Second to rosé and skin-contact (aka orange, aka when white wine is made like a red and grapes are fermented with their skins on) the so-called natural category is one of the biggest buzzwords when it comes to talking wine in 2019. And like most hot topics, the facts are still getting sorted out because there isn’t an official definition.
Usually, there’s an omission of chemicals and additives, including sulfur, and a focus on organic farming, but because of the lack of clarification or certification, the term has largely become a catch-all for a combination of low-intervention winemaking and organic agricultural practices in the vineyard.
Marissa A. Ross, Bon Appetit’s wine editor, writes in her slim guide Wine. All The Time., “While these wines may seem like a fad chasing after craft beer, organic produce and shopping locally, it is actually a return to the ancestral winemaking practices that were used for centuries before the commercialization of wines.”
Author of Natural Wine for the People, Alice Feiring writes, “The definition of what is ‘natural’ is debated and challenged … Start with organic viticulture. Then, don’t add any supplemental grape product, yeast, enzyme, tannin, acid, bacteria, or chemical beyond what is naturally occurring during the wine-making process.”
Feiring also compares the rise of natural wines to how seasonally driven dining changed food culture: “The philosophy of the natural wine movement will become ingrained in the way drinkers think and buy wine, much the same way that farm-to-table is just expected, at least in a restaurant of quality. The Big Macs of the world will always exist, but they will not be confused with a healthy meal, the same way that there will be plonk wines and wines.”
In Virginia, due to high levels of humidity, moisture and rain, making these low-intervention wines comes with a real set of challenges. In spite of that, a few wineries are dedicated to seeing transparent, sustainably farmed wines come to prominence in the state.
To Loretta and Paul Briede, owners of Briede Family Vineyards in Winchester, natural Virginia wine centers around keeping things as clean as possible, paying attention in the vineyard and highlighting what was originally there. They consider themselves makers of natural wine.
“Our wines are truly an expression of the grapes,” says Loretta, who plants, among others, arandell, a grape from Cornell University’s grape breeding program.
Due to the particulars of making terroir-focused wine in Virginia’s climate, Briede forfeited its organic certification to combat a fungal disease with no certified-organic remedy. “We were losing our grapes to disease,” she says, and they had to do something. Because of the fluidity of boundaries, this doesn’t remove them from inclusion in the natural wine world.
Lightwell Survey, a progressive Virginia winery sourcing grapes from within the state, chooses to put distance between the work that they do and the term natural, which can be a device term within the industry.
Winemaker Ben Jordan classifies the winemaking at Lightwell Survey as “minimalist.” The philosophy checks off the natural wine boxes—clean farming, minimal additives—but doesn’t prohibit Lightwell from repsonding to the wine’s needs.
“I’m not personally dogmatic about some of the things that people can get dogmatic about,” says Jordan, who works on Lightwell Survey with Sebastian Zutant, a trendsetting restaurant wine professional in DC. He’s the one who turned the city onto orange wines back in 2013 when he popularized it at Red Hen.
Jordan sees validity in the more classical approach to winemaking, in addition to the progressive ideology that Lightwell Survey espouses. So, if a wine needs a touch of sulfur, Jordan is willing to take that step.
“I want to be open to making the best use of the fruit coming off the site,” he says. Naturally.