Across the continent, Europeans are turning to natural wines – aside from Germany. Despite the popularity of organic food, and stern environmentalism, wine-drinkers in Europe's most-populous country have yet to stray from their familiar Rieslings, pinots and Gewürztraminers.
This new strain of wine wants to rediscover and rely on the beverage's roots. Natural wines are generally made the old-fashioned way – without pesticides during growth and with little help save yeast during fermentation. Most modern vintners, by comparison, rely on contemporary agriculture techniques and additives during fermentation to guarantee a consistent product.
But what exactly makes a wine "natural" varies by winery. Some vintners scorn all additives in the wine-making process, others use as little yeast as possible. Without a certification system, “natural wine can be anything at all,” says Sebastien Visentin, proprietor of Passion Vin, a French wine store in Berlin dedicated almost completely to natural vintages.
It is a risky process for vintners whose crops are more vulnerable without pesticides. The new approach came about in France after heavy use of insecticides in wine-making. Large numbers of workers involved in spraying crops suffered cancer during the 1970s and 1980s, leading to lawsuits. Growers gained interest in making wine with fewer chemicals.
That interest has become a movement of small-scale, independent producers. Isabelle Legeron, one of France’s best-known writers about natural wine, says growers’ interest goes beyond wine to a philosophy, a way of life. “In our disconnected world that salutes the money king, these are people who chose otherwise, out of conviction, a love of the land and a desire to nurture the most fundamental force of all – life. Be it human, animal, plant, or other,” she wrote in the introduction to her book "Natural Wine: an introduction to organic & biodynamic wines made naturally."
Producers fall into two camps. Some vintners make wines which are clean and precise, relatively consistent and reliable. Others are experimental and unconventional. The resulting wine is a raw, live product. Some are “history in a glass.” Other wines can wind up tasting like wood, or sneakers. “It’s not always good, just because it’s natural,” says Visentin.
The sulfite divide
The trend is also strong in Denmark and the United Kingdom. In Germany, however, it is harder to make natural wines without sulfites given the climate and grapes here, Visentin says. “Natural wine will remain a small market here.”
In France, where natural wine has gained popularity in the last decade, people produce and drink it “as though it is a religion,” he says. “They’re fanatical.” In Germany, people are more cautious. He says that’s no bad thing. “Germans are very open, but people here also follow their taste. They enjoy a lot of different things, and they don’t necessarily chase every fashion.”
Drinkers are slowly taking the plunge. At Naturales, a Spanish natural wine bar in Berlin’s Neukölln, one taster describing the wine she was sipping as “like caramel and cider.” The bar’s owner, Pablo Martinez, says he wants wines that pique people’s curiosity.
A small but growing number of German restaurants now offer natural wines. One owner from Stuttgart attending a Berlin industry event said he hopes to interest his patrons in new tastes. “Natural wines are more complex, but anything that persuades people to not just grab a bottle from Aldi is good news.”
With no guarantee of a familiar taste, nor certification, natural wine is a leap into the unknown for buyers. Growers in France, Italy and Spain are gradually developing their own quality charters. But consumers need guidance from sellers or sommeliers who can navigate the new landscape.
Producers don’t necessarily write “natural” on their wine labels. At a recent wine fair, packed with pink-faced explorers of reds and whites, French winemakers rejected dismissed definitions. “What’s natural?” asked one producer rhetorically. “Sure, it’s organic,” shrugged another. “I don’t really focus on that,” said a third.
The best drinks are natural anyway, according to Visentin. “Any vintner needs to take care of the soil, the grape, the process – otherwise the wine won’t be good.”
Allison Williams is deputy editor of Handelsblatt Today. To contact the author: [email protected]