RE-PRESENT: Natural Wines
RE-PRESENT is a series of research memos that takes as its starting point a critical concept in culinary history and examines its enduring multicultural legacy today.
As the wine world has turned its attention towards renowned regions like Bordeaux, France, Stellenbosch, South Africa, and Napa Valley, CA, a small but increasingly influential community has returned to the fundamentals and origins of winemaking in Eastern Europe. No matter the descriptor— zero-zero, low intervention, naked, raw— you can now enjoy a glass of wine made in the way that it was 8000 years ago.
There is hardly a legal definition for ‘natural wine’.1 2 Still, vintners and wine enthusiasts agree that the term ‘Natural Wine’ refers to a generalized form of the beloved drink constructed without pesticides, chemicals, and other additives.3 Instead of adhering to conventional methods (which will be expanded upon later), viticulturists practice low intervention winemaking4 to get as close as possible to producing pure, unadulterated fermented grape juice.
Now, if you’re asking yourself, “isn’t all wine technically just fermented grape juice?” you’re asking the right question; however, you’ve likely been grossly misled.
Natural wine is completely different from the conventionally-produced wine you can find on just about any store shelf. For that matter, it’s also dissimilar from organic wine and biodynamic wine. What sets natural wines apart from the other varieties is a specific set of attitudes during grape cultivation and the alcohol making process. Low intervention wine-making calls for grapes to be grown and picked by hand, without the use of machine technology or pesticides. Once these hand-picked grapes are ready to be turned into juice, natural winemakers rely on native yeast, the micro-organisms living in the air and on the outside of grapes, to orchestrate fermentation.5 Unlike conventional wines, natural winemakers completely avoid additives (like commercial yeast, manufactured oak flavoring, sulfides, egg white, acid, sugar, etc.) during the winemaking process.6 7 Their efforts ultimately produce a wine that critics label as ‘funky’, ‘wild’ or ‘not clean’, while others describe the experience as a ‘delicious electrified juice’.8 9
Interestingly, these natural wine critics have essentially ridiculed a process known to have accompanied human evolution: fermentation. The story of alcoholic fermentation as an intentional human activity likely occurred during the Neolithic era (8500-4000 BCE); the earliest known evidence comes from a chemical analysis on remnants of a fermentation drum found in Jiahu, China from sometime between 7000-6600 BCE.10 11 Residue from the clay vessel revealed that foods such as rice, millet, grapes, and honey were blended together in an effort to construct a proto-wine. Give or take a thousand years, more developed wine begins popping up within the myths, artistry, and cuisines of cultures around the rest of Eurasia.
An ancient Persian myth recalls King Jamshid and a beautiful young woman sharing the experience of discovering wine’s intoxicating effects.12 Earthenware jugs uncovered in the Neolithic villages of the Zagros Mountains were coated with tartaric acid (an organic acid found in high concentrations in grapes), corroborating wine’s presence in Ancient Persia and the drink’s history dating back to 5000 BCE.13 14 The Ancient Greeks were no different; during the Bronze Age (3000 BC – 1200 BCE), they developed the ornate containers known as Pithoi to deliver wine and other foodstuffs throughout the Mediterranean.15 A zealous wine culture not only created wine centered deities, like Dionysus, but also further advanced the container’s form— the amphora, a smaller but more efficiently designed wine container made of clay, metal, or in rare instances, glass.16 17 18 These early technologies and deeply rooted mythos reveal the significance of fermentation as an intentional process that appears throughout a multitude of other cultures.
Similar clay vessels disclose the extent to which wine-making erupted throughout the Near East and Europe. In 3150 BCE, wine jugs from Cannan (Palestine and Israel) were sent to ancient Egypt to either be enjoyed at celebratory gatherings or buried in royal tombs for sustenance in the afterlife.19 20 This trade established a thriving winemaking industry throughout the Nile Delta and the Levant. Much later, in the 6th century BCE, Ancient Greek colonizers would bring wine to areas like France.21 Romans, too, would carry viticultural knowledge throughout its empire, from Asia Minor (Turkey) to the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal).22 23 The impacts of these great civilizations with respect to natural wine, however, pale in comparison to the region that could be the birthplace of the beloved drink.
