Young. Fun. Unfiltered. Natural wine is the antidote to the anodyne and archaic world of traditional wine – at least according to many within its burgeoning young fanbase. For the most recent issue of WIP magazine, writer Alicia Kennedy spoke to the three founders of The Natural Wine Company, who claim they’re not experts, rather participants on a journey. And they want you to join them.
Words: Alicia Kennedy
Images: Adrià Cañameras
Natural wine has no definition. That is not an overstatement, but an actual fact. When a wine is “natural,” what is being referred to is the process by which it was made, which tells us nothing about what it might taste like. As The Wine Zine editor Katherine Clary writes in her book Wine, Unfiltered: Buying, Drinking, and Sharing Natural Wine, “The definition of natural wine can be … elusive. And legally speaking, there isn’t one.”
Whether a wine is good or not is of course wildly subjective, but it can be generally agreed upon that wine made in a natural style leaves a lot of room for each winemaker to express their perspective and surroundings. Which is why, within this world, winemakers become something like rock stars: People don’t fall in love with grapes and regions, but with perspectives. It can feel overwhelming to consider all these factors, so thankfully, more and more services are emerging that help interested parties navigate the terrain. One of them is The Natural Wine Company (TNWC), started in Barcelona by Alfredo Lopez of Natural Wine Distribution in partnership with Nacho Alegre and Robbie Whitehead of the lifestyle magazine Apartamento.
“The definition of natural wine can be … elusive. And legally speaking, there isn’t one.”
TNWC is a wine club, and they deliver their selections across Europe. It launched amid the COVID-19 pandemic in June 2020 out of the owners' passion for natural wine and their desire to spread the joy of the array of bottles that can be found around Europe and beyond. Their May 2021 box, for example, includes wines from Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Slovakia, and Germany. From those six countries and makers alone, the variety in grapes is astounding, showcasing the lesser-known Grignolino from the Piedmont region of Italy to the Spätburgunder, a German Pinot Noir.
Despite the lack of a precise definition, generally speaking, natural wine is made from organic grapes with minimal intervention in the fermentation process. For this reason, some connoisseurs prefer to use phrases like “low intervention” rather than “natural,” a word that has now been co-opted by bigger makers, in the same way “artisanal” has been carelessly slapped onto the packaging of corporate, processed food. No matter what you call it, though, the “natural” business has been growing exponentially in the United States and Europe, where, over the last two decades, some sommeliers and bottle shops have been focusing solely on the alternative to “conventional” wine, which is typically made using chemical fertilizers and pesticides, commercial yeast, and other additives that boost flavor or color.
Making natural wines is not a new thing of course, but as old as wine itself, and finds its origins in the Republic of Georgia, where it has been processed like this for centuries. The contemporary movement, however, is generally traced back to Marcel Lapierre, who took over his family’s winemaking operation in Beaujolais in the 1980s and was inspired to return to more traditional methods that didn’t rely on chemicals and the addition of sugar to boost the alcohol content. Lapierre was part of the “Gang of Four,” a group consisting of himself, Guy Breton, Jean-Paul Thévenet, and Jean Foillard, who all began making wine without pesticides or added sugars around the same time. Then, in the early 2000s, the restaurant 360 opened in Red Hook, Brooklyn. It marked itself with a 20 dollar prix fixe and a list of organic wines, spawning a cult following until it abruptly closed in 2007 – but not before changing wine menus in the rest of the borough and beyond. The movement kicked into hyperdrive in the 2010s, spreading around the world through interested aficionados and fairs like RAW Wine, which began in 2011 and later hosted its shows in Berlin, Los Angeles, New York, Miami, and Montreal.
“We've been drinking and enjoying natural wine and its accompanying world for a while,” Lopez reveals over Zoom from the Apartamento offices. But the TNWC project didn’t come to fruition until there was a visual expression for it, in keeping with the design-centric nature of the magazine. “I came up with a sketch of the logo, and that helped,” says Whitehead. “We started talking about it more seriously.”
The branding itself, with its funky line illustrations of people savoring every last drop of their drink, encapsulates the cheeky ethos of natural wine. TNWC clearly recognizes the importance of visuals: This isn’t your parents’ wine.
Most natural wine fans are younger people who are interested in the provenance of their food and prefer the same transparency for their wine bottles. With natural varieties, the mystery has been toned down somewhat. You may not know what a bottle will taste like, but there’s some assurance in knowing that there are no chemicals or additives involved.
TNWC works directly with producers rather than through a distributor to make the selections for the monthly club and single color boxes they sell. During the pandemic, it’s been difficult to get a handle on every maker’s process. “In a normal world, it would mean meeting a lot of them if we could, especially in Spain,” says Lopez. “Now, it's generally phone calls and emails, and so through that, you try to get the most info.” Because of this hindrance, their selection process has been more communal rather than based purely on vineyard visits. “We’re not trying to come at it as experts,” says Whitehead. “We want to create a structure, but it's very much just us drinking wine,” Lopez adds.
Alegre further explains that they’re not interested in being arbiters of taste, but rather, that they are experiencing the same learning process as their subscribers are. “It's not a vertical relationship with our subscribers,” he explains. “We're not telling them: ‘This is good. This isn't.’ It's more like a journey for us that other people are joining us on as well. We may feature a wine that Alfredo thinks is not natural enough, but he also agrees there are other reasons why the wine is interesting. Maybe it has sulfites, but maybe sulfites are not the most important thing about a wine being natural or not. It's more about these kinds of discussions.”
“We want to create a structure, but it's very much just us drinking wine,”
Choosing which wines to feature is done instinctively among friends by tasting and discussing each bottle to see where the flavors go. “In terms of the actual selection of what we want to offer, we want to broaden our own horizons, and so we try to do that for the people who subscribe as well,” Lopez says. “That means featuring different regions, different grapes. We try to make it interesting for everybody, no matter where you are.”
Though France, Spain, Italy, and Germany have always been heavy-hitters in the wine world, TNWC has been most pleasantly surprised by their tastings of Eastern European wines. They’ve also been exploring wines from Latin America, where, in Chile and Argentina for example, natural winemaking has been gaining a foothold.
“The world around natural wine is less snobbish than the traditional sector,” says Lopez. “It gives people who feel they might not know a lot about it an open platform for discoveries. I would say it is generally a younger crowd. It's harder to convince the older generation of natural wine. Like, a lot of people when they first drink it, parents or whatever, flat out say, ‘This isn't wine.’”
While those who are accustomed to conventional wines might scoff at the various smells and perhaps inconsistent flavors that emerge when exploring natural expressions, bars with a focus on natural wines are popping up around the world, showing a clear interest from patrons – from Ruffian in New York City to Bar Brutal in Barcelona to Wine Stand Bouteille in Tokyo. “It's fun. It's not so serious. It's messy,” says Lopez, by way of explaining the appeal.
That not-so-serious and messy approach to winemaking has only grown since Lapierre began to challenge the techniques of conventional wine in the 80s, and with winemakers emerging in Mexico, Chile, Argentina, and the Canary Islands, the field will become bigger and more diverse. Natural wine can’t be defined, and that’s what makes it a rich and thrilling field that relies on community and conversation. Enjoying and understanding it requires talking to the sellers at the local wine store, the bartender at the wine bar, and the friends you’re drinking with, because it cannot be understood from simply reading the label. Tasting notes can only say so much: Natural wine requires us to experience it.
WIP magazine issue 05 is available from Carhartt WIP stores and our online shop.