By Lester Koga
Natural Wine: Perfectly Imperfect
At Barebottle, craft beer has been and always will be our bread and butter. However, the one question that we were asked above all others in our taproom was, ‘do you have wine’? At first, we found it funny that people would ask for wine when surrounded by fermenters full of beer and the smell of the mash-in and grain-outs lingering in the taproom air. Though the more we got the question, the more we thought that there was a real demand from our taproom customers. Chalk it up to some people going gluten free and others who just don’t like beer (gasp). The challenge we faced was since we don’t serve food, the only way to serve wine in our taproom was to become a full-on winery. Luckily, we’ve loved wine as long as we’ve loved beer, so we took on the challenge of jumping headfirst into winemaking.
The big question of what kind of wine to make loomed large and we turned to the types of wine that we like to drink – lively, interesting wines that don’t taste like they come from a grocery store. We wanted wine that celebrated the natural vs. calculated and quickly circled around natural wine – a loaded term without an agreed upon, official definition.
At its core, natural wine is all about minimal intervention in wine growing and wine making. Minimal intervention wine making centers on limiting or eliminating additives other than the grapes themselves. This typically means low to no sulfite additions, native fermentation and no water or acid adjustments to hit a desired flavor target.
Most discussions on natural wine begin with sulfites – or more specifically, the lack thereof. Sulfites (Sulfur Dioxide) are both naturally occurring within wine, but are also added in the production process to help minimize the effects of oxidation and to protect unwanted organisms (wild yeast or bacteria) from taking hold and imparting unwanted flavors or aromas. Sulfites have been used for thousands of years in wine production and continue to be used in the vast majority of wines that we drink. Think of it like an insurance polity – once the flavors and aromas are in a place that the winemaker likes, s/he wants to lock it in and prevent unwanted visitors.
Another major component of natural wines is native fermentation. To us, this is one of the most exhilarating parts of natural wine making. Instead of pitching isolated cultures of Saccharomyces Cerevisiae from a yeast lab, native fermentation recalibrates our faith in Mother Nature. Native yeast and bacteria that live naturally on the grape skins are completely responsible for primary and malolactic fermentation – there’s little intervention beyond what naturally exists. It’s a similar process to spontaneously fermented sours like Lambic and Gueuze, without the emphasis on the souring lactobacillus and brettanomyces. Ultimately, it’s this tightrope that the natural winemaker must walk – balancing the natural expressiveness of the grapes while keeping natural off flavors from creeping in and taking hold.
Lastly, natural wine focuses on not adding or removing anything in the wine making process. This includes (but is not limited to) water/ acid adjustments and filtration. Water is added if alcohol levels are higher than what the wine maker intends (usually from picking at a slightly higher brix than anticipated), while different food grade acids are used to balance the finishing pH in the wine. While both are common in wine making, the natural wine maker strives to make a wine that celebrates its uniqueness vs. making the ‘perfect’ wine.
Natural wine is a swing back to what is ‘natural’ in WINE making – taking grapes and vinifying with the least amount of intervention. The core premise is that what is given and not taken away leads to a wine that is both truer to its original form and also more interesting because of it.
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