Wine is believed to have first appeared in 6000 BCE Eastern Europe in a region that is now modern-day Georgia.24 Knowledge of winemaking spread out of this area of the Southern Caucasus (Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan). One of the unique aspects of Georgia’s winemaking is its use of massive egg-shaped wine vessels called qvevri buried below ground or set into the floors of wine cellars.25 26 Knowledge of these earthenware containers and the winemaking techniques that accompany them is likely to have spread to other areas such as the neighboring region of modern-day Armenia. The design of Armenia’s karases, or terracotta jars used in winemaking, resemble the qvevri in all aspects except size; they led to some of the region’s first wineries in 4100 BCE.27 28 29 However, the ‘tinaja’ of Spain and the ‘talha’ of Portugal, which are likely to have arrived in the Iberian Peninsula due to Roman presence, are nearly identical in design to the Georgian qvevri, the only difference being that these vessels are positioned above ground. Although the ancient Georgian wine technology is considered a marvel of the past, these early traditions are still informing modern-day practices.
In ancient times, Georgians would fill the qvevri by stomping grapes by foot, allowing the ripe juices to fall into a hollowed-out log and flow into the buried container.30 In this cool temper-controlled environment, natural fermentation would take place. The grape skins would soak in the juices, and tart acids would convert into milky, softer acids in a process known as malolactic fermentation.31 32 The act of letting the wine maintain contact with the grape’s skin produced the varieties of white wine esteemed for their orange and amber hues.33 When fermentation was finished, a stone lid was placed over the top of the qvevri to allow the wine to properly age.34 Finally, it would be transferred to a freshly cleaned qvevri for storage until bottling.35 36 Today, Georgian winemaking is no different.
The act of vinifying grapes in the qvevri – through a low intervention process – remains an untouched tradition. Not even Soviet or Russian intervention (from 1921 to 2013) could hinder the small republic’s esteemed wine heritage.37 38 39 40 UNESCO has recognized the importance of Georgian qvevri wine-making as Intangible Cultural Heritage, sending a global message that wine is an integral part of ancient and modern Georgian culture.41 More recently, enterprising winemakers have caught on. Natural wines are being made through a process that echoes the ancient traditions of Georgia; in fact, they are now the newest trend of the Western world.
What mainstream society thinks of as wine is really only about a century old, and it might be short-lived. Towards the end of World War II, agriculture underwent a love affair with pesticides, forcing chemicals like DDT and glyphosate, praised for their abilities in mitigating vectors of disease, into mainstream food production.42 In the 1960s, intervention in winemaking began to occur outside of grape cultivation when lab-grown yeast and commercial yeast became essential components to the winemaking process.43 The entire process of winemaking— from harvesting to the essential anaerobic reactions— had become a completely manufactured procedure. However, rebel winemakers of mid-20th century rural France like Marcel Lapierre, Jean Foillard, Guy Breton, and Jean-Paul Thévenet (i.e., the gang of four) recognized that their craft became entirely divorced from nature.44 45 These vintners were the harbingers of a new revolution, one which sought a return to the old practices of viticulture and vinification- the natural wine movement.46
Low intervention wines have begun rising in popular culture and are entering a competitive position in the wine market. Young people with appetites for vibrant beverages like kombuchas, ciders, and sour craft beers are now making trips to downtown natural wine bars to taste their next amber-colored, cloudy and effervescent wine. Well known personalities such as Mindy Kaling, Kourtney Kardashian, and Marissa Ross, the wine editor at Conde Nast’s Bon Appetit, have drawn attention to the subject of natural fermentation through their respective media platforms.47 48
Within this culture-consuming modern media, it will be enlightening to see if beverages similar to natural wine such as Makgeolli, a Korean fermented rice wine, Pulque, a drink native to Mexico made from fermented agave sap, or Kvass, a traditional fermented Russian beverage made from rye bread, also take the market by storm.49 50 Although not directly related to natural wine, these drinks are staples within their respective cultures, ones with the potential to inspire natural fermentation movements of their own.
