June 08, 2010

Thinking about natural wine

I'm thinking about "natural" wine in preparation for writing a piece for Saignee's 32 Days of Natural Wine, which starts later this month. I struggle with what natural wine really is. Grape growing isn't very natural, at least with all the row planting, pruning, etc. Winemaking's even worse. Even a hands off approach requires lots of work or intervention. You still punch down or at least tread the frementing must. You separate the new wine and press the skins to get the rest. You might use sulfur dioxide. You store in vessels of one kind or another. You package it somehow. And that's the bare minimum.

Even most "natural" wine producers do more, in the name of producing something that tastes authentic to the grape, the place, the season. I guess that's really what natural wine is all about. I like Joe Dressner's quote from last year's 31 Days of Natural Wine. He wrote:

"What exactly is a natural wine? For me, it’s a wine that tastes like it fell off the vine and into a bottle, fermented, packed its bags and arrived in America."

But there it is - "and arrived in America." Why is it so much natural wine I read about on the internet is from Europe? Sure, there are lots more producers doing close to the earth stuff over there. But how natural is it to ship the thousands of miles here, presumably not on biodiesel or solar powered freighters, in reuasble packaging with a minimal carbon footprint? Not to mention their usual fragile state, with little or no sulfur dioxide that requires careful handling. Do these natural wines really travel well? Is it the point? Or does enough of the goodness in close to the earth wine production erode in transit, leaving a natural wine denatured?

Ok, no, not entirely. Natural wine can move. But what I want to write about is my passion. City wine. Natural, local city wine that I want to see happening in a much bigger way in Portland, Oregon. It's a movement for local, unpretentious wines that haven't traveled far, from producers who grow local grapes or who work with local growers to produce wines in the city (that latter more my model). To produce something here that tastes like it fell off the vine into a wine growler and didn't travel much further than my bike ride home from the city winery in my neighborhood, my winery or my neighbor's winery or any old body's winery. That's my natural wine dream. Is that crazy?


Tim Corliss said...

Far from crazy. Kevin Kelley at salinia is way ahead of the curve and seems to have similar thoughts as yours.

Vincent Fritzsche said...

Tim, I hadn't heard of Salinia. Thanks for that lead. Seems like the greater SF area and even Seattle are ahead of Portland on urban winemaking. I definitely want to change that.

Portland Charcuterie Project said...

You make it, and I'll drink it!!

Marshall Manning said...

It's pretty obvious to me that you can't make wine (at least under any sort of predictable method) without using some type of human intervention and technology. But I think there's a difference between intervention and natural wines.

I'd make the argument that natural wines should have nothing added to them other than yeast and minimal sulfur, be free of any sort of post-fermentation manipulation (de-alcoholizing, etc.), and be generally free of oak influence.

I often get a laugh at the producers who talk about minimal intervention and then use a ton of new oak on their wines. IMO, there's nothing more interventionist than adding flavors to a wine that aren't there in the first place.

Vincent Fritzsche said...

Marshall, I like your distinction between what's natural and what's intervention. Perhaps it's in the intent of the winemaker. Do you intend to show the grape, the place, the vintage? Or do you intend to cover things a little or a lot, to fix things, "correct" "problems," manufacture consistency? With that in mind, I'd still accept some seasoning of oak. Just depends on how much and for what purpose.

Michael Alberty said...

Can you have "natural wines" if the grapes are from irrigated vineyards?

Vincent Fritzsche said...

No, probably not. No "post harvest" irrigation either.