LIFESTYLE 4 weeks ago
Natural Wine - Everything You Need to Know From My Man Lou
Happy Friday, everyone! How have you all been? I feel like I’ve missed so much because I just got back from my three-week Asia vacation and you know…I have major jet lag. As much as I love traveling, being away for that long with only a carry-on and tote bag while hopping from one Airbnb to the next was… well, a little tough. Anyway, I’m so happy to be back home and back at work.
On that note, it’s officially the weekend, so what better time to discuss natural wines to get you in the m-o-o-d?
First a short story. When I was recently in Milpitas (right next to San Jose) visiting family, I went out to look for natural wines one night for dinner but couldn’t find any in my hometown. I Googled the closest natural wine shop… it was an hour away. I know what you’re thinking: awww boohoo, you didn’t make it to a natural wine shop? C’mon, just grab that buttery wine at the liquor mart. But… I just couldn’t.
Once you taste natural wine, you don’t ever want to NOT have natural wine. It’s like when you finally have hand-picked organic fruit from the garden. Once you return to processed foods… you feel DIFFERENT. Or, that feeling, like I had, of getting that first bowl of fresh pasta in Florence… how do you look at that box mac and cheese the same way again?
With that said, I feel so lucky to have a local wine guy who knows EVERYTHING about natural wine. That genius’ name is Mister Lou Amdur. He’s super witty, quirky, and most importantly, drops knowledge like it’s an afterthought (did I mention he also used to be an engineer?). So, during one of my regular visits to the shop, I asked him if he would be interested in doing a Q+A with me and he said, “Of course!”
Now, I should preface this by saying he probably shouldn’t be doing a Q+A with me because he’s actually a big-timer but, Lou and I are cool like that so now here are few pointers just for you.
So, scroll through, give it a read and let me (and Lou) know what you think, will you?
Question: For someone who’s never had natural wine, how would you explain the main differences between natural wine and some of these other phrases we hear a lot about: organic and biodynamic?
Answer: Think of wine like you think of the food you eat. Personally, I do not eat a lot of processed food, and the wine I drink is no different. Natural wines are wines that have no crap added to them or done to them, both in the vineyard and in the winery. Typically, natural winemakers use organically farmed grapes and ferment with wild yeasts and bacteria. They do not add winemaking additives and try to make the best wine they can using just grapes alone.
Organic farming means no crap added in the vineyard, though there may still be spoofilation inside the winery to fashion a consistent product or to bend the wine to the winemaker’s will. A wine labeled organic (not labeled merely “made with organic grapes”) is from organically farmed grapes, has no synthetic chemicals added to it, and sulfites may not exceed 100 ppm (note that this is on the high end of what you will find with many organically farmed wines—typically, you will see wines that contain between 20 to 40 ppm sulfites). A biodynamic wine is a priori organically farmed, but with additional preparations and agricultural practices specified by e.g., Demeter, one of the organizations that certifies biodynamic products.
Q: Where does that natural wine line begin, in your mind?
A: I have a pretty relaxed standard; others are more Taliban. First, I ask: are the grapes farmed without synthetic pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers? Many of the growers I work with do not have organic certification, even if they are indeed farming that way. Second, I ask: is the juice fermented without additives? If natural wines displayed an ingredient list on the label, it would contain, ideally, one word: grapes.
Q: What additives are in regular wines that people might not realize? What effects do they have on our bodies in the short or long term?
A: The FDA allows dozens of different additives in winemaking. Some of them are intrinsically benign, e.g., some wines have additional acid added to them because the winemaker thinks that a wine would taste better with this addition. It is the same acid that is naturally in the wine already, just more of it. You could eat tartaric acid (do not do this) to no ill effect. Conversely, some winemakers add chalk to their wines to reduce acidity for the same reason. Yet other additives are not so benign, e.g., defoaming agents and acetaldehyde, so the FDA regulates not only how much a winemaker may add to their wine, but also the levels of the additives that show up in the finished wine. I really don’t know how the levels of additives found in the average supermarket wine might affect any given person, either in the short or long term, but for myself I try to avoid additive-riddled food and wine in general (though I’m not a saint and admit to eating an airline dinner or frozen pizza on occasion). It could be more of a cumulative thing, and that if you are eating and drinking a lot of processed stuff, the total burden is that much higher. This may be a folkloric practice on my part, but I am sticking with my story.
Q: Please explain sulfites. Are all sulfites bad?
A: All wines contain sulfites, even those with no added sulfites. There is elemental sulfur in soils, and yeasts create various sulfur compounds from it during fermentation. The only way to remove all sulfites from a wine is to use a submicron filter small enough to filter out the sulfites but then you denature the wine, so that is why you mostly don’t see wines treated this way. Sulfur in high doses can stun or kill yeasts, and the Beaujolais growers responsible for initiating the modern natural wine movement in France in the 80’s stopped sulfiting their grapes and fermenting juice because they didn’t want to harm wild yeasts— they thought that the wild yeasts on the grapes, in the vineyard, and in the winery were part of how a wine can express something about the soils from which it originates. There’s a lot of anxiety about sulfites in wine, but I think it’s mostly misplaced, as very, very few people, really an infinitesimal number, have any sort of reaction to it (typically, these are asthmatics who know to avoid a whole range of things that might trigger their asthma… wine is probably the least of their worries). So, my advice regarding sulfites is to relax.