A Brief History of Alcohol – Rod Phillips. TED-Ed, 2020.
This video describes the development of alcohol in conjunction with human civilization. It does so by recounting the science behind the fermentation process as well as telling a chronological narrative by which the cultures of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, ect. fostered wine centered societies. Most notably it tells about the earliest recorded instance of alcoholic consumption having occurred in China, showing that wine and other alcohols have always been a part of human history.
Berkowitz, Mark. “World’s Earliest Wine.” World’s Earliest Wine – Archaeology Magazine Archive, 1996.
Bull, Marian. “Natural Wine, Explained,” June 10, 2019.
This article tackles describing all that has gone into the natural wine movement. By reflecting on the movement’s history and the process that separates natural wine from more conventional varieties this article answers nearly any natural wine centered question imaginable. Its primary function, however, is its take on how natural wine has separated itself from organic and biodynamic wines. Ultimentally, this article serves as a fruitful description of natural wine as an investigation into its current position as a dominant trend.
Cheslow, Daniella. “Georgia’s Giant Clay Pots Hold An 8,000-Year-Old Secret To Great Wine.” NPR. NPR, June 8, 2015.
This article delves into the rich wine culture of Georgia, specifically through its visitation of the qvevri. Most importantly, the Georgian clay wine barrel is and its role in the ancient and modern day Georgia are explored in this article, alongside pictures depicting its use and immense size. Ultimately, this article acts as a clarifying piece on the way things are done and what a return to a natural wine system might look like.
Feiring, Alice. For the Love of Wine: My Odyssey through the World’s Most Ancient Wine Culture. Lincoln: Potomac Books, an Imprint of the University of Nebraska Press, 2016.
This book chronicles Fairing’s travels through Georgia and her explorations into its wine culture. By going beyond a simple explanation of the ancient Georgian winemaking and its presence in the modern day the Feiring uncovers the significance of wine to Georgians. Most importantly it discusses the impacts of the Soviet Union and how their presence nearly led to the demise of some of the world’s oldest surviving wine traditions. Moreover, her work tells the world why Georgia deserves attention for its culture and contributions.
Gordon, Susan H. “A Global Look at the Natural Wine Movement.” Eater. Eater, May 20, 2016.
This article discusses the way natural wine is taking over the world. By visiting different wine regions and the way in which natural wine is gaining traction amongst vintners, the importance of the movement is revealed in the piece. Its most significant contribution, however, is its description of the rise of natural wine in France. Although, its recognition of Gorgian wine culture also stands out as a notable addition as it shows how the movement is a revisitation of wine’s history.
McGovern, Patrick E., Stuart James. Fleming, and Solomon H. Katz. The Origins and Ancient History of Wine. Abingdon, Oxford: Routledge, 2015.
This book traverses the history and development of wine from antiquity to the modern day. Its most notable factor is the way in which it depicts the trade of wine and viticultural knowledge throughout the Near East via its analysis of wine jars and containers. Ultimately what this book provides is an overarching look at how wine travelled from one area to another.
Written by Thomas Martinez.
1 Eric Asimov, “France Defines Natural Wine, but Is That Enough?,” The New York Times (The New York Times, April 16, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/16/dining/drinks/natural-wines-vin-methode-nature.html.
2Marian Bull, “Natural Wine, Explained,” Vox (Vox, June 10, 2019), https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2019/6/10/18650601/natural-wine-sulfites-organic.
3Rachel Monroe, Adam Gopnik, and Evan Osnos, “How Natural Wine Became a Symbol of Virtuous Consumption,” The New Yorker, November 18, 2019, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/11/25/how-natural-wine-became-a-symbol-of-virtuous-consumption.
4“Radio 4 in Four – Seven Things You May Not Know about Natural Wine,” BBC Radio 4 (BBC), accessed June 15, 2020, https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/2KDkK70gKb5NKHzMScnbpCp/seven-things-you-may-not-know-about-natural-wine.
