So what exactly IS natural wine?
How to define it – or is that even possible? What does it taste like? Why are we seeing so many natural wine bars, shops and events springing up? Natural wine remains niche yet it seems to be influencing mainstream wine – but how exactly? And why does natural wine get everyone so darn hot under the collar..?!
Join us as we tackle all these burning questions and more with natural wine luminary and RAW WINE founder Isabelle Legeron MW, plus Mel Xenaki from natural Greek wine producer Tetramythos. We find time to taste and recommend a couple of natural wines (though Susie does ask if one wine, ‘really is safe to drink?!’)
Isabelle talks about receiving hate mail, the difference between a ‘living wine’ and ‘a lifeless product’, why ‘only natural wine can be great’, plus why natural wine means, ‘we have to re-frame our expectation of wine.’ She calls for more transparency in wine, including ingredient labelling, so people can have the choice, ‘to decide: this is what I want to put in my body, or this is not what I want to be drinking.’
Mel admits, ‘it’s hard to introduce yourself as a natural winemaker – because it can be offensive to the mainstream.’ She describes her approach as, ‘ethical’, and calls for legislation to define and regulate natural wine.
Check out RAW WINE – the global community for natural wine producers and lovers. They have upcoming events in LA and London, among others. You can also find more details about Isabelle’s book on natural wine, their wines available to buy in the UK and their new subscription wine club in the US (plus a cheeky discount code).
Tetramythos in Greece has some delicious natural wines we recommend in the show.
Here’s the link we mention in the show to the Decanter piece on how wine lovers can help with the crisis in Ukraine.
Don’t forget The Real Wine Fair in London too.
Peter Richards MW: What makes a wine natural?
Isabelle Legeron MW: Natural wine doesn’t have an official definition. So the definition I’m going to give you is really my take on natural wine. For me, natural wine is a two-part process. Wines are made from grapes that are farmed organically and/or biodynamically at the very minimum. Because you can go way more than just farming organically – but grapes have got to be organic.
And the process in the cellar has to be very hands off. So when the grapes come in they have to ferment by themselves on their own yeast population. And then the wine grower doesn’t add any sulphites throughout the whole process. And they don’t fine, they don’t filter, they don’t add enzymes, vitamins, all sorts of dozens of additives that can be added in the cellar.
So basically it’s grape juice that is fermented into alcohol and bottled.
Peter Richards: It’s interesting isn’t it, that natural wine is not the easiest to define or agree upon. Could you also start at it from the point of view of: what is not a natural wine?
Isabelle Legeron: So for me a natural wine, and that really is the conclusion I came to when I wrote my book, is about the living. Natural wine has to respect the living. And by that what I mean is that when you ferment any beverage, you know you could do it at home. I live in the UK so I don’t have access to grapes but I still ferment tonnes of stuff. And when you make, whether its kombucha, Kefir, mead, what you do is you let yeast populations that love sugar do their work and basically together with bacteria they consume the sugar, they transform it into alcohol/an alcoholic beverage. And in that process, they create a living product because there are still I mean the yeast will die, so most of the yeast will actually be dead, they’ll be cells, but the bacteria will still be there, and then the bacteria is still alive.
So when you make a wine and you just use the bacterial and yeast population which is naturally present and you bottle that, you’ve got living stuff inside and the wine carries on living.
If, on the other hand, you have a much more interventional approach to wine making, where you add your yeast populations so you control that, but then at every stage you will make sure that the product is as sterile in a way as possible, so you will add a lot of sulphites (they will kill off the bacteria and will knock the yeasts on the head), you will sterile filter (so whatever life there might have been left as part of that process will be filtered away anyway). And you have to know that wine sometimes can be more filtered than even water. So what you get at the other end of the process is, I would say, a lifeless sterile product which is very different from something which is natural and alive.
So when you make conventional wine you can add tonnes of additives, you can do loads of processes, and basically you can interfere at every stage of the winemaking process to shape exactly the type of wine and the flavours that you want.
Peter Richards: Now the fact it’s a living product at the end of it also implies a certain sense of inconsistency, for want of a better word, you know one bottle could be different from another at different times. Versus, I guess a lot of the people who are making slightly more processed wine, if we say it that way, are aiming for a consistent product. Now, obviously there is an inherent risk in that variability – some bottles might develop one way, and some might not. Is that just part, you have to accept that as part of natural wine?
