Natural wine is a simple yet powerful idea.

It’s the belief that an organic and non-interventionist approach to winemaking can create wine that expresses terroir in a truer fashion, is more interesting to the palate, more complimentary with food and, of course, healthier for the individual and the environment.

2011 was about figuring out whether this really rung true to me.

Whether this is a niche of consequence as well as interest. Whether when orchestrated in the hands of a master winemaker, it creates a product of quality as well as uniqueness. And whether we are entering an era where the economics of the artisanal winemaker combined with the reach of the web is a possible disruptor and game changer for the wine world.

Natural wine has been a passion of mine for a while now and this blog is an homage to the winemakers I respect the most.

Friends and neighbors are hard pressed to escape the tastings and stream of stories about the flavors and bouquets of Trousseaus and Poulsards from the magical vineyards of the Jura. The rich and layered Mencias and Garnachas produced from the ancient terraces hanging over the River Sil in Ribiera Sacra. The Frappatos and Nero D’Avolas grown in volcanic ash on the smoky slopes of Mt Etna in Sicily.

These deep natural pockets of organic and biodynamic winemaking, in 2011, became part of a much longer list of true natural winemaking legends in Friuli, Beaujolais, Manchuela, the Canary Islands, Champagne, the Loire Valley…everywhere they make wine.

There is always a short list of the best of the best, but this approach to winemaking has not only been happening quietly for generations in every winemaking region but is part of a global renaissance of a non-interventionist approach to making natural wine.

There are many like Jean Bourdy in the Jura who have been making wine on their family farms for scores of generations. And many more in areas like Ribeira Sacra, who are returning to ancestral terraces, cut by the Romans 2000 years ago, tended for generations then abandoned till just now.

But most important to me this year was getting to know a few of these winemakers as real people. My visits with Friulian iconoclast Fulvio Bressan especially in Trieste and Sandi Skerk in Carso were wildly exhilarating and provoking.

Attending tastings with natural wine rock stars like Philippe Bornard, Jean Bourdy Luis Rodriguez and Eric Texier was to understand the passion and humility of these individuals. They eschewed labels to a person yet spoke their own individual language that in concept, was common across all of them. These are individuals driven by intense emotions and their success is attributable to drive, self-belief and extraordinary skill.

The validity of natural winemaking doesn’t lie with its definition.

Artisanal, organic, biodynamic, sustainable and natural all bump into each other as parts of a new way of looking at an ancient tradition of winemaking. To some it’s tradition carried forth. To some a revolution of change. None of this speaks to quality but it does speak to a promise and an approach.

I wasted too much time this year arguing with wine journalists jockeying for definition and defensive of their own roles as taste makers in the hard-wired reality of the wine world today.

Labels on bottles are important certainly. Certification as assurance of credibility is critical. But these labels and certifications don’t create the reality, they codify it.

Our local shops and specialty importers are doing this job now, and well. Over time, this will move online and the category of natural or artisanal will be a first door on a search or referral funnel to finding what you like under this general contextual umbrella.

The response from the industry to the categories of natural and biodynamic is a bit too shrill to ignore. The percent of grapes grown organically or biodynamically is really small. The same with the overall revenue numbers of what is sold under this broad definition.

So…what’s going on?

Can a farmer like Christian Ducroux making wondrous no sulfer-added, 100% natural Beaujolais on his tiny 4-hectare vineyard on the hillside above the village of Regni-Durette in France really threaten the wine world?

Stangely, I think so.

Although Ducroux makes delicious wine of the highest quality, he does so in the most petite of vineyards, off the economic grid mostly with a lifestyle intent.

While there are huge variations in the definition of what constitutes natural—chaptalization, natural yeasts, filtration, sulfur not to mention vineyard practices–really wonderful wine that truly is an expression of terroir can be the result. When it’s in a goblet swirling rhythmically, it’s superfood for the soul, enthralling with bouquet, smile inducing and head nodding satisfaction when it all comes together.

This is where this gets interesting.

The most low tech (no tech actually), natural approach to making  wondrous wine is being made possible as business reality and a consumer connection by a platform of technical sophistication never before available.

The culture of the consumer has shifted on a global basis. It is not the exception to be eco-aware, health conscious, artisan supportive and curiously adventurous in seeking out new places, foods, cultures, people…and wine.

The social web has established the reality of the global local and the power of the niche to stand alone or as part of a marketplace. It has empowered the consumer, democratized information and distribution for industry after industry. It was made real the possibilities of marketplaces and given voice and commercial weight to the niche, the authentic and the unique.

I’ve blogged often about the wave of change that is sweeping our culture on how we find, purchase and consume our passions. Natural wine, defined as you will, artisanal at its very core, is part of this.

As I write this I’m sipping a truly wonderful glass of organic Malvasia from the Skerk Vineyard in Carso, Friuli, Italy. So rich and refreshing. Mineral. Vivacious. From Sandi’s cellar to my goblet. From my blog to your intent to taste I hope.

And I’m thinking of the old adage that says that the future is already here. It’s just a secret that only a few have discovered it.

To me, it’s already here and I’m living it.

Call it natural. Call it artisanal. Call it organic.

The market will decide but the connection between me in NYC and Sandi Skerk in Carso is quite real and tangible. I may have been attracted to Skerk because of his indigenous varietals, his natural approach and the magnificence of his cellar. But at the end of this string of filters, of categories, is the taste that binds.

This is a new culture of consumers demanding that the systems of discovery and distribution fit themselves to their wants. The wines are scattered in interesting pocket across the globe. The market, certainly in the states, is here.

The value chain between winemaker and consumer for natural wines is already present, like breadcrumbs scattered about. There is only that handshake between personal discovery and seamless commerce that is still wanting. And in my view, not for long.

 

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