Alice Feiring on the Truths & Misconceptions of Natural Wine

natural wine mythsDespite natural wine’s swift rise in popularity, the category still remains one of the most misunderstood in the wine world, which is why Alice Feiring’s new book Natural Wine for The People is so perfectly timed. In the book, Feiring offers an easily digestible exploration of the category while delving into its history and providing a guide to the world’s best producers. One of the most illuminating sections of the book is the Truths and Misconceptions chapter, where she sheds light on many of the swirling rumors and misunderstandings surrounding natural wine. Here are a few of the myths Feiring debunks in the book—to read more, be sure to buy a copy

MYTH: Natural wines are brown and oxidized, and taste like wet socks and curry.
TRUTH: Brown wine is rare. Oxidized is always a fault. 

People are always confusing oxidized (negative) with oxidative. Oxidized is a flaw, caused by exposing the wine to oxygen during wine making or storing it on a heater or on a hot dock when transferring it to the warehouse. For those oxidized wines, you would use words such as maderized, or cooked, to describe the deadened flavors. But oxidative, that’s a different story. This is a deliberate wine-making choice.

However, what about the wine’s color? No matter where they begin on the color chart, white wines deepen in color with age (red wines fade). But yet sometimes a young wine is brown, even when it hasn’t prematurely aged.

Take a wine from Milan Nestarec, a producer from the Czech Republic, the 2013 Antika Podfuck (yes, its real name). It was a Pinot Gris. The color was practically caramel. Pinot Gris grapes have pink skin, the wine had some skin contact, it was made in the presence of oxygen, and so you would expect some color. But the wine looked like death. Yet, instead, it was fresh and delicious. Transcendent. Vibrant.

I’ve had other brown wines too. One of them was the Sauvignon Blanc from Vinos Ambiz, made by Fabio Bartolomei in Sierra de Gredos, Spain. He’s a fascinating winemaker, truly laissez-faire, and somehow the wines are often kind of messed up but gorgeous as well. Some of these brown wines are past their prime and some are yummy. Let your nose be your guide. If it smells good, or at least not bad, give it a try—you might be shocked, pleasantly so. As far as color? You can tell something from hue but not everything. With experience—taste, taste, taste—you’ll train yourself to know the difference. If nothing else, remember this: never judge a natural wine by its color alone.

MYTH: All natural wines are cloudy. 
TRUTH: Some are. 

The affable manager of an East Village wine shop in New York City summed it up when he said to me, “People are coming in asking for cloudy wines.”

Having a perfectly clear wine is not necessarily the result of lots of fining and polishing. There are reasons a wine can be naturally clear. One is racking the wine—this just means transferring the wine off of its lees into a different tank or barrel, and then leaving the wine in the tank long enough before bottling for the heavier particles to naturally settle to the bottom.

The country of Georgia, the birthplace of wine more than eight thousand years ago, knows a thing or two about wine making. Georgians make wine in these huge clay amphorae called qvevri, which they bury underground. The shape makes natural settling, otherwise known as clarification, easy. The wine is usually bottled directly from the qvevri. If you get wine from the top of the qvevri, it’s perfectly clear. From the bottom? Not so much. The Georgians drink both.

But when a wine is super crystalline, polished up like a brilliant diamond, I am skeptical and suspect technology was used to get it there. But you should also look at cloudy wines with a healthy skepticism. Cloudy wine is such a fad in Italy that some Proseccos and even Lambruscos (yes, there are good Lambruscos) have been rumored to be manufactured to be murky. The moral of the story? Don’t be fooled by looks. Because natural doesn’t exist as a category, it’s hard to safeguard against the phonies. You can develop your sensitivities. If your Prosecco smells like Sauviginon Blanc (grassy), or aromatized Chardonnay (creamy or tropical), something is wrong. If the lees don’t really settle at the bottom of the bottle, something is wrong. If there’s a bad aftertaste, something is wrong. Until you get to that level of expertise, and it may take several years, the best way is to flip the bottle around to see who the importer is who brings the wine into the country—the reliable ones won’t bring in phony wine.

MYTH: All natural wines are fizzy.  
TRUTH: Some are.  

Fizz in natural is not required, but it’s not unusual. This fizz comes from carbon dioxide (CO2), a natural by-product of all fermentations. Conventional winemakers “de-gas” before bottling because they feel the CO2 could be confused with refermentation, and they expect the drinker would be bugged by it. They remove the excess CO2 either through extreme agitation to release the bubbles or by siphoning it off with hoses. Natural winemakers just embrace it—for two reasons. First, the CO2 provides the wine with extra protection from oxygen. Second, it’s refreshing. So why do anything? If it bugs you, all you need is a wide-mouth decanter or pitcher. Give the decanted wine a few serious swirls to get rid of the gas.

Reprinted with permission from Natural Wine for The People: What It Is, Where to Find It, How to Love It by Alice Feiring, copyright © 2019. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House.


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