Natural wine is a controversial category that has set off disagreements around the world. There are winemakers who insist on using natural ambient yeasts, others who insist on banning the use of stabilizers that keep wines from spoiling, and still others who insist on letting nature take its course in the vineyard.
Melissa Clark: Define what a natural wine is.
Alice Feiring: To be utterly simplistic about it: nothing added and nothing taken away, except for a little bit of sulfur. It really is the way wine used to be made for centuries and centuries.
MC: What’s the controversy with natural wines? So many people are vocally against them. They have so many critics, but then they also have devotees, especially in France.
AF: Especially in France, especially in the U.K., especially in the U.S. now. The problem seems to be mostly with the critics. The drinkers seem to have absolutely no problem with them and they are embracing them. But the critics, the people who sling the mud, will say that they are fuzzy, that they are fizzy, they are brown, they are cloudy and sometimes they taste of apple cider vinegar.
MC: What do you think?
AF: I’ve had one or two that have tasted that way, and guess what: Those weren’t the good ones.
MC: For people who love them, what is it about natural wines that makes them so devoted?
AF: Usually it is the excitement, the element of surprise. One of the best examples that I have is when I was at a party, when Frank Bruni just came over to the states to be the dining critic at The New York Times. I said, “Hey, Frank, taste this.” He burst into laughter and he said, “Alice, what the hell is that? That is the most beautiful example I've ever had.” He went out and bought a case the next day. A conventional wine never can do that to you.
MC: Natural wines speak of the place.
AF: That is at the very heart and soul since they are not using chemical additives and they are not using process to change the way that wine tastes. They are usually from extremely good agriculture -- it really is about expressing that place.
MC: What do you mean by additives? What kinds of things are they putting in other types of wines that are unnatural?
AF: In this country, there are about 200 approved additives. Not all of them are horrible, but a lot of them change the way a wine is going to taste and is made. Some of them you might have allergic reactions to. They are shape- and texture-changing.
Yeast, enzymes, bacteria, added tannins from oak, chestnut, and grape, gelatin, gum arabic, oak chips, oak sawdust. Things like that.
MC: Gelatin. Is that for texture?
AF: It is, and so is gum arabic.
MC: Sawdust? What is that for?
AF: That’s like tea bags. Instead of using a barrel to ferment in, they use oak dust or chips for flavor.
MC: You mentioned wines that are grown in a really careful way. I think people get really confused about organic wines, biodynamic wines and natural wines. What’s the difference?
AF: People should be confused, because it is confusing. There are different laws in this country than in the EU. But organic and biodynamic really refer primarily to the agriculture. In this country, we take it a step further: Organics do no harm to the vineyard, but you can use yeast, enzymes and additives as long as they are organic.
In this country, no sulfur is allowed. In the EU: yes.
MC: What about biodynamic?
AF: That kind of farming is like homeopathic agriculture, so it is healing the earth. There are more laws about how you can make that wine. Natural wine is more of a philosophy. Jessica Gravner said, “To make a natural wine you must be a natural person.” There’s no faking it.
MC: Natural wine making is just the technique, not the growing?
AF: Right. Within that, you have some parameters with the grape and what you are going to ferment in.
MC: How do I know if I’m getting a natural wine? Where do I find them?
AF: That is really difficult. You’re not going to find anything on the label. If you look on the back label, you might get some clues. Some people are saying, "This wine is not made with any yeast, enzyme, additive; it’s just grapes." That’s a good sign. Go to a respectable wine seller who knows about these natural wines. They can help guide you to them.
MC: What about some good ones? What are your picks?
AF: The U.S. is starting to make some good ones finally. One of my favorite wine producers is Hank Beckmeyer, and his wine label is La Clarine Farm. That wine will cost you $22-26.
If you go to France, go to the Loir Valley. One of my favorite winemakers there is Thierry Puzelat and his wines will be between $12 and $30.
MC: His wines are pretty available?
AF: They are pretty available around the country. If you can’t find them, go to Wine-Searcher, punch in the name and it will lead you to a wine store in your neighborhood.
Melissa Clark is a food writer and author. She is a food columnist for The New York Times, and has written for Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, Every Day with Rachael Ray and Martha Stewart. She is the author of Cook This Now, In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite and 32 other cookbooks.