Food & Wine Thursdays: Must Natural Wine Be Austere?

I work with quite a few California wineries, many of which are from the Central Coast which, for those of you unfamiliar with the vinous geography of California, is the wine region which begins about two hours northwest of Los Angeles and ends about two hours south of San Francisco. Broadly speaking, it encompasses Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, and Monterey Counties.

This being California and, more specifically, Coastal California, it is relatively warm, though rarely as warm as the hottest days in Napa. But, because many of these vineyards are within 30 miles of the Pacific coast, it is also very uncommon for the weather to get cold enough where frost comes a major concern as winter approaches. The result? A very long, very even growing season, producing fully ripe, full-bodied grape. Riper grapes have more sugar and, for those of you who didn’t fail chemistry, more sugar means more alcohol after fermentation.

Many of these wines I work with are also made about as naturally as you can make wine. They allow for a natural fermentation by local yeasts. They don’t inoculate with commercial strains. They don’t acidify. They don’t water down. They don’t use oak chips. The vineyards they utilize are all SIP-certified, which is a program that certifies vineyards for responsible farming and labor practices. They don’t filter or fine and they use a small amount of sulfur at bottling to stabilize, resulting in a mere 20-30ppm free sulfur.

(As a point of reference, the European threshold for organic wine is 100 ppm free sulfur. The USDA only allows for 10 ppm, which is virtually impossible to achieve even without adding any sulfur and is perhaps the single biggest barrier to big “O” Organic wine being more prevalent in the United States.)

But, these wines also are rich, full-bodied, and often eclipse 15% alcohol by volume. This is in stark contrast to “natural” wines that are favored by the aficionados which are lean, austere, and around 12% abv. I was speaking with a buyer who is a natural wine fan, who contended that “natural” wine must have a degree of austerity, which effectively means a paucity of rich fruit flavors and aromas in favor of the earthy, herbal, leathery, and funky.

My response to that is that it is impossible to naturally make a wine of that character in much of California, but that doesn’t mean high quality, low-manipulation, minimal interference wine can’t be made. The only way to make a 12% alcohol Pinot Noir from Santa Ynez is to pick the grapes underripe, which is unnatural. There’s a reason underripe fruit is hard to pull off the tree. Fruit is designed to become as ripe and delicious as possible until a passing ground sloth swats it down and shoves it into its maw, passing the seeds out through its shit some time later.

Mmmmmmm. Garganega….

So, my question for all of you is must “natural” wine be austere? If so, is that really the right term for it? If the goal of an authentic wine is for it to be as pure an expression of terroir as possible, what’s wrong with allowing grapes grown in a favorable climate without fear of frost to reach their natural levels of ripeness and the resultant levels of alcohol?

Fundamentally, is a 12% alcohol Pinot Noir from coastal Mendocino County inherently more “natural” than a 15.5% Petite Sirah from Paso Robles, provided all other aspects of farming and wine making are equal? And if you think yes, what’s your rationale?

Let’s start the conversation.

About David D.

I'm a wine professional. Like a real one who makes most of his living in wine and have for most of my adult life. I also write, but you can see that.
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