5Marian Bull, “Natural Wine, Explained,” Vox (Vox, June 10, 2019), https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2019/6/10/18650601/natural-wine-sulfites-organic.
6 “Radio 4 in Four – Seven Things You May Not Know about Natural Wine,” BBC Radio 4 (BBC), accessed June 15, 2020, https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/2KDkK70gKb5NKHzMScnbpCp/seven-things-you-may-not-know-about-natural-wine.
7Marian Bull, “Natural Wine, Explained,” Vox (Vox, June 10, 2019), https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2019/6/10/18650601/natural-wine-sulfites-organic.
9Susan H. Gordon, “A Global Look at the Natural Wine Movement,” Eater (Eater, May 20, 2016), https://www.eater.com/drinks/2016/5/20/11713332/natural-wine-france-sulfite-organic-eastern-europe.
10A Brief History of Alcohol – Rod Phillips, A Brief History of Alcohol – Rod Phillips (TED-Ed, 2020).
11P. E. Mcgovern et al., “Fermented Beverages of Pre- and Proto-Historic China,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 101, no. 51 (August 2004): pp. 17593-17598, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0407921102.
12“The Past,” Persian Tradition, accessed June 30, 2020, https://www.persianwine.com/The-Past.
13“’World’s Oldest Wine’ Found in 8,000-Year-Old Jars in Georgia,” BBC News (BBC, November 13, 2017), https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-41977709.
14Mark Berkowitz, “World’s Earliest Wine,” World’s Earliest Wine – Archaeology Magazine Archive, 1996, https://archive.archaeology.org/9609/newsbriefs/wine.html.
15Patrick E. McGovern, Stuart James. Fleming, and Solomon H. Katz, The Origins and Ancient History of Wine (Abingdon, Oxford: Routledge, 2015).
17“Greek Wine,” Wikipedia (Wikimedia Foundation, June 24, 2020), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greek_wine.
18Mark Cartwright, “Amphora,” June 27, 2020, https://www.ancient.eu/Amphora/.
19“Egyptian Wine,” Wikipedia (Wikimedia Foundation, October 22, 2019), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Egyptian_wine.
20Patrick E. McGovern, Stuart James. Fleming, and Solomon H. Katz, The Origins and Ancient History of Wine (Abingdon, Oxford: Routledge, 2015).
21“Greeks in Pre-Roman Gaul,” Wikipedia (Wikimedia Foundation, April 20, 2020), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greeks_in_pre-Roman_Gaul.
22“Ancient Rome and Wine,” Wikipedia (Wikimedia Foundation, May 20, 2020), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancient_Rome_and_wine.
23Patrick E. McGovern, Stuart James. Fleming, and Solomon H. Katz, The Origins and Ancient History of Wine (Abingdon, Oxford: Routledge, 2015).
24Alice Feiring, For the Love of Wine: My Odyssey through the World’s Most Ancient Wine Culture (Lincoln: Potomac Books, an Imprint of the University of Nebraska Press, 2016).
26Lana Bortolot, “Why Georgian Wines Are Among The Most Unique On The Planet,” Forbes (Forbes Magazine, January 19, 2019), https://www.forbes.com/sites/lanabortolot/2018/12/09/why-georgian-wines-are-among-the-most-unique-on-the-planet/.
27David Furer, “Armenian Find Is ‘World’s Oldest Winery’,” Decanter, May 27, 2015, https://www.decanter.com/wine-news/armenian-find-is-world-s-oldest-winery-42433/.
28Karine Vann, “Can Ancient Techniques Make Modern Wine Better?,” Smithsonian.com (Smithsonian Institution, February 16, 2017), https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/ancient-winemaking-techniques-armenian-karas-renaissance-180962212/.
29 “Wine,” Wikipedia (Wikimedia Foundation, June 22, 2020), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wine.
30Visiting Georgia’s Wine Regions, Pursuing Qvevri Wines, Jamie Goode, 2019.
