Care For Something Wild? Natural Wines Go Upmarket
GENEVA - Pontus Elofsson, head sommelier at Copenhagen’s Noma restaurant, ranked best restaurant in the world for the past three years, swears by them: natural wines. These are the wines with “nothing added, nothing taken away” - no sulfites, no foreign yeasts, no added sugars, no enzymes.
Traditional wines, on the other hand, are “corrected through additives and techniques.” The “wilder the wine,” the better it pairs with the uncluttered, Scandinavian-inspired cuisine of Noma’s chef Rene Redzepi, says Elofsson.
Noma’s success is a sign of the growing interest in natural or “living” wines. “At first, there were only a handful of producers, mostly in France,” says sommelier Emmanuel Heydens, a natural wine pioneer in Switzerland and owner of Geneva’s Passeur de vin wine shop. At the beginning, “The wines had these funky tastes and presented many flaws, on all levels. With time, the quality improved and the range grew wider. This year, I discovered 70 new domains.”
In his three wine shops, 85% of the wine sold is natural and the numbers are growing. “The 2008 crisis created a new market for this type of wine,” he says. “People are less influenced by marketing. They’re looking for authenticity. Top restaurants like Noma and Crissier in Switzerland are also adding them to their menus, something is happening.”
Specialized shops are taking advantage of the trend across Europe. Vincent Forster, an electronics engineer, and Max Favretto, a marketing expert, left their jobs in 2010 to open their own wine shop, Vinomax. “I sort of stumbled upon natural wines in Piedmont,” explains Forster. “We decided to dig deeper, we looked into it and then we went for it. Now, we offer wines from about 15 vineyards in Italy, France and Spain. Every time we find a new wine that we really like, we go and meet the producers.”
The absence of sulfites – or sulfur dioxide (SO2) – is a determining criterion to belong to the natural wine club. Without the antiseptic and antioxidant effects of the SO2, wine is unstable and can start fermenting again. It must be preserved below 14 degrees at all times. Once it is served, its flavors evolve quickly – bringing out a fresh and fruity quality in the best vintages. “These wines are alive, not pasteurized,” says Forster. “I’m not saying traditional wines are bad, I still drink them. But I try to stay away from anything that is formatted.”
Heydens agrees: “I don’t like dogma. There are very good traditional wines and very bad natural wines. This is not about leaving one church for another. Everyone can make their own decision.”
On the Internet however, these moderate comments are rare. Those on “team natural wine” talk about “healthy wines with a soul,” as opposed to “industrial” wines. They criticize the use of chemical products that pollute the soil and the possibility of integrating “unnecessary and corrupting additives” during the winemaking process. The worst of these additives is sulfur, which is toxic in high doses and responsible for allergies and intolerance (3% to 10% of the population according to different studies). It must be noted that sulfur is also present in other foods, such as sauerkraut, dried apricots, and industrial cookies.
Heydens and Forster both believe natural wines will keep winning market shares. Aside from their natural qualities, they echo our deep desires for authenticity and traceability. But that may be forgetting one longstanding reality: before being natural or traditional, wine is foremost a cultural product, created with a know-how that has evolved with time, place and the consumers’ tastes. As the saying goes: “Tell me what you drink and I’ll tell you who you are.”