The Great “Natural” Wine Debate

Winelandia prides itself on it’s dedication to natural wine. What does “natural wine” mean, anyway? You will likely get a different answer from every wine professional you ask, along with alternating smugness and exuberance about the term. Our definition of natural wine is our own, and not everyone is going to agree with our stance on the topic.

Most people do agree on the fact that the term “natural wine” has no official definition. Many will describe it as a wine with “nothing added, nothing taken away”. A truly natural wine will be farmed organically, fermented with indigenous yeasts that occur naturally on the skins of the grapes, go through spontaneous malolactic fermentation, have no SO2 added at any stage in the winemaking process, be un-fined, and bottled without filtration. Grapes can make themselves into wine without much intervening from the winemaker, or in this case, the wine shepherd.

We, however, are a little more practical about the term. While we would always prefer to have wines made with nothing added and nothing taken away, most commercial winemakers choose to add or take away something at some point in the winemaking process. The more you manipulate a wine, the less natural it becomes, so one might imagine there’s a gradient for “natural wine” rather than it being an absolute. Here’s a list of manipulations we feel are relatively acceptable, when done conscientiously and with a light hand:

  • Small doses of SO2 at bottling to prevent oxidation and microbal growth
  • Sterile filtration of the wine to inhibit malolactic fermentation (as a stylistic choice) in white and rosé wines, rather than adding large doses of SO2
  • Occasional spraying of elemental sulfur in the vineyard during an unusually cold, wet season to prevent the growth of mold on the fruit
  • Natural cold-stabilization of wine from the ambient temperatures in the cellar

What would make a wine non-natural, in our opinion?

  • Farming with chemical fertilizers or chemical herbicides and pesticides
  • Chaptalization of unfermented juice to increase the alcohol content of the finished wine
  • Using laboratory-isolated commercial yeasts for primary fermentation
  • Using laboratory-isolated strains of malolactic bacteria to induce malolactic fermentation
  • Large, unnecessary doses of SO2 during the winemaking or aging process
  • The addition of enzymes to break down the skins of the grapes during fermentation
  • The addition of tannins, acids, or other “natural” compounds to alter the taste or texture of the wine
  • Any chemical additives that alter the taste, color, texture, or otherwise natural character of the wine
  • Unnecessary filtration or fining of wine to make it more visually appealing

Why is it that Winelandia prefers to sell wine that fits into our interpretation of “natural”? To start, we feel that every time you add or take something away from a wine, you are robbing it of nuance. If a winemaker adds tartaric acid to his wine because it was unusually hot that summer and the grapes were acid-deficient, then the wine is falsely representing the weather of it’s vintage. If he runs his red wine through a filter to try and make it a little more clear and visually appealing, he’s by-catching compounds that give it texture and complexity. If he uses commercial yeasts to make the wine taste a certain way, rather than using the natural yeasts that live in the vineyard or winery, the wine loses it’s sense of place. If he doses it heavily with SO2 for the sake of “playing it safe”, he is unnecessarily poisoning the wine and the consumer.

We also feel that it’s irresponsible to dump chemicals into our natural environment, whether it’s down the drain, through our bodies, or into the soil. Why use unnecessary chemicals or additives at all? Why not let the wine be as it is – sometimes more austere and bright, others a little fatter and round? Wine is a living, breathing, natural thing. I find it unnatural when a winemaker tries to manipulate it so that it pleases the palate of a particular critic, or to make it more “marketable”.

Sure, there are tons of conventional wines out there that people love and will continue to drink. Those are not the wines I chose to get into the wine business for. It was natural wine that tugged at my heart-strings, connected with my soul, and enamored me so fully that I left my comfortable career to pursue it. There aren’t many things in this world that move me so profoundly as a glass of wine that tastes like where it came from, a half a world away – or just an hour north on Highway 101.

Winelandia’s core business is a wine club featuring natural wines from all over the world at a reasonable price-point. For more information and to sign up, visit our Wine Club Signup Page.