Separating Fad from Future in Natural Wine

As the natural wine movement enters its second generation, the techniques and principles that define it are changing. Alice Feiring talks to some of natural wine's icons about now-popular techniques—from cold carbonic maceration to clay aging—and what they believe to be fad, or the way of the future.

“There is no so such thing as natural wine because wine without intervention would turn to vinegar.” This is the predominant argument against the premise of natural wine. It’s true. And it would be damning if the definition of natural wine was, in fact, that it made itself.

But even the Japanese farmer Masanobu Fukuoka—famous for what some refer to as “do-nothing farming”—never meant to suggest that a farmer should be absent from the action. The same tenets hold with winemaking. To transform grape into wine is not a Jesus act—there is no magical staff, no Moses. In fact, remove miracles from the debate. A winemaker must be meticulously clean, a skillful, careful observer and above all, make the right decisions to achieve his or her goal: a palatable (if not delicious) wine. In the case of natural wine, that merely means that the winemaker is trying to achieve that goal without additives (with the exception of small amounts of sulfur dioxide) or unnecessary processing. Intervention is needed, even if the ultimate goal is minimizing it.

As natural wine grows up—and the discussion of it grows along with it—we’ve begun to understand it as a perspective on winemaking dictated by certain principles and philosophies that are evolving. Not only is there greater education about how it’s made and what it stands for, but more advanced discussions among winemakers about how not only to do less to a wine, but improve its stability along the way.

Most of these discussions involve technique. And like any subculture of winemaking, there are debates about what techniques—from cold carbonic maceration to skin contact to the use of clay aging vessels—will be discarded as fad, and what will be upheld as part of the future of the genre.

With this as the backdrop I asked some of the icons of natural wine—Éric Texier, Thierry Puzelat of Clos du Tue Bœuf, Luca Ferraro of BeleCasel and Elisabetta Foradori of Foradori—to help me take a look at the techniques now popular in their world, what they believe to have staying power and why.

+ Infusion

Infusion, which was merely a whisper last spring, has become a cacophony this past winter. But what does it actually mean? Rhône winemaker Éric Texier said that he feels he might have been the first to use the term to describe “the opposite of extraction”—or the process of trying to glean as much color and flavor from a grape as it can feasibly give. Instead of routinely punching the grape skins down during fermentation to get as much texture and color out of them, infusion is more passive. Texier likens the technique to making tea—or to the trend toward lighter roasted coffees, which combine an intensity of citrus and floral flavors without the bombast and girth of a darker roast. “Over-extracted tea,” he says, “leads to a lack of definition and finesse.” Similarly, according to Texier, “great grapes don’t need extraction in order to give the best they have to give,” he says. “Rayas [the legendary Châteauneuf-du-Pape producer] is a perfect example: it’s a wine of insane complexity and deepness without volume.”

Fad or future?
Jury’s out. While the word is trending, at present it’s more an example of the continued paradigm shift towards wines of more elegance and drinkability (with resorting to carbonic maceration) than anything else.

+ Cold Carbonic Maceration

Carbonic maceration is the fermentation technique synonymous with Beaujolais that yields wines with a distinct fruitiness. It refers to placing whole clusters (or intact berries) into a vat, filling it with CO2 and closing it up. Fermentation then starts inside of the grape in an inert environment. But some throw dry ice into the ferment for the CO2 addition, resulting in what’s called “cold carbonic,” a technique often used in natural winemaking in order to maintain cool enough temperatures to avoid problems with volatility or stuck fermentations. As a bonus, it helps produce a wine of ethereal texture and intense aromas of cinnamon and roses. But that’s the problem, for some. The technique, which has become common among natural wines from all over the world, is being argued as the source for a growing “sameness” in some of the wines. This has caused many in the wine world to suggest that cold carbonic masks terroir—or the ability of a wine to reflect the grape and place it’s grown.

Éric Texier only recently allowed himself the luxury to play with this technique to make more playful wines like his L’Indigène Sulfureux Yelen—a fruity, easy-to-drink syrah. He speaks for a growing number of natural winemakers when he says that, “It’s an efficient technique with which to make natural wines but gives such strong aromatic signatures that the result often shows more of the technique itself than the terroir, except in very specific combinations, such as gamay and grenache on granite [as in Beaujolais or Languedoc-Roussillon, respectively], or poulsard in the Jura.”

Fad or future?
More cliché than fad, this technique has become a default method of production for many, partly because it’s cheaper, easier and shorter than conventional fermentations. The future may not yield an eradication of cold carbonic, but rather a greater understanding of when and where it works best. As more producers question its imprint on the wines—and can afford to make wines differently—we will likely see more of them opting out of it in an effort to produce wines of greater diversity and structure.

+ Zero Sulfur

In the natural wine world low sulfur is a prerequisite, but there’s a more hardcore subset that would rather sell their mothers into slavery than add a drop of SO2 to their wines. While the goal and conviction is admirable—and the results can sometimes be brilliant—complete adherence to dogma can be disastrous. Never one to hold back his opinions, Éric Texier sums it up like this: “In case of difficult vintage and problematic sorting no sulfur is stupid, and can lead to even stupider results.”

Fad or future?
The “no or low” debate remains a divisive subject within the natural wine world. As we head into the second generation of natural winemaking, the increase in experience and knowledge may yield more high-quality zero-sulfur wines, but currently the adherence to no sulfur at all costs teeters on the edge of fad.