Q: Do all-natural wines prevent histamine reactions (congestion, sneezing or itchiness) or just some?
A: I do not know if histamines other biogenic amines in wine trigger histamine symptoms, or that if it is something else in certain wines that triggers this reaction. A lot of other fermented foods contain significant quantities of natural histamine, and I do not hear folks complaining about kimchi, for example. I do know that wild yeast and bacteria fermented natural wines contain the same amount of histamine, if not more, than commercial wines.
Q: Are natural wines easier to digest?
A: Heh, that is the theory.
Q: Are you less likely to get a hangover from natural wine or is this wishful thinking?
A: Wild yeasts may be less efficient at converting grape sugars to alcohol, so you may find natural wines that have slightly less alcohol, but this is a result both of wild yeast fermentation and pick date decisions. Note that I have seen natural wines that have ABVs north of 15% (that’s high), so this is not an absolute. One category of natural wine are vins de soif, or glou glou (glug glug) wines, made in a light-bodied, lower-alcohol style. Logically, you can drink more of a 11% ABV vin de soif before getting shitfaced compared to 15% ABV Napa cabernet, so, yes, drinking less alcohol will reduce hangover symptoms.
Q: Any common misconceptions about natural wines you would like to debunk?
A: The idea that all-natural wines are funky or flawed. Some are, some aren’t
Q: Do natural wines age well?
A: Most wines, natural or industrial, do not age well. By age well, I mean not only hold up to long (>10 years) of cellaring, but also improve in the bottle. I have tasted an industrial wine stored in a cool cellar, a simple party wine from the early 70s that by all reason should be dead but was surprisingly still good. All that cellar time had not transmuted it into tertiary gold, but it was also by no means dead, probably because it had free sulfites >40 ppm at bottling. Sulfites scavenge oxygen, so that is why this wine did not show signs of undue oxidation. If your definition of a natural wine includes the omission of sulfites, my guess is that some of these wines will not age as well as the same wine with modest PPM of added sulfites, though your mileage may vary.
Q: What’s the price point of natural wines in comparison to other wines?
A: Trader Joe’s sells wine for as little as $3 a bottle. The least expensive natural wines I can source retail for $18-20/btl, with a rare exception below that price point. So, if you are a populist searching for natural wine for the people, you are running a fool’s errand. Do you want to know what most people drink? A wine that sells for $3 a bottle and the thought of buying a $20 bottle of wine is entirely foreign to them. In my natural wine bubble, no one blinks at $20 for a bottle, but you have to stay firmly inside that bubble and never step foot out of it to not understand that the wines we love are not wines for the people.
Q: Any other reason to buy natural vs. traditional wine?
A: I do not know if you need a reason to drink anything. Drinking is one thing in life that does not require a reason.
Q: Are there specific regions that have better natural wines than others?
A: Better is entirely subjective, or more to the point, intersubjective. Me? I gravitate to natural wines from France, particularly the Jura, Loire, and Beaujolais, because I like the organoleptic sensibilities of the growers who make these wines. That said, there are delicious and interesting natural wines made all over the world today.
Q: Where can you get natural wines if you don’t live in a major city?
A: I think having a decent wine shop in your neighborhood, one that stocks at least some natural wine, is a tremendous amenity and if you do not have such a shop nearby you should move. Buying natural wine or any wine through an online store is a terrible idea because heat is the enemy of wine, and today it is 92 degrees in LA and even warmer elsewhere. Good online shops will only ship when the weather permits, so that may be an option, but if a wine shop offers to ship to you during a mid-summer heatwave, run as fast as you can, as your wine will arrive heat damaged (unless they ship with ice packs overnight express, but that gets expensive, fast). Imagine your delicious bottles of wine cooking all day in a UPS panel truck, uninsulated and without refrigeration— wine is a bit like lettuce and should always be kept cool-ish, otherwise, blech.
Q: What’s a good natural wine to start out with for a beginner? What are some key things you look for?
A: I would suggest starting with Beaujolais. There are any number of growers in the region making beautifully farmed and crafted wines, and they should not be too difficult to track down if you have a well-stocked wine shop nearby. Skip the mass-market stuff by DeBeouf, skip Beaujolais Nouveau, too, and try to find a bottle of something classic. I suggest looking for a bottle of Jean-Claude Lapalu’s Beaujolais-Villages 2018, which retails around $25. It is a consummate, fresh, vibrant bottle that expresses everything that is essential about Beaujolais wine. Serve it a little cool.
So, are we ready to make the natural wine switch? Or maybe you have already. A super special shout out to Lou for not only curating the best natural wine shop in LA but also taking the time to share his worldly knowledge with us.
Until next time,