Are Natural Wines Terroir-Driven?

natural wine 2One of the justifications for natural wine that you sometimes hear is that wines that are made without sulfur, filtering or other winery interventions reveal features of the vineyard site and local weather more readily than conventional wines. I don’t think this is quite true and this is not the best way to understand natural wine.

Even though natural winemakers start their fermentations using native vineyard yeasts, the dominant yeasts that complete the fermentation are not necessarily from the vineyard. The hardier yeasts that populate the winery and winery equipment can often take over the fermentation, especially as alcohols creep up and kill off the wild yeasts; they may be a different strain from the yeasts in the vineyard and can sometimes profoundly impact the flavors and textures of the wine.

Furthermore, in the absence of sulfur or filtering, bacteria blooms and oxidation can cause unusual flavors and aromas to develop. These flavors and aromas are often interesting and delicious but they are not coming from the vineyard. In fact the distinctive character of the vineyard or vintage may be more difficult to discern when masked by the strong aromas coming from bacteriological activity.

Thus natural wines don’t necessarily reflect the distinctive character of a vineyard—what they do reflect is the distinctive character of the total environment in which the wine is made. In the absence of intervention by the winemaker, ambient yeast and bacteria populations, ambient temperatures, availability to oxygen, etc. have some influence on the flavor of the wine.

This is not to say that vineyard site doesn’t matter. The quality of the grapes always matters. But what makes a natural wine distinctive may or may not be vineyard specific. Instead of capturing forces at work in the vineyard, natural wines capture a wider variety of causal factors in the environment that emerge as a result of the winemaker’s hands off approach.

If you have a great vineyard that produces wines of distinction, it’s an open question whether that distinctiveness can be captured by natural wine production. Only experimentation and a tolerance for risk will reveal the answer.

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