Isabelle Legeron: I think that statement is a little bit over-exaggerated, to be honest. Because I wouldn’t call it ‘inconsistencies’. I think what you have is you have a lot more vintage variations, that’s for sure, from one year to another because you don’t resort to micro-oxygenation or reverse osmosis or certain tools that can actually just make your product a lot more homogenous.
But I would say that, because it is alive, it’s a lot more sensitive to pressure, for example, atmospheric pressure. If you follow the lunar calendar, it can have an impact on the flavour profile, because of the pulling forces of the lunar cycle and so on.
I think at the end of the day you will have something that might be a little bit different from one bottle to another, but in my experience one bottling is actually, if you keep it in the proper conditions which you should do for any wine anyway, I don’t find that level of inconsistency that a lot of critics say, that one bottle can be different from another bottle, in my experience that’s not the case.
But I think we have to re-frame our expectation of wine, you know, we now expect wine to be one thing – it has to be stable, it has to be sitting on the shelf, and drink the same year after year. But when wine was created wine, it was always an agricultural drink, and it’s more like a cheese or a sourdough bread than just an inert drink.
Peter Richards: Yes, it was interesting in your book that you made that comparison with cheese, the way we think about cheese and perhaps we should think about natural wine in the same way. You also say, one statement in you book that struck me was, ‘the best way to enjoy natural wines is to try to forget everything you think you know about wine and start afresh’. Now, on the one had that’s wonderful and I applaud that, but also on the other hand you can argue, is it not just shifting the goal posts a little bit to say, ‘anything goes’?
Isabelle Legeron: No, this is not what I meant. What I meant by that is that I think as a wine industry, we get trained into thinking you know this is, for masters of wine, it’s like ok this is what textbook Sauvignon Blanc should taste like and then in your head you know exactly what Sauvignon Blanc really should be tasting like but really in your head what you have is a Sauvignon Blanc, it’s something which is pale, crisp acidity, almost green-ish you know in acidity, very lime like, very aromatic, and probably something that comes from New Zealand or Sancerre. And in our head this is what a Sauvignon Blanc should be tasting like.
And to me that is wrong because of course I understand that we need to be able to have some framework and knowledge and terroir and soil is incredibly important. But at the same time I think that it mustn’t dominate us to the point where we can’t see beyond that. And anything which doesn’t taste or doesn’t look pale, doesn’t taste citrusy, doesn’t have a linear texture, but is on the contrary really opulent and creamy and looks gold, that can also be a Sauvignon blanc. And I think sometimes those expectations get in the way of our enjoyment of stuff – wines that can actually be a bit different and a different expression of that grape variety.
Peter Richards: That’s really interesting. Perhaps zoning in on quality – on the same lines you have said, ‘only natural wine can be great’. Do you mean that non-natural wines can’t be great, or am I misinterpreting that?
Isabelle Legeron: So what I mean by that is that in my opinion, and again we can break it down into two parts, you know A) I think in order to achieve greatness you need to have organic viticulture.
Unless you have the connection between the vine, the soil – which means you have to have living soils, which means you cannot be using weedkillers, you cannot be using whatever it is that people use in conventional agriculture and that renders the soils rock hard and completely inert. So that’s the one thing, and then I think that you cannot claim greatness unless really there is something amazing going on in the vineyard.
And then, to me, you can’t beat the very slow fermentation that happens with millions of different yeast strains that kind of take over one after the other, rather than one single yeast strain that will ferment the juice very neatly in ten days, and then you move on and then you add vitamins and enzymes and so on.
I really believe that if you let nature take its course and you let nature’s micro-biology carry on the alcoholic fermentation and carry on the stabilisation process (that might take one year/ two years), I don’t think you can reproduce that level of greatness if you use yeast control, everything that can be used because at the end of the day you’re not really letting nature express itself, you’re just trying to achieve something, you’re trying to fit, you have an idea of what the wine should be like and this is what you’re trying to achieve. And to me it’s just not what makes sense to me. You know to me I think that nature has it worked out, and as long as you really do the work in the vineyard, I think you can really achieve greatness in the cellar. But the two go together.
