Wine the natural way
CEREA, Italy — I knew I was in for a winetasting like no other when I turned to my host for a translation and he winked knowingly.
“Think Topo Gigio,” he said with a Cheshire’s grin.
Topo Gigio? That big-eared Italian TV-star mouse from the 1960s and ‘70s?
“You mean, she said ‘mousey’?” I offered, and he nodded.
“You never know what you’ll get with a natural wine,” he said with a delighted grin.
We were in the renovated furniture factory-turned expo space in the village of Cerea, Italy, about 30 minutes south of Verona, attending the Day 2 of ViniVeri 2016, the 13th annual edition of this wine fair devoted solely to natural wines, those made through organic or biodynamic farming and without the interventionist methods of conventional wines.
There were about 300 other natural wine lovers wandering the space, talking to 100 or so producers, representatives and distributors, and sharing thoughts on what may happen when a winemaker lets nature run its course in the winery.
The answer, of course, is as subjective as all wine preferences tend to be. There are no international standards as to what an organic or natural wine can be, although at the least they are organically grown, hand-harvested and made with minimal human intervention.
I sought out Lance Hanson, co-owner, along with wife Anna, of Jack Rabbit Hill Farm on Redlands Mesa near Hotchkiss. Hanson makes true-to-the-essence wines, spirits and ciders, all using local, organically grown fruit and fermented and distilled in a natural manner.
“We had this idea of making place-driven or terroir-driven wines inspired by the organic growers in this area,” said Hanson, whose organic farm was certified biodynamic in 2008 by Demeter USA. “It was that (certification) experience that introduced us to the idea of really making and producing wine in the same way we farm: Low-input, very light handling, non-interventionist.”
One standard for a natural wine is that either biodynamic or organic farming techniques must be used.
Most important, however, is the lack of additives, something most people notice the first time they taste a natural wine.
Those missing the additives are what “hide or mask the character of the wine,” Hanson said. “It’s our opportunity to take advantage of the unique character of the fruit grown here and create a unique product.”
One winemaker I spoke with at ViniVeri said he was at first put off by the strange flavors in his mouth but then realized he was, for the first time, actually tasting the wine itself.
“Now, I can’t drink a commercial wine,” he said.
No commercial yeasts, no chemicals, no enzymes or flavorings, no Mega Purple to make it darker or reverse osmosis or cryoextraction to make it sweeter or more concentrated, all of which are common in conventional wines. This is low-intervention, hands-off winemaking.
Jeff Gordinier last year said in an article in the New York Times that “when you leave additives out, that means anything goes, with flavors that can be all over the map.”
That unrestrained latitude is one of the attractions of natural wines and one of the reasons natural wine lovers, well, love natural wines. You must have a sense of adventure and willingly check your prior attitudes regarding fermented grape juice at the door before entering.
Was our “mousey” wine bad, in the sense of being “off”? Not necessarily. It wasn’t undrinkable, just unexpected.
But none of the 100 or so natural and organic wines we tasted over two days were like anything I’ve ever had. Most were intriguing, beguiling, mysterious, deserving of more than a quick swirl, sip and dump before moving on to the next.
“That’s exactly it,” Hanson said when quizzed. “How do I let the fruit express itself in a bottle of wine without getting in its way? That’s what natural winemaking is all about.”
Which is where Colorado Natural Wine Week, set for the Denver/Boulder area on April 17-22, comes in.
You can spend the week attending seminars by and about winemakers, in-store tastings and special dinners with selected winemakers. Restaurants in both cities will offer Natural Wine Week specials.
The main event is the public Grand Showcase from 4:30-8:30 p.m. on April 19 at the Space Gallery, 400 S. Santa Fe in Denver. Tickets are $39/$75 and are available online at coloradonaturalwineweek.org.
The demand for natural wines is growing, albeit slowly. Maybe it’s a sign of the maturation of the American wine palate that drinkers are willing to explore beyond their comfort zone, to allow themselves some freedom of expression in their glass.
One can hope.