Let’s start with 1. “Natural” wine in Italy is a new idea. It’s not. Wine has been made in Italy for about 3,000 years and until about fifty years ago, it was all “natural”. Vineyards were free of industrial chemicals (pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, etc.), fermentation occurred because of indigenous yeasts on the grapes and in the cellar, and vinification occurred without additives or industrial processes like micro-oxygenation to soften tannins or reverse osmosis to decrease the level of alcohol.
2. Wine that has been certified “organic” wine is “natural”. Not necessarily because the 2012 European Union legislation outlining organic standards refers only to the vineyard, not the cellar. This graphic from the Institut Français du Vin shows the cellar practices allowed in wine: conventional, certified organic, certified biodynamic (Demeter) and “natural” wine (for which there is no certification). Natural winemaking consists only of spontaneous fermentation and the addition of tiny dose of sulfites only at bottling. (The difference between certified biodynamic and “natural” is the allowance of various forms of filtration.)
It’s also worth noting that many “natural” winegrowers in Italy, particularly those with historical roots don’t bother with certification because it’s expensive, their standards exceed those needed for certification, and their wine sells on its merits as being great wine, not because its marketed as organic or biodynamic or natural. Some of Italy’s most iconic and expensive wines (like Rinaldi Barolo) are “natural” but not labeled or written about as such.
3. “Natural” wine will, by definition, have defects (oxidized, fizzy, vinegary, overly acidic, etc.). Not true. First, it’s important to understand how “defect” is defined: a real defect or simply outside the norms for “industrial” wine.
Then, come to grips with the unavoidable fact that making defect free wine without manipulation in the cellar requires super healthy, high quality fruit. For this reason, most “natural” winegrowers go beyond organic standards in the vineyard to using some form of traditional or biodynamic farming that re-vitalizes the soil and creates holistic health in the vineyard.
One of the most common practices is allowing spontaneous growth among the vines or planting other crops like fava beans.
Another large contributor to healthy grapes and vines is biodiversity in and around the vineyards.
4. “Natural” wine spoils easily and cannot age. This is one of the craziest misconceptions since wine has been aging for millennia, long before the advent of industrial processes and additives. While it is true that “natural” wine can be made in such a way that it should be drunk when it is very young, that is also true for many “conventional” wines. Contrary to the misconception, some “natural” wine ages actually has more aging capacity, depending on the variety and the way the wine is made.
The misconception has largely derived from the fact that up and coming “natural” wine bars and restaurants serve wines that are easy drinking wines not meant to age. In reality, “natural” winegrowers make a range of wines from those that are meant to be drunk young and those that are meant for longer aging.
5. Lower quality “natural wine” is classified IGT or Vino Di Tavola instead of DOCG and DOC. Paradoxically, some of Italy’s historic and most interesting winegrowers are leaving the DOCG or DOC by declassifying their wine. The DOCG or DOC standards were initially created in the 60s and 70s to recognize and guarantee the quality of wine connected to a particular place and tradition. Ironically, “natural” winegrowers have had to leave the DOC or DOCG to maintain their standards.
Stefano Bellotti declassified his DOCG Gavi to Vino di Tavola, for example, after the DOCG authorities fined him thousands of euros for having too many peach trees in this vineyard. Or Elisabetta Foradori decided to classify all of her wine to IGT to avoid bureaucratic headaches in making her native variety wines with natural methods in clay amphorae.
In sum, the hype around “natural” wine has helped Italian winegrowers who never wavered from historic “natural” methods by bringing attention to the prevalence of “industrial” methods, but it has also created misconceptions. The best way to find wine that is delicious and truly made only from grapes (with at most, a little sulfite thrown in at bottling) is to begin your own voyage of discovery.
No certification can replace knowing the winegrower or knowing of the winegrower and what he/she does in the vineyard and in the cellar. To create that kind of access, I started writing this blog. If you are interested in meeting the winegrowers in Italy, see the travel pages or write Eleanor.