It’s only natural

By Alice Feiring.

Over a dozen years ago I discovered a winemaking world in France where the ideal was to work with one additive, organic grape.

All it took was one of the very early wines from Jean Marie and Theirry Puzelat, the Gamay from Clos du Tue-Boeuf. I walked through the looking glass and never turned back.

While there are 200 legal additives allowed, the wines I fell for had one ingredient alone, grape. In fact they were made under the overarching philosophy of nothing added or taken away. They were not shaped or adjusted. They were the free-range chicken wine equivalent. In the glass the wines were vibrant, fresh, compelling. They spoke to me. But of late, this lovely genre has been under attack. Turns out making wine without especially, yeast and bacteria is controversial. The tipping point in particular is sulfur. Critics claim that without sufficient amounts, wine will spoil.

It’s a matter of taste, not necessarily dogma. After all, I prefer crinkled and brown dried apricots to the bright, plump orange ones. Sulfur in winemaking or in food preservation acts similarly, as an anti-microbial and anti-oxidant. Wine or apricots, I choose the low to no sulfur route. Anyway, it is an element that can be grossly overused. Legal amounts are up to 350 ppm. Biodynamic wines allow up to 100 ppm, and those who work naturally use between 0-35 ppm, and not during the winemaking process. People like Frank Cornelissen on Mt. Etna whose wines have a cult-like following is clear on his position, “I hate sulfur.”

Some have a little more tolerance, like Hank Beckmeyer of La Clarine Farm, Sierra Foothills, California, who uses a bit. “I have found that sulfur can focus a wine, sometimes. Just a touch of it can snap a fuzzy wine into shape. It also can dampen aromas, so you’ve got to be careful about using it. I rarely add more than 20 ppm,” he says.

Naysayers be damned, natural wines are huge in Scandinavia, Brussels, Holland, Japan, North America and the UK. There is even a natural wine importer in the Ukraine and another in China. And though the nexus of winemakers are still in France, many vignerons are at work in Italy, Spain, Georgia, Austria and even the United States. As with organic food, the demand is greater than the supply.

The reason I love them is the same reason I love heirloom tomatoes, white truffles or bitter chocolate; they have exceptional flavour, complexity, and surprise. To borrow a theater analogy, they break the fourth wall. They cause reaction. One of my favorite reactions came from a friend who said to me, wide-eyed at a Parisian café, after tasting a Riesling with absolutely no sulfur added from Pierre Frick of Alsace, and yet another wine called 100% from Julien Courtois of the Loire, “I think this is the way wine used to taste.”

The ex-dining critic of the New York Times burst out laughing after a sip, then bought a case. A reader of mine, in rural Kentucky of all places, can no longer drink his ex-favorite, J. Lohr Cabernet, and he also just bought his passport.

In the end, I am certain that the problem isn’t really with the sulfur but with the wines new-found mainstream popularity. As long as they were fringe, they posed no threat. But now they are no longer overlooked or undiscovered, they are driving a growing market sector.

They are game changers.

The more conventional wine world has to deal with a newly informed public who question winemakers and sommeliers about yeast or sulfur or the use of reverse osmosis, for example, when choosing a wine. As this continues, conventional wines might actually go the way of BHT in milk. The supermarket wine won’t all of the sudden go natural, but they may use fewer additives, they might be forced to farm more organically, and that paradigm change is not necessarily so bad for the consumer.

So, I understand the reaction from the producers. Change is always painful. When you make 5,000,000 bottles instead of a mere 20,000, making wine with no additives can be difficult, especially as large production wines have to be more universal and mainstream in taste. On the other hand, the natural wine drinker is a niche market. We have desire for wines that go beyond cookie-cutter. Adventure is worth the price of admission.

But be forewarned, if you, as a drinker, walk through that door with us. Falling for these wines could forever make you question what is in your glass, and that is not such a bad thing at all.

Alice Feiring is an enfant terrible of the wine industry, a James Beard Foundation, Louis Roederer Award-winning journalist whose blog,, was named one of the seven best by Food & Wine Magazine. Formerly the wine/travel columnist for Time and the Wall Street Journal Magazine, she writes for the New York Times, Newsweek, Saveur, World of Fine Wine, among many others. Her first book, The Battle for Wine and Love or how I saved the world from Parkerization, was translated into French and Spanish where she had her share of centerfold coverage. Her second book Naked Wine was released in the fall of 2011. She lives in New York City in an ancient tenement and has that city’s most famous plumbing.