Peter Richards: Do you think we’ll see over time more and more practices of the kind espoused and championed by natural wine makers from organics to biodynamics to lowering sulphur to minimal intervention in the cellar, do you think we’ll see that affecting main-stream wine more and more?
Isabelle Legeron: Yeah I think so, for a number of reasons. First of all the wine drinker is more and more demanding, particularly the younger wine drinker. People, you know young people who actually don’t really get very excited by wine and go more towards cocktails or craft beers, are very interested by the natural wine movement. Because they want ethics, they want something which champions the environment which is something that is quite strong and is quite a big motivator behind buying wine you know for young people. I think that, so people are asking more and more questions and they’re more and more educated.
So ten years ago if people didn’t really talk about natural wine and people didn’t really have this idea that actually wine was made with loads of additives and it was not just grape juice. So this is still the main-stream thinking process – I’m sure if you go out on the streets where you are, in Winchester, and you ask people how is wine made, I’m sure people will say ‘well it’s just grape juice’, so I think that’s shifting a little bit.
And then I think people are realising more and more that the work in the vineyard has a huge impact on the quality in the cellar, and I think there’s a real recognition for organic and biodynamic amongst big names, and people are making that move. There’s also a lot of pressure in terms of water resources, so we have to be smarter in terms of what we use and how much water we use for growing grapes. Similarly for water pollution, you know I think there is a general move towards cleaner agriculture anyway, even though we really lag behind because it’s only 6-7% of all vineyards that are farmed organically so it’s not very much.
And in terms of sulphites, in terms of additives, again I think consumers are a lot more, they’re a lot more clued up. You know people turn up at the fair and they’re like, they already know all that’s going on because everything’s transparent, you can have access to the internet to the information, you can look up websites that make up additives and you understand more and more. So then you have more and more of a choice, in terms of what you’re drinking, and I think that’s changing the way people are making wine.
Peter Richards: It does seem as if ever-bigger producers are ever getting in to making natural wine a bit, which sort of can jar a bit can’t it, because you tend to think of small family scale type things ordinarily, but there are bigger people making large volume sort of zero sulphur or so called ‘natural’ or biodynamic or vegan – how does that sit with you?
Isabelle Legeron: Yeah, I think that’s the next big challenge, which is why I think being able to really define properly what natural wine means is important. I think it’s great that people are moving towards organic, they’re moving towards less additives, I think that’s brilliant. I think there is an issue of vocabulary now because I believe that people are getting more and more confused. You know: what is natural, low intervention, clean, you know this is the new thing now – ‘clean’ wine. What does this even mean? You know ‘sustainable’, what does that even mean?
But I welcome the move of course, because I think it’s good that people are, you know, it’s a good marketing word you know unfortunately, natural wine does sell. All the growers who come to the fair tend to sell out of their wine pretty quickly. So I welcome the move but I think we just need to sort of be careful in terms of the vocabulary.
I see so many growers who, big growers who are trying to apply to come to the fair and they send me samples and there is nothing, you know this wine has nothing to do with being even vaguely natural, but in their head they think it is natural just because it’s a zero zero. So yeah, it’s a bit messy, so it will need a bit of decanting, and it will sort itself out hopefully.
Peter Richards: Why do you think we’ve seen the number of natural wine shops and bars around the world really really grow in recent times?
Isabelle Legeron: Because there’s a huge demand for it. You know, honestly, when I created RAW WINE in 2012, ten years ago, I had no idea it would actually grow into what it is now. You know I think there is a demand for it, following on the path of your sourdough bread, and your craft beer, although craft beers should be another conversation because what is a craft beer really? It doesn’t really mean anything anymore. But following on the footsteps of that, you know where wine drinkers or food lovers are more and more aware of what they’re drinking. They’re looking for something that is maybe more authentic, which ticks a lot of the boxes of their ethics requirements. They also want to shop local, so I think it’s about supporting your small independent wine shop/wine bar, and I think as a result there is a demand and there is a huge growth and look, you know when we started working in LA there was not much of a scene a few years ago and now it’s booming. But it is an urban phenomenon, it’s more something that happens in cities for I’d say a younger generation, younger drinkers.
Peter Richards: What’s the future then for natural wine? Do we have an idea about how big the category is and what its influence might end up being?
Isabelle Legeron: When you look at the press and when you Google natural wine, it feels a lot bigger than actually it is because what really we’re talking about is a few hundred growers who work that way, so I think it’s always going to remain niche.
