Alice Feiring uncorks the wine world's newest oldest trend: natural wines

Aug 27, 2019

In the world of winemaking, there is a seemingly new trend that is all about ‘natural wine.’ But it's actually not that new at all because it can be seen as a throwback to the way wines were made pre-1980’s, before wine additives were a thing. Alice Feiring is considered an expert in natural wines; she has written seven books including her latest, Natural Wine for the People. She spoke with contributor Melissa Clark about the unique process of winemaking and the different wines that it yields. Feiring also shared a list of her top natural wine selections.

Melissa Clark: Alice, you write about natural wine. Isn’t all wine natural wine? What makes a wine natural?

Alice Feiring: Most wine is not natural. There are 72 perfectly legal additives that find their way into winemaking quite often, and that’s an astounding number. Once you start adding all those additives – or at least ten of them will go into most of the wines that are available – then for me you’re really in territory of not particularly natural.

MC: I didn’t realize there were that many additives.

AF: I know. It’s kind of crazy. There are added yeast, enzymes, bacteria, tannins, anti-foaming agents, of course sulfur dioxide, which is probably the most common, and even in tiny amounts allowed in natural wine. And they go on and on. Some are nasty chemicals, and some are nutrients – uric acid and things like that. And so a natural wine is a wine that doesn’t have any of those things.

MC: Just grapes?

AF: Grapes and up to maybe 20 or 30 parts per million of added sulfide. But if you know that a legal amount is 270 parts per million you get an idea of the difference.

MC: And how does a natural wine differ in flavor and aroma?

AF: It is alive. It’s surprising. And what does an ‘alive wine’ mean? It means that every sip is going to taste a little bit different from the one beforehand. It’s not fixed in place. Most conventional producers really want the wine to taste the same every vintage, and all of those additives help the winemaker and the company create a wine that’s going to be consistent year to year. That is why that is going to be very different for natural wine.

MC: You were one of the first American wine writers to write about natural wines. How did you discover them?

AF: Back in 2000 I had to write a wine book and I was doing a lot of tasting. I was thinking, hmm, there’s something going on here in the wine world that I don’t particularly like. A lot of the wines starting tasting absolutely the same and not at all the way I remembered them. So, I started to make a list of the wines that I really did like, and I went to visit, found out what was the difference and what were the similarities, and they were all from organic viticulture, and they were all made from grape.

Alice Feiring is the author of Natural Wine for the People. Photo: Carolyn Fong

MC: What are some of your favorite wines that are relatively easy to find across the country?

AF: That is such a tough one because these wines are usually made in very small amounts. There are few that probably make more than 2,000 cases that maybe you can find if you go to regions that have huge concentrations of natural winemakers. In France we’re talking the Loire, we’re talking Beaujolais, we’re talking the Jura and also the southwest of France in Languedoc. Then you go into Catalonia in Spain. The country of Georgia has a great concentration of small natural winemakers. In the United States you might have a little bit more success with the producer, and some of those people to look for are La Clarine Farm and Diedre Heekin from Vermont. Lo-Fi Wines. Catoria. You might have good success with those.

MC: Natural wines is a huge trend, at least I know in some of the big cities. I know in New York and San Francisco and Chicago there are a lot of places specializing in natural wines.

AF: It is kind of The Little Engine That Could. Its footprint is really small. It’s maybe one percent of all wines being made, but the impact it has had on the industry is huge. Basically, natural wine is merely a return to the way wine used to be made, so what we’re seeing in a lot of regions like Burgundy, even Bordeaux, the United States, Spain, is a return to old-fashioned sanity, a return to organic viticulture. People are rethinking, going back to using native use fermentation and recalibrating back to a kinder gentler time in wine, and seeing that they don’t have to manipulate the wine quite so much.

MC: So, this is starting with the producers.

AF: Yes.

MC: And the producers are saying, ‘Okay, we tried conventional winemaking techniques using all these additives, and you know what, we’re going to go back to just doing it with just grapes.’

AF: Right. Back in the 1970s and 1980s there were salespeople coming around to winemakers saying, ‘You need to use yeast to start fermentation, you need to use bacteria, you need to add oak chips into your wine if you’re going to get color.’ They were taught in school that they needed these additives, when their grandfathers didn’t. And some of the wines that are most collectable were made by those grandfathers. So right now, it really is a reset for the industry. Whether every wine has to be perfectly natural – maybe not. But we are going to come back to a period of time when wine is just wine, whether it’s natural or not. They will all be measured by the same yardstick.

MC: You have sort of this corporate interest trying to get people to buy these products to create a very shelf-stable wine, and that’s what winemakers right now are rebelling against.

AF: Well, the natural winemakers really were the rebellious ones, and the other ones, maybe second generation, the winemakers’ kids, are like maybe we don’t need this. And so they’re trying to find the middle ground. Let’s go back to our grandfather’s way of making wine.