It’s only natural: French wine-making practice catches California’s interest

(written for the Los Altos Town Crier)

Even if you haven’t heard of natural wines yet, you’ve most likely seen them on local wine shelves and drink menus. 

The trend, which originated in France, has been growing in popularity around the wine-producing world, with several California winemakers getting into the act. Natural wines are equal parts poetry, ecological stewardship, rock-and-roll and wine making.

The concept is simple: nothing added, nothing altered. Which means that natural wines employ biodynamic farming practices, use native yeasts in their fermentation process and avoid the use of filtration or additives. Detractors say they lack consistency. Advocates praise them for this exact reason – claiming that much like seeing a band perform live, you get both what you love and something new every time.

The sometimes-polarizing world of natural wines is not as much new as it is a return to ancient winemaking practices. Before Louis Pasteur brought us an understanding of fermentation, wine was made relying on the yeast in the air at the winery and on the fruit itself. But with knowledge came a revolution of making wines. Producers were able to create more stable and consistent vintages. The skill involved in what we now think of as traditional winemaking is a gift to the world. That said, why not add some natural wines to your drinking repertoire? They are interesting, fresh and fun. I am especially excited about the range of natural sparkling wines, or pét-nats, on the market. Slang for pétillant-naturel, pét-nats are wines that are “naturally sparkling.”

Sparkling wine is made in two ways: in the traditional method (méthode champenoise) such as Champagne, where still wines undergo a secondary fermentation in the bottle with the addition of sugar and yeast, or in the tank method, which makes wines like Prosecco, where the secondary fermentation takes place in tanks before bottling. In both cases, the carbon dioxide byproduct of the fermentation process is captured to create the beloved final product.

Pét-nats are not quite as fizzy as traditional sparkling wines in part because they do not go through a secondary fermentation. Instead, the wines are bottled while still undergoing initial fermentation and capped with a crown cap, thereby capturing the carbon dioxide byproduct. In truth, this method predates the making of Champagne. The results are wines that are slightly still, slightly bubbly, low in alcohol and perfect for spring and summer sipping. There are lovely versions from France, but if you are going to seek out wines that are focused on environmental protection, why not drink local?

Local favorites

Emmett Welch, wine steward at Draeger’s Market in Los Altos, is highly knowledgeable on pét-nats. He currently has two California versions on his shelves: a 2020 The Hilt Pétillant Naturel of Pinot Noir ($37.99) – winemakers describe this wine as shockingly pink, with aromas of yuzu and watermelon – and a 2020 Birichino Santa Clara Valley Pétillant Natural Rosé ($23.99) that is a beautiful blush tone with notes of thyme, nectarine and sea air.

Birichino isn’t only producing natural sparkling wines. I recently visited its Santa Cruz tasting room and was wowed by its 2019 Mr. Natural Old Vine Grenache. This wine is an ideal introduction to natural wines. Even the cheeky label aligns with the trend in French natural winemaking to create tongue-in-cheek graphics on the bottles. An exhilarating nose of tea leaf, black olives, red currants and pencil shavings comes alive with a swirl of the glass. On the palate, the wine thrills with dark berries and balanced acidity and lush texture.

Not able to make the drive to Santa Cruz? Visit K&L in Redwood City. The store carries several of Birichino’s varietals, along with a few other natural wines worth investigating, though they are mostly from Slovenia and France.

The crossroads of winemaking and environmental stewardship is certainly an interesting place. When vintners and winemakers work in partnership with nature, the results are exciting both for consumers and the earth itself. Natural wines may not be on your everyday list of preferred bottles, but experimenting in the realm of these passionately produced wines may surprise and delight you.


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