+ To disgorge or not to disgorge?

In the world of bubbly wine, there’s an increasing number of cloudy bottles out there—particularly among pétillant naturel (or “pét-nat” an ancient method of making sparkling wine wherein the still wine is bottled before it completes fermentation, finishing inside the bottle and trapping the CO2, which leads to a gentle bubble), pét-nat-style cider and col fondo prosecco. Their producers willfully choose not to “disgorge,” or remove the dead yeast cells (lees) that form in the bottle after the wine finishes its second fermentation. Is this simply meant to show “naturalness” or is there a real positive difference? Or at least a history? All of the above.

Last year Andy Brennan of Aaron Burr Ciders held a tasting of disgorged and non-disgorged ciders. The cloudy, non-disgorged cider actually tasted more complex, deeper and livelier. He ultimately decided to release it, saved himself the very messy work of getting rid of the lees and hoped the public would accept it in all of its cloudy glory. (They did.)

Luca Ferraro who makes prosecco under the label BeleCasel label points to history as the impetus for his decision to make bottle-fermented col fondo (which translates to “with its bottom” or colloquially to “with its sediment”) prosecco. In fact, prosecco made in the more dominant charmat method—wherein fermentation happens in tanks, yielding fruity, sometimes insipid wines—only became pervasive in the region in the 1980s. Before that, most prosecchi were made in the col fondo style. According to Ferraro there’s even a local saying: “Cloudy wine is better than clear water.” And he says that there is also “a ritual of splitting the last part of the bottle with the sediments as a genuine digestif after the meal.”

This practice of leaving the lees in bottle, however, can backfire if a winemaker isn’t clean and careful. “Lees can make a wine reductive,” says Thierry Puzelat referring to the dirty or sulfurous smells that can be off putting. “You have to have clean lees; If not you’ll end up with a disaster, and in that case it’s better to disgorge.”

Fad or future?
While the shaking up the bottle to integrate the lees before pouring is a fad (and you lose quite a bit of wine due to the foaming), the pét-nat style of sparkling wine has spread from France all the way to California. As such, these cloudy, gently bubbly wines are becoming more widely accepted. And in the case of the prosecco region—which has come to be dominated by more commercial winemaking practices over the last few decades—the continued embrace of col fondo looks like a step back to the future.

+ Skin Contact

Making white wines as if they were red by macerating them on their skins—resulting in what is referred to as “orange wine”  that can range in color from blush to full-out amber—has been with us since the beginning of wine, but has seen a significant resurgence over the past decade. Beyond changing color, it alters the flavor and texture of a wine, often promoting savory aromas and tannins that could rival a red wine. For some countries—like Georgia, Slovenia and Croatia—this tradition evolved as a matter of practicality for those who aim to make white wine without sulfur, as the tannins in the skins act as something of an anti-oxidant, as well as a way to add tension to wines that might lack acidity. The con? The argument against skin contact is similar to the cold carbonic debate, in that many believe that it obscures terroir, yielding wines that express technique over place.

Fad or future?
Used indiscriminately, the results are often hard, tannic and dull, making it easy to dismiss the dogs in the group as fad. But “orange wine” is a style of white wine that has been around for 8000 years or more, and while the wines made in this way—either out of necessity or tradition—may remain very niche, they’re are back for good. 

+ Clay Vessels

Most people working naturally are generally living lean and don’t have the means to throw out money on the latest fermenting vessel. But the choice can impact everything from taste to the stability of the wines. Clay fermentation vessels, often referred to as amphorae—which have been around since Roman times, when they were mostly used for storage of wine—made their comeback in Europe in 2000, thanks to Josko Gravner in Friuli. Unlike wood, if the clay is of high quality and cured and maintained well, it shouldn’t impact flavor—i.e. it’s neutral. After seeing them in use while traveling in Georgia (the country with the longest unbroken tradition of making wine in clay vessels, which they call qvevri) Gravner brought some back to Italy, where the practice of fermenting and aging in them slowly spread.

Today there’s a clay revival from California to Austria to the Loire Valley. The most troublesome part of the using clay vessels, which many bury in the ground in the Georgian-style, is the difficulty in cleaning them. However, some winemakers, like Elisabetta Foradori in Italy’s Trentino, use smaller, unburied clay vessels, which have helped make the practice more manageable.

After switching to clay, Foradori says that her wines “found themselves earlier,” meaning that they found a certain stability and depth faster than when she made her wines in barrel. But she cautioned that not all clay is created equal. Because of the increase in demand for clay aging vessels, she suggested that the quality is not universal. But if the clay used is indeed of high quality she believes it’s “a means to translate a pure and essential voice of terroir in a wine.”

Fad or future?
Some regions such as Slovenia, Croatia and Georgia are reclaiming their past and installing clay vessels; it’s in these places that they have the greatest long-term potential for exclusive use. Individual winemakers outside of these countries will continue to will play with them, and ultimately the use of clay as one of several aging options within a winemaker’s cellar may well become commonplace.

Alice Feiring produces The Feiring Line Newsletter, a natural wine publication. Her book on Georgia's wine renaissance will be published by University of Nebraska Press in early 2016. She is also the author of The Battle for Wine and Love: or How I Saved the World from Parkerization (2008), and Naked Wine (2011). When she's not in the vines or writing for publications such as the New York Times or Omnivore, she can be caught playing button accordion and fiddle poorly and, in the spring, dancing Morris. She lives in New York.