The Natural Wine Conundrum, Defined
A tale of two (very different) low-intervention South African Chenin Blancs, and the difficult, confusing, and (at times) disappointing journey to finding them
When Jason mentioned our next stop on this Everyday Drinking journey would be South Africa, I was initially pumped. I had tried a few mind-blowing natural South African Chenin Blancs over the last few years, and I was eager to revisit and share them with you. This seemingly-straight-forward task of tracking down the aforementioned wines sent me on a journey during which I was reminded of three valuable lessons for any natural wine drinker.
“So you’re telling me I have to wait another year to taste this divine liquid once again? What am I supposed to do in the meanwhile? Sit here and knit?!”
First and foremost, let’s talk availability. My task of tracking down two to four bottles of low-intervention South African Chenin Blancs for the Everyday Drinking podcast? Easy-peasy lemon-squeezy, right? I mean, not to brag but I do live in Brooklyn, a destination for natural wine. There’s no shortage of natural juice here. But when it came to locating the same bottles of wine that dropped my jaw sometime over the last few years, I struggled. Simply put, the production of natural wine is just small. Once they sell out across New York City’s natty wine shops, they’re gone until next year's drop.
This scarcity can be discouraging; after all, we humans yearn for the familiar. When it comes to wine, that often means doing your wine shopping in a grocery store that is one hundred percent always going to have the exact wine you went there thinking about. And that wine is going to taste exactly the same as it did the last time you drank it. There is something to be said for reliability and predictability, don’t get me wrong. But these are characteristics I look more for in friendships and tampons than in wine. If you choose to shop for vino within your comfort zone, yes, you will never be let down by a wine, but you will also never get to experience magically delicious earth juice made by real humans with real stories. Not to mention, if a wine is that reliably there for you, it’s likely mass-produced and factory-made. And to that you might say, but Beth, Cheetos are also mass-produced and factory-made. And to that I would say, touché, because I do love Cheetos.
Cheetos aside, part of what makes natural wine so thrilling is its scarcity and cyclic nature. You get your hands on a coveted bottle, you enjoy the hell out of it, and then it becomes a distant memory until the next vintage comes around. People often ask me where they can find certain bottles of wine I post pictures of on Instagram, and it makes them disappointed when my honest answer is well, you can’t. At least not right now. But start building up an arsenal of wines and styles that sound great, and be on the lookout throughout the year as they are released. Sign up for the newsletters of your favorite winemakers and bottle shops. Don’t feel like waiting? Befriend a good wine shop, trust them with your tastes, and try out their suggestions for something similar. The scarcity of natural wine encourages (well, forces) you to step out of your wine comfort zone. And do you know what my favorite American Idol Judge Lionel Ritchie says about that? “Life begins at the end of your wine comfort zone,” he says. Or something like that. When it comes to natural wine, it's difficult to pinpoint a favorite bottle when new and exciting things are constantly coming your way.
“I had natural wine once. It’s like that funky, cider-like, kombucha stuff? Really cloudy? Yeah, it was weird.”
In the end, our natural South African Chenin Blanc scavenger hunt led us to two beautiful bottles that, on their own, represent the two ends of the lively spectrum that is natural wine. One of the biggest misconceptions is that natural wine is a flavor. Many (like one of my ex colleagues who I directly quote above) equate natural wine with a specific style that is funky, cloudy, cider-like liquid, glugged by millennial hipsters in grungy wine bars all across Brooklyn. And while that’s not necessarily wrong (I am practically describing my most recent Saturday night), it’s only a single chapter of a much bigger story.
Because the term isn’t regulated, natural wine is confusing. But I’d say most of us can agree on a definition that has nothing to do with flavor. Instead, it’s all about the viticulture (grape growing) and viniculture (winemaking). Natural wine is farmed without synthetic chemicals like pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides. In the cellar, its fermentation kicks off spontaneously with native yeasts naturally present in the winery and vineyard. Nothing is added to the wine to manipulate or adjust its flavors. And in the end, nothing is “taken away” because it’s not filtered or fined. Sure, the winemaker can (and in many cases should) add a bit of sulfur at bottling for stability.