But I think what’s been amazing is the impact and the reverberation of natural wine has been much much greater than its actual volume or value in the market. So I think the future is amazing. I see so many young producers who are taking over from their family, who are converting the farm, who then are making natural wine, and who are finding a market. If you make a really good natural wine and you have the ethics and you farm properly and then you can communicate about it, you can sell your wine actually very easily.
I get questions from importers for example in the US saying, ‘I need more wine can you recommend more growers?’ So it’s a very buoyant market and it’s amazing because it means it can give a really decent living to a young person starting up in making wine, which fifteen years ago would have been a very different story.
Peter Richards: Where does sustainability fit into the natural wine picture? You know it’s all very well for example going organic, but if that means you have to go out to spray your vines more, that means more diesel emissions potentially from the tractor, so obviously it’s a complicated picture, but where does sustainability fit in the natural wine picture? Does it crop up in the definition for example?
Isabelle Legeron: I wouldn’t say it crops up in the definition, I mean, it is a big part of it because people are acutely aware of it. It’s not something necessarily growers will talk about it because I think one of the things with natural wine producers or even organic biodynamic producers is they do the work in the vineyard and they don’t really spend a lot of time talking at conferences and using big words.
But if you start talking to growers about, for example, the fact that when you have living soil it actually sequesters a lot more carbon. So a lot of that is compensated, you know, yes the use of the tractor is more but a lot of that is actually compensated in the whole cycle. People tend to use light weight bottles, they don’t tend to travel that much.
I’ve done a lot of work on carbon footprint with some of our growers to assess their footprint and the average is much below I would say the normal average. So it is a big conversation to have and I think it’s something to bear in mind.
We’ve assessed our carbon footprint of putting together a fair and now we’re looking at how can we actually, with everybody flying in, where people are flying in from, how much wine we’re shipping and all of this, and how can we offset that. So sustainability is really at the heart of the natural wine conversation. But like I said I think people are much more living it rather than necessarily shouting about it you know. They are very thoughtful, mindful, if you think to Leo Erazo and how he manages his water in Chile, he is very careful about how much water he uses, how he recycles the water from the winery, so there’s a lot of actions being taken like that.
Peter Richards: And can you just say a quick word about sulphur or, more specifically, sulphites in wine. Obviously this is a big issue for natural wine. The emphasis tends to be on reducing or eliminating this in wine as you said to maintain a living product, but there does seem to be a balance to be found. So could you just say a quick word about that too?
Isabelle Legeron: So, first of all sulphites is a new additive. I am sick of people saying people have been using sulphites since the Romans, and that was one of the big research I did for my book – it’s not true. There is no evidence, I’ve spoken to a lot of you know very good archeologists, including Patrick McGovern, and they’ve never found residue of sulphites or sulphur inside a vessel that proves it was added. But it was used as a cleansing agent.
So it’s only really since the beginning of the 20th century we started using it as an additive. And the thing with sulphites is that, I agree with you, you know, I’m not completely like: don’t use any sulphites. Because you have to be very confident and I think you have to know what you’re doing, and it’s a real choice not to use any sulphites. But sulphites are used at all stages of the winemaking process. They are an anti-bacterial, they are an anti-oxidant. There’s a big thing in making wine where you don’t really want your juice to brown so you add sulphites, but actually your juice goes brown but then through the fermentation it goes back to being pale again.
So the thing with natural wine is it’s about taking time and letting time do its thing. And over time the wine will stabilise, over time the wine will ferment, it might take three months, it might take two years, it might take two weeks, so you don’t have the same control.
So you can do away with using sulphites, I know a lot of people who do it really well. I think if you have a big problem and you have suddenly a bacterial problem, I think it’s better to use a little bit of sulphites and try and deal with that problem there and then, rather than bottle something that isn’t ready, or something that might be mousy, or maybe excess volatile acidity for example.
But overall I think if you do a really great work in the vineyard and if you are able to take the time to make your wine, you can do away with using any sulphites.
And the last word on sulphites is there is a bit difference between using 10 ppm or ten parts per million, or ten milligram per litre, versus 200 milligram per litre. And I think that’s the problem is that nowadays, in commercial winemaking you can have very very high levels of sulphites up to, for example, a white wine is 150 or 200 ppm total, for Europe. Whereas in natural winemaking, maybe people might use nothing or use 10 parts or 20 parts.
