed us to mass produce these flavors. Coloring called Mega-Purple was added to give the illusion of depth; alcohols were artificially increased to add body and sweetness; tartaric acid was added to balance the jammy flavors; the wines were heavily filtered to make them consistently clear and shiny.
Although these wines are admittedly delicious, they tend to lack complexity, honestly and a sense of place. Sommeliers were getting fed up and started scouring the globe for wines with real local character, and drinkability. They ended up in the Jura, a gorgeous and secluded corner of France whose wines never changed to chase the trend of fruit-bombs. Over the last 10+ years, this region and its wines have inspired legions of loyal followers: sommeliers, winemakers, and consumers. The cult spread like wild-fire, an underground cultural upheaval of the wine world.
VS: How does is taste different? What can wine drinkers expect from a bottle of natural wine?
EM: There are a couple key sweeping generalizations I like to make about how Natural Wines taste.
- They tend to be lower in alcohol than conventional wines. These producers refuse to acidify their wines, so they need to pick grapes earlier which leads to less alcohol in the final product. This makes most of the wines really refreshing with zesty acidity.
- Natural Wines have flavors other than fruits. The complex array of yeasts and microorganisms that contribute to a Natural Wines fermentation mark the wine with an astonishing array of flavors. Many of these are best described as earthy, herbal, vegetal, or floral. Classic descriptors range from sage leaves, to juniper berries, to dried mushroom.
- The wines are seldom perfectly clear. Think of these wines as the equivalent of freshly squeezed orange juice; it’s not a flaw and these particles actually add texture and flavor to the wines making them feel alive.
There’s as much diversity (if not more) in these wines than in conventional wines so if you try one and don’t like it, don’t give up. Whether you like Chianti, or New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, there is a natural wine out there for you!
VS: If someone wanted to try a natural wine, what would be your recommendation?
EM: My ultimate recommendation is to try a bottle of Dirty & Rowdy Mourvèdre. It embodies everything I love about natural wine. The grapes come from sustainably/organically farmed vineyards in California. Whole bunches of grapes (stems and all) are fermented using completely wild yeasts before being aged in neutral oak barrels. Nothing is added other than a small amount of sulphur before bottling.
It’s two guys and their wives making a tiny amount of wine they truly believe in. They’re even using corks made from recycled sugarcane to reduce their environmental impact! No wonder they were just featured on the cover of Wine & Spirits Magazine. (GQ called it the number one wine to try in 2017).
Feel like you need more? Follow Erik, @juiceimports and look out for his wine, we even have some of the Dirty & Rowdy Mourvèdre on the shelf!