The Unsung Virtues of Natural Wine, According to an Expert
Made from grapes alone, organically farmed, then harvested, fermented, aged, and bottled without additives, natural wine “has nothing to hide,” writes Paris-based, British-American wine expert Aaron Ayscough. “It’s wine that seeks to express, in every sip, its traditional and crucial link to nature.” Yet for something so natural, it's a surprisingly complex and contentious topic that divides the wine industry, rooted in its pastoral self-image despite its abundance of chemically altered ingredients and technological manipulation.
The author of Not Drinking Poison, a bimonthly newsletter on natural wine, Ayscough knows this world intimately, having worked two seasons of grape harvest and vinification in the French Beaujolais region, as a sommelier in Paris restaurants (including Daniel Rose’s Chez La Vieille and Bruno Verjus’s Table), and at wine estates like Domaine Derain in Burgundy and Clos Fatine in the Languedoc. He has also translated works by French wine scientist and natural wine progenitor Jules Chauvet. Ayscough’s first book on the subject, The World of Natural Wine: What It Is, Who Makes It, and Why It Matters, at last comes out this fall. The 440-page “field guide” incorporates Chauvet’s contribution to the natural wine movement, as well as profiles many of its pioneering winemakers. While the book, like the natural wine movement itself, begins in France—where Ayscough spent much of the past three years tracking down the foundations of natural wine culture (12 chapters are dedicated to the distinct natural wine cultures of the various regions of France)—it also explores natural wine in Spain, Italy, and Georgia, and offers exceptionally detailed guides on where to find and drink natural wine around the world, from Auckland to Manhattan and beyond.
We caught up with the peripatetic natural wine expert to discuss what, exactly, is so special, and so challenging, about taking wine back to the basics, and why doing so is not just good for our palates, but for our planet, too.
What first drew you to natural wine?
During college I waited tables, and educating myself about wine just made for better tips. After graduation, I moved to L.A. and found work at [Osteria] Mozza (Nancy Silverton’s haute pizzeria) in West Hollywood. My boss offered to train me to be the wine buyer, and that was that. Natural wine hadn’t yet penetrated into the consciousness of the U.S. Even back then, it felt natural for me to go toward what was organic and biodynamic, but I only really discovered natural wine and the community around it when I moved to Paris in 2009.
In Paris, it’s a wholly different, more tactile approach to wine. You’re immersed among winemakers who come to Paris all the time. The conversations around wine completely changed for me. It took a year and a half before I began to appreciate that natural wine really formed a distinct subculture—one that I found very appealing—and I jumped right in.
Can anyone recognize natural wine by taste and smell alone? Are there clues?
I don’t think it’s an inherently elitist or snobby position to take, but I would say getting to know natural wine is like anything. It’s nice to apprentice oneself to the subject, although one can certainly learn to recognize and appreciate natural wine without taking things to the extreme I did. Natural wine is just an acknowledgement of the externalities of production—not just environmental, but also how one phase of winemaking affects all the others. With experience of smelling and tasting, identifying natural wine can be like any other muscle memory. Of course, I can sometimes miss something, and there are many who differ on the very definition of natural wine. But generally, I would liken recognizing the taste of natural wine to the feeling of synthetic fabric against your skin versus the feeling of organic cotton or cashmere.
Is it likely that natural wine tastes similar to the wine that was first made around 8,000 years ago, or is it a thoroughly modern evolutionary stage of its own?
Though relatively little of this research ended up in my book, I love digging into old French wine books, going back to the 1700s and 1800s. Ones from the early twentieth century are some of the most interesting to me, because you can see how fast the language changed around wine, such as with sulfite addition. Normal amounts in the 1900s were vastly lower than the amounts spoken of among California winemakers in the 1990s, for example. Arguably, there is something about the natural wine market that is the next step in that evolution, rather than taking things backwards. Taking the risks that are necessary to make a really good product now, some aspects of natural wine–making today are the result of innovation.
You write that some things must be “unlearned” to discover the pleasures of drinking natural wine. Can you explain what you mean?
We have all been trained to approach wine in a certain way, and wine drinkers are accustomed to tasting traditional wine. Especially if someone has been collecting conventional wine for twenty-plus years, then there is going to be a learning curve to understanding natural wine. There is different optical limpidity and clarity, as well as different precision in the aromatic spectrum. So there is a need to step back and approach natural wine as a separate and distinct aesthetic system. It’s the difference between cut flowers and a living garden.
Wine can seem like such a vast, unapproachable subject, so this is one way to restrict your focus—and in this case, it’s so worth the effort. Ultimately, it’s about recognizing the great lie being told about traditional wine. Winemaking has neutered the nature around the terroir with its destructive winemaking methods, all to build marketing image.
What did you witness firsthand that convinced you that natural wine is, as you argue in your book, “an ethical imperative?”
Of course, it would be better for the environment not to farm at all, to let it all be a prairie. But selfishly, if you’re going to drink wine, I feel better knowing that does not involve spraying carcinogens all over rural communities. I saw an astonishing amount of cancer among otherwise really healthy winemakers in Beaujolais. Ultimately, one doesn’t need to cite statistics, because anyone visiting conventionally farmed vineyards can smell the chemicals from all the spraying. To be fair, there are also farming techniques that can misuse the land even when growing grapes organically.
Because natural wine is made without preservatives or other enhancements, will it taste better in Paris than in Los Angeles?
A lot depends on the fragility or sturdiness of the wine itself, but location is not necessarily relevant, thanks to advances in packing and shipping. I find the concerns about transporting natural wine mostly overblown. To me, the worst thing is heat damage, and that applies to conventional wine equally.
That said, it’s important to understand that, while natural wine as a movement began in France, natural wine can be produced anywhere. Economics tends to be the limiting factor more than anything, which is why France, with its social safety network, has provided such fertile ground for the movement. Australia, too, has a vast and wonderful natural winemaking community, and there are excellent natural wines not included in the book that I look forward to tasting in Croatia, Slovenia, and Slovakia.
But if you are in Paris, I highly recommend tasting the natural wines at Oliver Lomeli’s Chambre Noire in the 11th arrondissement, near the Bastille, where you’ll also find Jones and Delicatessen, which sits on the edge of the Marais neighborhood.