The definition of natural wines can be a little, well, cloudy. Unlike organic or biodynamic practices, there isn’t an official certification process or even an agreed-upon set of standards, but essentially, these wines have as little as possible added or taken away – if anything at all.
To that end, natural wines are typically produced with very low intervention from the winemaker and as little sulfur dioxide as possible. “This makes the winemaking process exponentially more difficult, as it opens winemakers up to bacterial, fungal and oxidative risks, but the end result is wines that are sharper, more tart and more pungent,” says Andrey Ivanov, advanced sommelier at Reeds American Table in Maplewood, Missouri.
The buzzword has gained popularity over the past decade, but natural wines are certainly nothing new. Natural winemaking is at the root of European tradition and the approach remains popular in France, Italy, Portugal and Austria, but now, more and more American winemakers are getting in on the game.
Closer to home, Claverach Farm in Eureka, Missouri, is one of the few regional wineries producing natural wines. Farm manager and winemaker Sam Hilmer says Claverach uses what he considers a fusion of radical natural methods and low-impact conventional techniques to produce primarily still rosé and white, red and rosé Pétillant Naturel wines. Also known as Pét-Nats, these wines are produced using méthode ancestrale, the oldest-known method of making sparkling wine. The fermenting juice is bottled before completion, capturing carbon dioxide in the bottle to create a naturally sparkling wine that presents the primary fruit aromatics with a yeasty complexity from the bottle fermentation. Due to that yeast, these wines tend to be a bit cloudy, not unlike bottle-conditioned beers. “I personally only drink natural wines because they have a soul and a story, are often made by small family operations, and most of all, can be delicious to drink,” Hilmer says.
First and foremost, Hilmer stresses that the quality of the wine starts with the quality of the soil. To avoid over-manipulation from excessive chemical fertilizers and pesticides in the vineyard – as well as excessive additives in the winemaking process – he focuses on growing grapes conscientiously. Because Missouri faces challenging weather conditions during the growing season, plus threats from mildew and insects, he uses sprays that have a low impact on the vineyard and the environment without leaving chemical residues in the wine.
In addition to being one of the only natural-wine producers in the state, Claverach also operates a small distributorship that brings in natural wines from around the world for local restaurants and bars. Farmer and wine distribution manager Rachel Shulman says it started for mostly selfish reasons: She wanted to source natural wines not readily available in Missouri (like, say, Matthiasson Wines out of Napa, California) for Claverach’s farm dinners. She soon began distributing those wines to wholesale accounts across the state, and says she’s excited to make them available locally to people interested in natural wines.
What Are the Benefits?
We tapped a few local sommeliers and winemakers to tell us why your next bottle should be natural.
▶ PURE TASTE. You’re [often] drinking a product that has been farmed organically, so there weren’t a lot of synthetic herbicides or pesticides used in the farming. For someone who is just getting into wine, natural wines are really appealing because they do taste like fermented grape juice, whereas a lot of wines that are made more conventionally tend to taste pretty manipulated, whether they’re heavily oaked, have gone through reverse osmosis or any other intrusive winemaking techniques. –Barry Tunnell, general manager at Tannin Wine Bar in Kansas City
▶ LOW-INTERVENTION. The wine is cleaner for your body and better for the land it's grown on. In my opinion, they taste better and less manipulated. In my experience and many of my customers’, there are less side effects or reactions to these wines. There can be more than 80 additives in a bottle of wine, such as tannin powders, and powders to clarify, add body or add acidity. Some even contain animal proteins. –Sarah Cyr, co-owner and sommelier at The Wine Cellar & Bistro in Columbia, Missouri
▶ SHELF-STABLE. The wines are fairly stable and tend to last longer once opened. These wines have often been made with oxygen contact, so they're not shocked by the exposure to it later if they’re well made. –A.I.
How to Find Them
The easiest way to spot a natural wine on a list? Just ask. Your server or sommelier can point you to the right bottle, but it also helps to look for wines that are grown sustainably, organically or biodynamically. Look for any wines described as sulfite-free, low-sulfite, unfiltered, macerated or Pétillant Naturel (Pét-Nat for short).