31Daniella Cheslow, “Georgia’s Giant Clay Pots Hold An 8,000-Year-Old Secret To Great Wine,” NPR (NPR, June 8, 2015), https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/06/08/412039092/georgias-giant-clay-pots-hold-an-8-000-year-old-secret-to-great-wine.
32Alice Feiring, For the Love of Wine: My Odyssey through the World’s Most Ancient Wine Culture (Lincoln: Potomac Books, an Imprint of the University of Nebraska Press, 2016).
33Visiting Georgia’s Wine Regions, Pursuing Qvevri Wines, Jamie Goode, 2019.
34Daniella Cheslow, “Georgia’s Giant Clay Pots Hold An 8,000-Year-Old Secret To Great Wine,” NPR (NPR, June 8, 2015), https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/06/08/412039092/georgias-giant-clay-pots-hold-an-8-000-year-old-secret-to-great-wine.
36Visiting Georgia’s Wine Regions, Pursuing Qvevri Wines, Jamie Goode, 2019.
37Alice Feiring, For the Love of Wine: My Odyssey through the World’s Most Ancient Wine Culture (Lincoln: Potomac Books, an Imprint of the University of Nebraska Press, 2016).
38Daniella Cheslow, “Georgia’s Giant Clay Pots Hold An 8,000-Year-Old Secret To Great Wine,” NPR (NPR, June 8, 2015), https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/06/08/412039092/georgias-giant-clay-pots-hold-an-8-000-year-old-secret-to-great-wine.
39Lana Bortolot, “Why Georgian Wines Are Among The Most Unique On The Planet,” Forbes (Forbes Magazine, January 19, 2019), https://www.forbes.com/sites/lanabortolot/2018/12/09/why-georgian-wines-are-among-the-most-unique-on-the-planet/.
40Photograph Courtesy Georgia Travel, “Discover the Secret Birthplace of Wine,” Discover the secret birthplace of wine, September 27, 2018, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/destinations/asia/georgia/sponsor-content-secret-birthplace-of-wine/.
41“Ancient Georgian Traditional Qvevri Wine-Making Method,” UNESCO, accessed June 30, 2020, https://ich.unesco.org/en/RL/ancient-georgian-traditional-qvevri-wine-making-method-00870.
42Marian Bull, “Natural Wine, Explained,” Vox (Vox, June 10, 2019), https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2019/6/10/18650601/natural-wine-sulfites-organic.
44Susan H. Gordon, “A Global Look at the Natural Wine Movement,” Eater (Eater, May 20, 2016), https://www.eater.com/drinks/2016/5/20/11713332/natural-wine-france-sulfite-organic-eastern-europe.
45Kermit Lynch, “Marcel Lapierre,” Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant, accessed June 15, 2020, https://www.kermitlynch.com/our-wines/marcel-lapierre/.
46“The Origins of Natural Wine: A Conversation with Camille Lapierre and Jean Foillard,” The Origins of Natural Wine: A Conversation with Camille Lapierre and Jean Foillard – Grapecollective.com, November 1, 2019, https://grapecollective.com/articles/the-origins-of-natural-wine-a-conversation-with-camille-lapierre-and-jean-foillard.
47 Rachel Monroe, Adam Gopnik, and Evan Osnos, “How Natural Wine Became a Symbol of Virtuous Consumption,” The New Yorker, November 18, 2019, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/11/25/how-natural-wine-became-a-symbol-of-virtuous-consumption.
48Marian Bull, “Natural Wine, Explained,” Vox (Vox, June 10, 2019), https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2019/6/10/18650601/natural-wine-sulfites-organic.
49“7 Unusual Fermented Drinks From All Over The World,” December 13, 2013, https://winefolly.com/lifestyle/7-fermented-drinks-from-around-the-world/.
50Brad Cohen, “Travel – Mexico’s Ancient Drink Makes a Comeback,” BBC (BBC, November 28, 2014), http://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20141125-mexicos-ancient-drink-makes-a-comeback.