It is in Berlin, a city with no real wine history to speak of, that I first heard the term natural wine and I haven’t stopped hearing it since. Natural wines have taken over the landscape of trendy restaurants all over the city. I have tried many of them, liked some of them, but still couldn’t quite figure out what they really were about. They seemed to be one of these new trends, like chia puddings, avocado toasts, or zucchini pasta, which sacrifice all pleasurable excesses for health’s sake. What I have found instead are people who are truly passionate about a product that actually puts craftsmanship and authenticity back in central place.
The definition for natural wine is vague and confusing to say the least. As of today, there are no real classification or organizational body to unify the different producers of natural wines. Marco Callegari, the sommelier and owner of Cantine Sant’ Ambroeus, a wine shop in Prenzlauer Berg, laments this lack of structure.
He is the representative in Germany of the Italian Association of Sommelier and he struggles to navigate between the different wine makers he works with. They have similar philosophies but can’t seem to find common working grounds. “There are different visions and sensibilities when it comes to natural wines,” he said. “I have a lot of respect for the different souls that exist in the world of natural wine and I hope that with time we can have a big concept where all the winemakers are together and bounded by rules, because without rules we are nothing.”
However, most agree on some basic elements. Natural wines are wines farmed biologically or biodynamically where the fruit is harvested by hand. The wine maker does not use any additives nor enzymes to help during the wine making process. The wine is preferably not filtered and very little, if any, sulfites are added. Most importantly, making natural wine is a philosophy rather than a method.
Ironically, it is France and Italy that hold the majority of natural wine makers. These two very traditional wine countries have pioneered the field but without necessarily advertising the term. Jan Hugel, the sommelier of the restaurant Industry Standards and the natural wine bar Wild Things, explained that state rules are very restrictive in both France and Italy for wines. In order to maintain the controlled appellation of origin, which allows the wine to be called by the name of its region, the winemakers have to abide to laws, which highly limit the creativity of their wines. This is not the case with natural wines. “With natural wines, you need to be able to adapt to every situation that comes without being certain of the result.”
The most successful natural wine producers are those who decided to steer away from this tyranny and take a more artisanal approach to wine making. “When you start making a wine by yourself from beginning to end, when you put your soul in your wine, at some point, naturally, you stop adding stuff to it,” said Hugel.
In Germany, despite a growing market of natural wine consumers, producers are quite reluctant to the method. Hugel blames it on the very German concept of uncertainty avoidance. Making a natural wine is being in perpetual uncertainty, and this is a bit, well, un-German.
Hugel first discovered natural wines in Paris in a place called le Baratin about eight years ago. He fell in love with the complexity and variety of aromas you can find in natural wines, versus the uniformity of traditional wines. “To me the greatest wines of the world are natural wines, which doesn’t mean that all natural wines are great wines.”
Antonis Askitis, 37, is a bit more skeptical when it comes to natural wines. He is one of Germany’s top sommeliers and the owner of D’vine, a restaurant that quickly established itself as one of the reference points in terms of food and wine in the city. Wine to him is everything; it is his work and his passion. “Wine is like music or art,” he explained. “It touches all the different senses.”
To him, the term natural wine is thrown around a bit too casually. “Natural wine is very in right now”, he told me. “A lot of people are talking about it, few people understand it and even less drink it.” His main criticism is that since the rules are blurred for natural wines, they tend to be a higher tolerance for badly produced wine.
“Sometimes I meet people and they show me natural wines. And when I say it is not drinkable because it has too many mistakes, they answer, ‘but this has to be like this.’ To this I say ‘no, sorry, we cannot discuss a wine that has mistakes.’ Natural wine can be a bit murky or have a particular smell but no mistakes.”
This also seems to be the opinion of Arnaud Lacombe, the owner of Vivant, a restaurant/wine bar in Paris that exclusively serves natural wines. He admits that often in the restaurant some producers present wines that are absolutely undrinkable and justify the taste by saying it is natural. “This is what we call the wine made by punk with dogs,” he joked. It is not because it is natural that it’s good, but the thought process is better. Basically, it is better to drink a bad natural wine than a bad traditional wine filled with crap.
However, to him, when a natural wine is good, it is very good. There is a lot more merit to make a good wine with natural methods than by using supplements and pesticides. “Making a Grand Cru naturally is like winning the Tour de France without doping,” he said.” It’s rare but a lot more rewarding. “You have to be particularly skilled to make a good natural wine.” He considers the best wine makers to be the ones whose knowledge is old school but the wine is clean. This is for example the case of Romanee Conti et Prieuré Roch, both recognized as some of the most prestigious vineyards in France, but they have been making their wines almost completely naturally for many years.
It seems that all agree to say that the recent hype around the term natural is beside the point. Generally, there is a will to go towards things that are more authentic, more rooted and less industrial but that is rather for the consumer’s sensibility. What matters to respectable winemakers is to make good wine and good wine requires honesty whether the method is strictly natural or not. The term natural wine might be trendy but in the end a true wine maker is a bit of a natural wine maker by default, because he is honest and values and respects the earth he works on.
This goes back to something Askitis said about some of the best natural wine makers like the Domaine Ganevat in Jura or Nikolaihof in Austria, “They really produce very high quality wines, and have been doing it forever and they don’t really talk about it, they just focus on making high quality wine.”
In the end wine is a matter of passion and sensibility and no one can talk about it better than Marco Callegaro, who speaks of wine like a poet describes his muse. His wine shop is small but quaint and holds an impressive quantity of bottles, all exclusively coming from Italy and eighty percent made naturally.
The twenty remaining percent are wines which might diverge in some ways from the precise natural criteria but are made honestly. “Wine is like religion,” he said. “It is stupid to have a dogmatic vision.” With recent climate changes and an increase in devastating bacteria it is becoming more and more difficult for wine makers to be completely clean. “Sometime I think we also have to accept the fact that some wine makers use a bit of chemicals to survive as long as they maintain a sensibility and responsibility. The problem is when people use the chemicals because it is easy and they can make a lot of money.”
He also told me about a wine maker he particularly respects named Eugenio Barbieri. Barbieri is in his last year of producing wine because his grapes are being destroyed by bacteria that are sweeping through Lombardy. He could preserve his fields by using chemicals but he would rather disappear than betray his moral. To Callegaro he is a sort of Joan of Arc, “He accepts to die as a respect to his sensibility.”
In homage to this man of principle, Callegaro opened one of Barbieri’s bottles of red wine called Rairon, a one hundred percent Uva Rara from 2007. “I would say 80% of the sommelier would consider this wine not correct,” he explained. “It is not a clean wine, it is not filtered, but it relates to sensibility.” To him wine and people are the same. “Maybe a woman is not the most beautiful or the smartest, but it’s the woman that you want and you are satisfied because it is the one who is perfect for you.”
At first the wine didn’t really seem to be the woman I will fall in love with. Its smell was very strong, similarly to a port and for a second I thought it would burn through my empty stomach. At the first sip all worries dissipated. The wine was incredibly smooth and complex at the same time. There was a sweet note, which faded almost immediately to give room to some kind of woodiness. It was beautiful. Like nothing I had tasted before but something that I wanted to keep drinking for the rest of my life. After a minute of meditative silence, Callegaro finally spoke, “Without sensibility we are nothing.”
Image: Natural Exports