So what does natural wine taste like? Sommelier Whitney Pope (@_whitandwine) created a graphic that can help us visualize this spectrum of flavor. On one side, natural wine can be clean and classic, not differing much in appearance from a conventional wine, but will arguably taste more nuanced thanks to the terroir-driven farming practices employed. Enter Paulus Wine Company Bosberaad Chenin Blanc 2019 ($40), the first of two wines on this Chenin Blanc journey. Clean and pale lemon in color, the wine is delicate but lively, with notes of ripe pear, white peach, and citrus. Complementing the ripe bounty of fruit are dried herbs and honey, a mouth-watering acidity and salinity, and a pleasant, lengthy finish. It’s really quite beautiful, complex, and linear, especially considering this is winemaker Paul Jordaan’s second vintage. Wines like these make me proud in a way. I want to share them with all the anti-natty tiktokers and old-school WSET instructors who complain about natural wine and I want to say, Hey you! Taste this, oh wait, you like it? This is natural wine.
On the opposite end of Pope’s natural wine flavor spectrum, you’ll find wild and unfiltered wines. These are typically, but not always, zero-zero wines with nothing added (no sulfur) and nothing taken away. Introducing Mother Rock Liquid Skin 2020 ($28), Chenin Blanc number two of two on my South African natural wine journey. In the glass, do take note of the cloudy, freshly-squeezed tangerine juice, an indication of an unfined and unfiltered wine that has bonded with its skins for ten whole weeks. Fragrant aromas of exotic fruit leap and shimmy out of the glass; apricots, tangerines, and pineapples waltz across my tongue like a fruit pride parade. It’s like a Sunny-D mimosa, but in the best way. Extended skin contact gives this wine abundant color, texture, and flavor, and the resulting tannins are ripe and smooth, the texture chalky. This is the funky stuff that really blows my mind. It’s fresh and alive, and frankly delicious, unlike any conventional wine I’ve ever tasted. Drink it poolside, on a roof, in a park. Share with friends (but maybe not too much because like, there’s not a lot of it). And when they ask you what this magical hype juice is, you can tell them with confidence: This is also natural wine.
“You paid HOW MUCH for this?”
I’ve been sipping and writing about natural wine for almost three years now, so I think it’s about time I talk about flops. In my reviews, I tend to focus on the good. Unlike the critical mass of social media who feel the need to voice their negative feedback on just about everything, I prefer to keep things positive. A certain wine just doesn’t do it for me? I simply choose to not write about it and move on. That being said, I can’t ignore the fact that there are natural wines out there that are seriously faulty, absurdly overpriced, or just downright bad.
When it comes to wine faults, natural wine is often bashed for things like excessive volatile acidity, mousiness, and brettanomyces. Where each of these flaws come from is debated. For example, I often see a correlation between no-added-sulfur wines and higher levels of volatile acidity, giving a wine that smells and tastes like nail polish. But at low levels, volatile acidity adds character and liveliness that I really enjoy in a wine (I often get a sesame oil drizzle note). I’m not “defending poor winemaking” so you can just go ahead and mute your anti-natty wine reel right now; I’m acknowledging that not all natural wine is great. (Newsflash: Not all conventional wine is great either.)
Two of our four natural South African wine picks did not make it into the podcast nor this article. They lacked acidity and vivaciousness, and definitely did not deliver for the price. We’re not going to tell you how much we paid for them because frankly it’s embarrassing. (Let’s just say they were more expensive than an annual subscription to Everyday Drinking: Subscribe now, it’s a bargain!) What I will say is this: The wines were unfiltered, with cartoonish labels, likely falling into the wild and unfiltered side of Pope’s flavor spectrum.
The best way to steer clear of flops like these is to avoid buying natural wine blind. Don’t walk into a wine shop and pick the wine with the coolest label art. (Unless of course you are in a trusted shop with a top-notch selection. Then go for it; you might succeed.) Find winemakers whose styles you jive with. Take the suggestions of the wine shop pros. Join a well-curated monthly wine club. Follow an honest and bubbly Instagramer who only reviews wines she can truly get behind. Adhere to these tips and I’m confident you will find and fall in love with natural wine, whether it’s wild and unfiltered, clean and classic, or anything in between.