The Skeptic’s Guide to Natural Wine
Natural wine nerd Kieran Fanning is here to rock your (drinking) world.
February 1, 2018
Whether he likes it or not, sommelier Kieran Fanning (Farmer’s Apprentice, Grapes and Soda) is the de facto poster child for natural wines in this town. For starters, he’s young, he’s cool and, while he has a stellar resumé (apprenticing under sommelier Jason Yamasaki at Chambar before taking over as head sommelier), he has little time for many of the outdated conventions of the wine world. As a somm who’s converting drinkers one glass at a time, we figured he’d be well positioned to explain wine’s biggest trend.
Q: Once and for all, what the hell is “natural wine”?
A: Please don’t ask me that. I could easily anger one of the 11 different groups of wine people who have their own definitions of the term.
Q: Dang. Okay, how about “What do most people mean when they say that a wine is natural?”
A: Much safer. Most people who call a wine natural are talking about a wine with two ingredients: naturally fermented organic or biodynamic grape juice, and maybe a bit of added sulphites.
Q: We’re not children—isn’t all wine fermented grape juice?
A: Yes, technically all wine is fermented grape juice—however, during the 20th century, a whooole bunch of things were allowed into wine without having to be listed on the label. Things like soy flour, citric acid, gelatin and granular cork. Organic wines can still have many of these additives, as they need only be made from organically grown grapes.
Q: Wait, sulphites are those horrible things that give me a headache, right?
A: Oh, man. Facts: about one percent of people suffer from sulphite sensitivity, dried fruit usually contains from 200 to 5,000 parts per million (ppm) of sulphites, and your average wine contains around 150. Also, sulphites are a natural by-product of fermentation. Sulphur has been a documented part of winemaking since 1487 and is helpful in preserving the wine during transportation. Wines classified as natural do generally contain fewer sulphites, though (fewer than 70 ppm for whites and 50 ppm for reds).
Q: I’ve heard the word “biodynamic” thrown around a lot. How does it differ from organics?
A: I like to call biodynamics “organics plus witchcraft.” Biodynamics are based on lectures by some Austrian dude named Rudolf (an odd cat to be sure) in the 1920s on how to make your farm or vineyard a self-contained and biodiverse ecosystem. There’s also some stuff about the celestial bodies and burying horns full of manure on the solstices, but I won’t get into that here. (But it is odd.)
Q: So are natural wines better than regular wines?
A: Here’s where the debate gets heated. Many of the previous (not to say old…) generation of winemakers, sommeliers and wine writers will write off most natural wines as worse than conventional wines for being “faulty.” This stems from the fact that wines are often exposed to “faults”—traditional winemakers manage them with chemical adjustment, additional sulphur use or other manipulations. Natural winemakers have to learn how to avoid them altogether, so knowing which wineries to buy from is paramount. These days, a lot of natural wines are made by young first-generation winemakers who have started by trying to make wine in the most unforgiving way. Rejecting additives and adjustments requires doing everything perfectly just to avoid making vinegar or something that smells like a horse with fresh nail polish. Wine needs to smell and taste like the grape or grapes from which it’s made (called “showing typicity”) and the place in which it’s grown to be considered a “great” wine. When a wine can do this naturally, I would argue that the wine is more honest and that the earth is better for it.
Q: Then how do I know what to buy if it’s such a gamble?
A: See below, friend.
A troika to induct you into the world of natural wines.
Check back for more—best buys! Okanagan gems! Smart investments!—from our 2018 Wine Issue!