From the Vine to the Table
By Steven Lanum
Here in the Bay Area many people are trying to get closer to their food sources, in many cases even meeting the farmers who grow their produce. There's been increased interest in farmers' markets all over the region. In addition to the appeal of fresher,
better tasting food, consumers are interested in sustainability issues brought on by the rise of modern industrial agricultural practices.
As a beverage that traditionally accompanies food, wine is playing a greater role in people's appreciation of an enjoyable meal. Not surprisingly, many of the "efficiencies" that have found their way into large-scale agriculture--reliance on synthetic
pesticides and herbicides, machine harvesting, overproduction--have become common in the world of wine, both in the U.S. and in other countries. These trends have led a growing number of traditionalists--wine producers and consumers alike--to step back and reassess what they want their wines to be. As a result, more and more natural wines
are being made, wines that evidence a return to historic production methods.
The term "natural wines" is not officially defined and reflects a philosophy more than a recipe. Natural wines might also be referred to as artisanal or hand-made wines (some refer to them as "real wine," but perhaps that's going a bit far if the alternative
is "fake" wine!). Among the major factors that a winemaker considers when fashioning a natural wine are the following.
- Natural approach to viticulture. Although this is a vast subject, it includes a reduction or elimination of the use of synthetic herbicides and pesticides, in favor of farming methods that might include plowing and non-chemical pest management. Some vineyards are farmed organically or bio-dynamically (which doubters might characterize as organics with a bit of black magic thrown in for good measure).
- Low yields. Crop yields are intentionally limited to prevent dilution caused by overproduction.
- Hand harvesting. Training people to pick ripe fruit and reducing the impact on soils caused by heavy machinery.
- Wild yeasts. The yeast cells that bring about fermentation occur naturally on the skin of each grape. Laboratory-made yeast cells can be introduced to overpower wild yeasts and impart certain flavors to fermenting juice. Natural wines tend to rely on endemic yeasts as an integral part of the place from which the wine originates.
- Minimally interventionist winemaking. An old saying in the wine business is that "great wine is made in the vineyard." Yet modern winemaking practices can dramatically affect the finished product. Natural wines eschew such manipulations and as a result may show more individual character from growing area to growing area, and vintage to vintage. Natural wines tend not to be doused with added sugar, acid, flavorings, or excess sulfur dioxide (a preservative present, at some level, in almost all wines).
- No or minimal filtration. When a wine is filtered something is removed. Often this is done to promote the stability of the finished wine, but many believe that a measurable degree of flavor and complexity are thereby lost.
There are increasing numbers of natural wines being made available (though by no means is such a wine guaranteed to be better-tasting than a comparatively manipulated one). More and more consumers are investigating them, feeling that in enjoying an artisanal wine, they are drawing closer to its origins as well as to the person who made it--and promoting healthier and more environmentally sustainable agricultural practices in the process.
In future posts we'll look in greater depth at some of the factors mentioned above and how to learn more about natural wines.
(c) 2006 Steven Lanum
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|Meet the Wine Experts
Richard has more than 25 years experience in the wine trade, most recently 12 years with local wine retailer, Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant in Berkeley. His knowledge of French and Italian wines combined with his experience pairing food and wine make him a well-regarded authority on both.
A San Francisco native, Steve particularly enjoys wines from the Rhone and Loire Valleys of France. His long-standing interest in wine took a giant leap forward in 2001 when he had the opportunity to taste at a number of renowned estates in France. He looks for characteristics that will complement rather than overwhelm accompanying food as well as attractive quality/value ratios when shopping for wine.