Pétillant Naturels: The Natural Wine Renaissance
By Laura Poe | Photos By Jim Klousia 0
The wine world is going through a renaissance not unlike that of the local food movement. Natural wine is growing its following all over the country. Restaurants and media that have typically focused on food or beer are turning their focus to natural wine. Consumers who want to connect with what they eat and drink are now finding wines that express terroir, offering diversity and personality unlike the commercial wines many are used to.
The definition of “natural” wine is a bit cloudy, like many of the wines themselves. The term generally refers to low intervention methods in grape-growing (good farming practices are central to natural wine) and in the wine’s production. Yet there is currently no official certification deeming wine as “natural.” Until there is an agreed upon definition, you may not see a label marking the wine as natural, even if made with low intervention methods. It is up to the producers to decide what practices are right for them, from growing and harvesting to processing and bottling. They tend to fall somewhere on a spectrum of intervention. On one end is wine made from grapes that are grown organically or biodynamically, but there may still be commercial yeast or sulfites added. There are certifications for these, which can be a label to seek out when shopping. At the more extreme end of the spectrum, the wine is not only made with naturally grown grapes, but also has no added sulfites or other chemical interventions. These are often fermented using wild yeasts, and some are even unfiltered, leaving sediment or yeast particles reminiscent of kombucha in the glass. Many wines considered “natural” fall somewhere between these two points, having little mechanical or chemical intervention. With no improvements made to the end product, it can be flawed, though this certainly is not to be expected in every bottle. Proper care during the winemaking process can avoid most flaws, giving an advantage to smaller vineyards and winemakers over large, commercial ones.
As a nutritionist and fermentation nerd, the use of wild yeasts and fewer chemicals caught my attention. From a health perspective, there is a benefit to natural over commercial wines. As with any produce, when the grapes are grown organically without chemicals, the resulting wine will not contain pesticide residues, which can have lasting effects on the vineyard, the farmers and the wine drinkers. The land is given more consideration when responsible viticulturists are growing the grapes, and it comes through not only in the wine, but also in the wellbeing of the environment. Besides agricultural chemicals, there may be a benefit to omitting other chemical interventions as well. Some people experience headaches and other ill effects such as allergy symptoms from the sulfites and other additives in more processed wines, which may be avoided when these are not added.
When wine is fermented naturally, it is made using only the yeasts that are inherently on the grapes and in their environment. The resulting product is alive, providing beneficial microbes that are associated with improved digestion, immune function and more. See, wine is healthy after all!
Being made in a noncommercial way makes these wines full of flavor, often having a more complex mouthfeel. Many have a refreshing, sometimes sparkling quality that pairs well with food. There is also a huge variety of natural wines since they can be made from any kind of grape grown in any region. In addition to the classic reds and whites, you can find wine made using a method called “skin contact,” which can create a range of unique colors. This is created when white grapes are left to ferment with their skin on, creating a chemical reaction that turns the wine a beautiful orange or light pink. Those who are already familiar with wine may find new areas to explore beyond their usual favorites or whatever is on the grocery shelf.
Although a social media search will overwhelm you with pictures of orange-colored wine and artsy labels, don’t think of natural wine as a fad; it is backed by tradition and substance. Intervention has been replaced with skill and care to produce high-quality wines. These lower intervention methods are not new to winemaking, as many continue to make natural wine as they always have, but the awareness is growing. Consumers have an increasing desire to know more about where their wine comes from, which raises demand for a a less commercial product. This parallels the farm-to-table food movement, where foodies and farmers alike, valuing diversity over homogeneity, are pushing the trend forward.
In the Madison area, there is a wealth of resources on natural wines and plenty of places to purchase and drink them. Pétillant naturel, French for “naturally sparkling” (or pét-nat if you want to sound savvy) is what to ask for when you go into your local wine shop. Or play it safe and ask for “natural wines,” and they will steer you in the right direction. Because the label will not always indicate the natural-ness of the wine, building relationships with the folks at wine shops can be the best way to experience these wines and learn about particular vineyards and winemakers. These people really care that you drink good wine and enjoy it. Andrea at Square Wines has an incredible amount of knowledge and passion to share about natural wine, and she carries a lot of these bottles at her shop. At Cork and Bottle, they will talk to you all night about pét-nats, including their trips to Europe to meet the farmers and winemakers. I went to Square Wine, Table Wine, and Cork and Bottle and was pointed to great selections for under $30, so natural wine does not always have to mean expensive.
Importers like Louis Dressner and Kermit Lynch offer many natural, low-intervention wines and are bringing many of them to local wine shops and restaurants. Make note of a few natural-focused importers and look for them on the label as an indicator of a more natural product. Trish at Field Table in Madison only puts organic and naturally made wines on her list, so you know that you are getting carefully selected wine to go with your thoughtfully sourced meal. She works with importers to curate a wine list that reflects her commitment to sustainable foods. Restaurants that emphasize the sourcing of their food will also reflect this on their wine list. Local food destinations such as Merchant, Pig in a Fur Coat, L’Etoile, Sardine and Brasserie V all carry a variety of natural wines for you to pair with their fantastic meals. Forequarter even hosts Super Naturel Mondays, where they offer specials that feature pét-nats paired with delicious appetizers.
Just like knowing who grew your tomatoes or raised your beef, learning about the grape growers and winemakers is becoming more important to buying wine. Make friends with the experts at your local wine shop, and the next time you visit a restaurant or bar with a great wine list, ask about the pét-nats and enjoy a glass with your locally grown meal. These are the best ways to get connected to a wine that is as natural as you want and one that you’ll love to drink.