So it’s also about that, and there’s no way of telling because when you buy a bottle of wine there’s no ingredient labelling regulations. So you don’t know whether you’re buying something that has a little bit or none or tonnes added.
Peter Richards: Would you be in favour of ingredient labelling for wine?
Isabelle Legeron: Yes absolutely! I’ve had so many conversations around this topic with officials. But the wine industry is powerful and there is not a big incentive for them to suddenly disclose all these additives.
It’s quite shocking because that means that we’re not considering wine as a food. But where does it go? You ingest the wine, it goes into your body, so why is it not a food? I don’t understand. But we need more transparency because I think then people can have a powerful choice and decide actually: this is what I want to put in my body, or this is not what I want to be drinking.
Peter Richards: Finally, what is it about natural wine that gets people so passionate, so hot under the collar? Both its supporters and its detractors.
Isabelle Legeron: I think that’s changed quite a bit. It was very divisive ten years ago and I had a lot hate mail about the topic. I think people get really passionate about it. And I think maybe saying a product is natural means: this is not natural, and I think that’s been something that’s been very hard to reconcile between the conventional and the natural wine industry.
But that’s really changing and I see it now. When we first did RAW WINE in London ten years ago I had only the hard-core natural wine battalion standing up, whereas now I get everybody who comes because everybody realises actually they need some natural wine on their portfolio because there’s a demand for it. So I think I would say we’re now co-existing quite happily, in the UK at least. I think places like Germany things are a bit more different. But I think that we’re, well look – we’re talking!
Peter Richards: Happy co-existence is the way forward. Isabelle Legeron, thank you very much indeed.
Isabelle Legeron: Thank you for having me on the programme!
Peter Richards MW: What does natural winemaking mean for you?
Mel Xenaki: Nowadays it’s kind of hard to introduce yourself as a natural winemaker. Because sometimes it can be offensive to the….not commercial but…
Peter Richards: Mainstream
Mel Xenaki: Mainstream vinifications. In the winery we’ve always been into the spontaneous alcoholic fermentations, we have never used any commercial yeast. But for us it’s just an ethical approach to what we face everyday in the place that we live. So for us it’s just being honest with ourselves and just follow the path that nature is showing to you.
We are lucky enough to be in a place that always gives us low yields, high quality grapes and by that I mean that it would be a paradox to go in the middle and change the acidities and the pH levels, it’s something we have really easily in this place.
Peter Richards: Some natural wine producers don’t use any sulfur dioxide, you do use a little bit. Why?
MT: We do that because we don’t want to be completely oxidised! Definitely some of our wines can handle really nice throughout the years without any sulfites. Because we have experiments so far in the past. But our wines are being exported in 22 different countries and they travel really far away so we only do a small sulfites addition just before bottling. And it’s enough, so that’s what the years have proven, that this amount of sulfites, around 35mg per litre total sulphites addition, it’s enough to protect the wines to travel and evolve through the years.
PR: Will the way natural wines are made – respecting nature, low intervention – do you think this is influencing mainstream wine, do you think people are coming more and more, and this might be the future?
MT: It’s a global trend. And I think we are in a critical point. Because definitely yes there is an influence in mainstream wines. But there’s a danger that you’ll often see mainstream wineries releasing just one natural wine label. But I think definitely there has to be a legislation soon that everyone will go under. And we’ll talk under the same roof so we can actually define what is a natural wine. Whether we like it or not, with climate change, the future is being organic so we have to respect that. If we can be organic then why not being also a little bit more natural or low intervention, why not.
PR: You have an amazing Sauvignon Blanc…and you’re gonna have to pronounce this one for me…
MT: This is a grape variety called Agrippiotis. It’s actually a revival of this rare grape variety of Peloponnese, it’s a very local grape variety, of the mountainous Aigialeia, the region where we are. It’s actually the second variety we revived. It’s a heritage for us, that we want to take after and to save actually. So we found some plants of Agrippiotos, among other grape varieties that we cultivate, and we created a new vineyard out of them. And it’s small, experimental vineyard. So far, it’s five years old, and the results are really pleasing.
PR: It’s absolutely delicious. Mel, thank you very much indeed.
Mel: Thank you!