Thanks to a lack of regulation, “natural wine” can mean a lot of different things.
By Mel Priestley | February 16, 2021
What is Natural Wine?
Natural wine is flourishing in Edmonton. Several restaurants, bars and import agencies are devoted to this nebulous category, which includes wines from all areas of the world made from any number of grape varieties. The term is completely unregulated, so anyone can use it — whether in good faith or as a marketing tool.
Erik Mercier, co-owner of Juice Imports defines it as a philosophy above all else. “Natural wines fit into this particular ethos of ethical farming,” he explains. “Whether that be organic, biodynamic, permaculture or something else; basically, it’s thinking about the way that they’re farming and trying to have the most minimal or even positive environmental impact.”
Most wine isn’t made this way, partly due to economics (natural farming can be more costly due to increased labour requirements). Additives and other winery manipulations ensure consistency in the final product, which is desirable from a business perspective.
There’s a sliding scale from the most extreme, no-intervention natural wines, to those that are indistinguishable from any conventional wine. Some natural wines can have strange or even off-putting aromas and flavours, especially from Brettanomyces, a yeast that causes stinky barnyard aromas, and volatile acidity (VA), which contributes a nostril-stinging vinegary odour.
Some wine drinkers subscribe to natural wines for ethical reasons and are willing to look past unpleasant flavours or even flaws. For them, natural wines are the ethical choice — Brett and VA be damned.
Clementine was one of the first restaurants in Edmonton to champion natural wines when it opened in 2016. Managing partner Jordan Clemens differentiates between what he calls wild or raw wines and low-intervention natural wines.
“I think natural wine is being pushed really aggressively,” he says. “Everyone wants natural wines right now, so people are tricking themselves into liking what, five years ago, no one would have drunk because they taste terrible. Natural wine is a philosophy, not a taste, but people are saying, ‘Oh yeah, I love wine that has this crazy apple cider vinegar and nail polish flavour.’”
Clemens says the natural wines at Clementine are much more accessible.
“First and foremost, the wine has to be delicious,” he says. “Second, it has to fall under the other categories that people are looking for, like natural.”
Ben Staley, co-founder and chef at Restaurant Yarrow, thinks the quality of natural wine overall is improving, but notes that as more makers produce it, weaker wines sneak through.
The current wine list at Yarrow is exclusively natural, though he doesn’t advertise this anywhere. His opinion on these wines has evolved over the past few years.
“When I started Alta and Alder Room (restaurants that closed in 2018), I was fully into the natural wine trend and I wanted the weirdest wine possible,” he says. “I wanted them to be funky and challenging. I still like challenging wine, but it’s not the type of wine I find myself gravitating towards now. I want wines that are enjoyable to drink, with a lot of subtlety and nuance.
Lack of transparency
Labelling is a huge issue in the wine industry and there are currently calls for transparency and regulation. The average conventional wine — which includes over 90 per cent of wines on the market — has dozens of additives to improve colour, aroma, flavour, acidity, taste and texture. But you won’t find this information anywhere.
This lack of transparency is part of what prompted Mercier to start Juice.
“I was really upset that you can just blatantly lie about wine,” Mercier says. “You can write on the back label, ‘This is harvested by my little old lady grandmother and foot-crushed,’ but that can be a lie. They’re not held accountable in any way, shape or form.”
Mercier has seen an explosion in interest in natural wines from Alberta consumers since he started Juice in 2016 and his sales have doubled every year. But some restaurants and liquor stores won’t even try his wines due to personal bias and the stigma around natural wine.
“There are tons of natural wines that the average person would have no way of knowing was a natural wine,” Mercier says. “When I pour wine for the old school crew, the second they know it’s a natural wine they start implying all these flavours that just aren’t there and seeing faults that aren’t there.”
The extreme end of the natural-wine spectrum — wines that do have what are objectively faults, and which most people would not consider delicious — has given natural wine an image problem.
“I’ve met so many people who say they hate natural wine,” Staley says. “I always challenge that because that’s like saying you hate wine. You had one bad wine in your life, so now you hate all wine?”
It’s up to consumers to hold both conventional and natural wine producers accountable and call out poor quality or bad-tasting products.
In the meantime, natural wine adherents hope the movement will influence larger conventional producers to improve their practices and embrace new ways of making wine — not just co-opt the terminology in their marketing.
“The natural-wine world is more willing to celebrate a diversity of flavours than the rest of the world,” Mercier says. “Wherever you are in your wine drinking journey, if you open yourself up to variety of flavours, there’s something to be had for everybody.”