Alice is from New York City, and is known internationally as one of the most authoritative voices for natural wines.
Not many years ago, the wine industry was pushing towards mass industrialization. Every step of the process was getting bigger and more homogenized. There was an infatuation for new oak barrels (and little else). The wine itself had become a “one taste fits all” experience. Rather than focus on the subtleties and hints that make wine unique, large companies were churning out batch after batch of the same maroon liquid and calling it wine.
This empty process made Alice realize that very few people really had their sights aligned with the true nature and spirit of wine. Alice found a passion for the true essence of winemaking; which included organic viticulture, native yeast fermentation, and wine made without additives or subtractions. Simply put, wine making in its most traditional, holistic process.
Most people are unaware that there are 72 different types of additives that can be used during winemaking. There are also hundreds of different yeasts to be used for the fermentation process.
Now, why do producers need to do that? The wine will naturally produce yeasts as it ferments that will easily convert sugar into alcohol. Saccharomyces cerevisiae is the mother of all yeasts found in wine, baking and brewing methods since ancient times. And it is still alive and kicking on every grape in the valley.
But modern winemakers use laboratories to mix and match yeasts to their liking, completely altering the essence of wine. Each strain of yeast accents certain flavors and aromas in wine, and the difference between two yeasts can be profound. Thats why winemakers keep a portfolio of certain flavors and aromas for their wine as well as the yeasts to use when creating them.
Add to this experiment a long list of things like enzymes, tannins gum arabic, mega purple, acidifiers de-acidifiers, de-foaming agents, and chemicals to decrease brettanomyces. Some wine producers even use heavier processes like reverse osmosis. Wine is separated into sludge, alcohol, and water and then reconstituted back into a standardized wine. The result is a concoction fit for the chemistry lab – and found on most dinner tables.
At the other end of the spectrum, Alice believes wine should be a simple union between the winemaker, the earth, and the process. Period. In this union, the winemaker is little more than a guide. She believes you should do as little as possible to the wine; merely create a vessel which will impact it the wine as little as possible.
In this process, fermentation is a dance between grapes and local yeasts. The yeasts that are found on the skins of grapes, the walls of the winery, and in the air are not just random strains of yeast. Thats the magic of natural winemaking. These yeasts represent the region. They speak of soil, the flowers and trees, the air itself. That is why they work so well with old-world natural wines.
The result is a wine rich in life force, with a taste that is in a class of its own. Understanding the depth of the reason behind this, it is easy to see why commercial wines do not stack up.
Commercial strains of yeast that can be ordered and added to the wine simply do not represent the terroir of the vineyard; they don’t speak the same language as the grapes, if you will. Hence, the aromas and flavors of that particular vineyard are lost.
These terms are still very blurry and at times they cross each others path. They are quite simple to define though. True natural wine refers to viticulture and a holistic, untouched winemaking process.
Organic simply means you can use any ingredient as long as it’s organic; organic yeasts, organic tannins, et cetera.
Sustainable simply means that there’s not enough commitment to farm organically. It means that you try to use fewer chemicals; the emphasis is on the word try. There are some people who take it seriously, though but there are no standards.
Biodynamic farming is a form agriculture that requires the use of the nine preparations derived from animal, vegetable or mineral only. The practice is timed to season and phases of the moon. It refers to the farming alone. A biodynamic wine has some requirements that vary country to country and the result can get close to natural. Demeter is the most famous of the certifications.
Slowly but surely, the world is waking up to the vitality that comes from natural wines. France led the resurrection of natural wines in the late 70´s. To this day it still has the biggest concentration of wine growers and makers. Italy as well is known to be on the top of the list of natural wine producers. Even the country of Georgia, which used to have a tiny natural wine community, suddenly has hundreds of strong natural wine growers.
The natural wine areas in the U.S. are mainly Portland, Maine, Tampa, Florida, Vermont; which are all very interesting growing areas. There is no set type of grape variety to be used; it depends entirely on where you are. Most natural winemakers will use indigenous grapes of the local area as well as their yeasts.
So, how and where can people discover natural wines? Sommeliers and natural wine bars are a good start, though they are proceeding slowly. You should approach the natural wine experience as something off the beaten path. Don’t expect it all at once, but step by step, the change is happening.
Embracing natural wine makes a lot of sense philosophically for some restaurants, particularly those dedicated to responsible sourcing and farm-to- table menus. As your palate develops, you may realize there is a flavorful connection between these ideologies as well.
While natural wines are starting to find their niche, they can be difficult to follow and locate at times. Theyre seldom given a category of their own on wine lists, and theres often nothing on the label to indicate that they are made with the natural wine method.
Alice´s new book, The Dirty Wine Guide is humor filled, wine savvy, and produces a deep understanding of the natural world. Alice Feiring writes about Georgia - the one in the Caucasus, not the one with peaches – which may be the original home of Vitis vinifera, the noble wine grape. Scouring every page of the book for insights and history is a great place for any natural wine lover to start.
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