Consumers are increasingly choosing products based on the environmental impact on Mother Earth, and the largest companies on the planet have taken notice. Whole Foods is acquired by Amazon. Burger King offers the lab-originated Impossible Burger in all of its U.S. restaurants. And in the wine world, “natural wine” has become a fast-growing category. But what is “natural wine”? Defining this has proven to be anything but straightforward.
“Sustainable,” “organic,” and “biodynamic” are all terms used to describe farming methods. Various industry initiatives, such as the Sustainability In Practice (SIP) program here in California, set standards for reducing chemical use and carbon outputs and for protecting workers. Wineries that meet these and other standards can market their wines with a seal of approval.
While lowering water usage and providing childcare for harvest workers are certainly admirable practices, meeting these criteria does not ensure true sustainability, however. The use of even moderate quantities of chemical pesticides makes hollow a claim that a conforming farm’s practices are sustainable.
Biodynamic farming practices can be Demeter Certified. This decades-old association lays out principles for establishing a self-sufficient organic farm. In addition to abstaining from chemical treatments, grape growers must also apply certain treatments, such as chamomile, dandelion, and oak bark to their vineyards. There is a biodynamic calendar as well to indicate the appropriate time to complete vineyard work as well as when to harvest the grapes. While vineyards in certain climates may be more susceptible to disease and rot issues when farmed organically, more and more farmers are committing to these practices as they realize the importance of preserving the land for generations to come.
Most in the wine industry would agree that natural wine must start with organically grown grapes. Small vineyards often use entirely organic practices, but forgo the official certification process due to the associated costs.
Unless you are a wine drinker completely committed to wines from only the most hard-core “natural” winemakers, essentially every wine we drink has been treated with sulphur at some point. Since sulfites naturally occur in a vineyard and in the resulting wine in small quantities, they are permitted in organic farming where additional sulfites are often sprayed to reduce the risk of fungal disease. In winemaking they are almost always added to inhibit bacterial growth and prevent oxidation of the wine. The USDA, however, draws a distinction between wines produced with organic grapes and only naturally occurring sulfites and those produced from organic grapes and some added sulphur dioxide. The former can be labeled as “Certified Organic,” while the latter can be labeled as “Made With Organically Grown Grapes.”
Sulphur dioxide is found naturally in every living organism, but some people experience side effects and allergic reactions when exposed even to small quantities. However, Dr. Philip Norrie, one of the world’s most accomplished experts on wine and health, asserts that many more people have negative reactions to other compounds in wine, not sulfites. One common reaction to wine is a hangover. This is caused by dehydration due to alcohol and has no link to sulfites.
“Certified Organic” wines are commonly accepted as “natural wine.” While growing grapes as organically as possible is certainly a smart move, many people in the wine trade disagree as to whether abstaining from sulphur additions is a smart move as well. Scientific American has pointed out that sulphur has been used since Roman times to preserve the freshness of wine. James Beard Award-winning wine writer Madeline Puckette of the Wine Folly website says, “Essentially, sulfites act as a preservative for nearly all high-quality wines and, in most cases, are not a health concern.” For the last seventy years, however, a movement among winegrowers who make wine with miniscule amounts of sulphur or none at all has progressed, gaining more and more adherents in recent years. Alex Pomerantz is the winemaker and owner of natural winery Subject to Change who is responsible for this month’s Foot of the Bed Sauvignon Blanc. He says, “Our approach to wine growing and wine making is straightforward - we only work with organic vineyards and we do not manipulate the wines in the cellar. The reasons for our approach span from philosophical and environmental to cultural and stylistic.”
An early advocate was French winemaker and research scientist Jules Chauvet, who became a proponent of wines made without sulphur in the 1950s. Several of his disciples from the Beaujolais wine region continued to spread the gospel. Industry observers have noted that the number of people making wines without sulphur or sans soufre, as the French would say, has greatly increased in just the last six to eight years. While the wine-drinking public has become fascinated with these wines, not everyone is in love with the unique flavor profile that they sometimes show.
Without the addition of at least some sulphur, bacteria in wines can grow more quickly, producing a compound called volatile acidity, or VA, which is responsible for aromas reminiscent of Magic Marker or even nail polish remover. A yeast called Brettanomyces can flourish as well, leading to a musty or barnyard-like aroma. There has been discussion too about the presence of “mouse” or “mousiness” in natural wines, an off-putting smell linked to sulphur-free winemaking. While some natural wine proponents may argue that these distinct notes add complexity to a wine rather than make it flawed, essentially every iconic winery from Burgundy to Napa, from Mosel to Marlborough, continues to make what most would say are harmless sulphur additions in varying quantities in order to ensure their wines are free of these aromas.
And so the natural wine movement continues to gain steam. Michael Tusk, the chef of Michelin three-star restaurant Quince in San Francisco opened Verjus in 2019, a wine shop and restaurant dedicated to showcasing natural wines from all over the world. Natural wine fair RAW WINE was founded in 2012 and now has shows each year in many cities, including Montreal, London, Berlin, and Miami. I attended their events in New York in 2018 and Los Angeles in 2019, venues absolutely packed with sommeliers, wine writers, natural wine enthusiasts, and the curious. The RAW WINE charter sets a maximum amount of sulfites in a wine, and also sets out requirements for organic viticulture, hard-harvesting of grapes, and refraining from filtration. Essentially, it is a group of winemakers committed to adding nothing and manipulating nothing in their winemaking.
At Foot of the Bed Cellars, we have worked with numerous producers over the years who are widely recognized for their hands-off approach to winemaking, including their decision to add little, if any, sulphur. These wines work for our program for several reasons. We are committed to wines grown sustainably, if not organically. We are committed to working with wines from small, family-owned wineries exclusively. And we remain committed to releasing at $15 per bottle the very best American wines available.
Because natural wines lack sulphur as a preservative, they are almost always ready to be consumed once bottled. In fact, many natural wine producers showcase even their red wines in clear bottles, rather than the traditional, almost universally used green bottles intended to protect red wines from sunlight as they age for a period of time. The French often refer to these fresh, fruity wines as “Glou Glou” wines, which would translate to “glug glug.” There is even a Glou Glou magazine dedicated to these gulpable, naturally made wines. We believe that more often than not, the profile of these wines is bright and refreshing, far from flawed. As a sommelier who spent a decade working with ageable wines from classic wine regions, often grown sustainably but treated with generous doses of sulphur, I find these new flavor profiles fun and exciting. We at Foot of the Bed Cellars continue to be honored to get to work with so many cutting-edge winegrowers and to be a part of the larger movement.
Noel Diaz is the winemaker and owner of Purity Wine, the winery in Richmond where our Foot of the Bed wines are bottled. I asked him what it was like starting a brand-new, natural winery. He said, “I guess I decided on a natural winery as a discipline to set aside my fears, fears that I couldn’t get enough other like-minded wine makers to help support the expense of the place, and as a way to force me not to diverge from my ideal of working naturally.”
He continued, “If I can produce and promote unadulterated wines, enjoyable wines, maybe I can be a part of a movement that expresses in a positive way how we treat our planet.”