Cerea, Italy – I knew I was in for a winetasting like no other when I turned to my host for a translation and he winked knowingly.
“Think Topo Gigio,” he said with a Cheshire’s grin.
Topo Gigio? That big-eared Italian TV-star mouse from the 1960s and ‘70s?
“You mean, she said ‘mousey’?” I offered, and he nodded.
“You never know what you’ll get with a natural wine,” he said with a delighted grin.
We were in the renovated furniture factory-turned expo space in the village of Cerea, Italy,
about 30 minutes south of Verona, attending Day 2 of ViniVeri 2016. This wine fair is devoted solely to natural wines, those made through organic or biodynamic farming and without the interventionist methods of conventional wines.
There were about 300 other natural wine lovers wandering the space, talking to 100 or so producers, representatives and distributors, and sharing thoughts on what may happen when a winemaker lets nature run its course in the winery.
The answer, of course, is as subjective as all wine preferences tend to be. There are no international standards as to what an organic or natural wine can be, although at the least they are organically grown, hand-harvested and made with minimal human intervention.
I sought out Lance Hanson, co-owner, along with wife Anna, of Jack Rabbit Hill Farm on Redlands Mesa near Hotchkiss, Colorado. Hanson makes true-to-the-essence wines, spirits and ciders, all using local, organically grown fruit and fermented and distilled in a natural manner.
“We had this idea of making place-driven or terroir driven wines inspired by the organic growers in this area,” said Hanson, whose organic farm was certified biodynamic in 2008 by Demeter USA. “It was that (certification) experience that introduced us to the idea of really making and producing wine in the same way we farm: Low-input, very light handling, non-interventionist.”
One standard for a natural wine is that either biodynamic or organic farming techniques must be used.
Most important, however, is the lack of additives, something most people notice the first time they taste a natural wine.
Those missing the additives are what “hide or mask the character of the wine,” Hanson said. “It’s our opportunity to take advantage of the unique character of the fruit grown here and create a unique product.”
One winemaker I spoke with at ViniVeri said he was at first put off by the strange flavors in his mouth but then realized he was, for the first time, actually tasting the wine itself.
“Now, I can’t drink a commercial wine,” he said.
No commercial yeasts, no chemicals, no enzymes or flavorings, no Mega Purple to make it darker or reverse osmosis or cryoextraction to make it sweeter or more-concentrated, all of which are common in conventional wines. This is low intervention, hands-off winemaking.
That unrestrained latitude is one of the attractions of natural wines and one of the reasons natural wines lovers, well, love natural wines. You must have a sense of adventure and willingly check your prior attitudes regarding fermented grape juice at the door before entering.
Was our “mousey” wine bad, in the sense of being “off”? Not necessarily. It wasn’t undrinkable, just unexpected.
But none of the 100 or so natural and organic wines we tasted over two days were like anything I’ve ever had. Most were intriguing, beguiling, mysterious, deserving of more than a quick swirl, sip and dump before moving on to the next.
“That exactly it,” Hanson said when quizzed. “How do I let the fruit express itself in a bottle of wine without getting in its way? That’s what natural winemaking is all about.”
Which is where Colorado Natural Wine Week, set for the Denver/Boulder area on April 17-22, comes in.
You can spend the week days attending seminars by and about winemaker and numerous in-store tastings and extend your nights with wine-bar takeovers and special dinners with selected winemakers. Restaurants in both cities will offer Natural Wine Week specials.
The main event is the public Grand Showcase from 4:30-8:30 p.m. on April 19 at the Space Gallery, 400 So. Santa Fe in Denver. Tickets are $39/$75 and are available online at coloradonaturalwineweek.org.
And if you’re in Italy in early April, ViniVeri 2017 takes place April 7-9, again in Cerea.
The demand for natural wines is growing, albeit with growing pains including a pushback from conventional and commercial wineries. Maybe it’s a sign of the maturation of the American wine palate that drinkers are willing to explore beyond their comfort zone, to allow themselves some freedom of expression in their glass.
One can hope.
One of the most-revealing ways to visit a winery is to walk its vineyards. This long has been popular as a way to get close to the very land that grows the grapes. You may smell, touch and even taste what it is winemakers are talking about when promoting the importance of terroir, “minerality”, and the like.
The concept of “terroir” can encompass many variants but it has been best served by several writers as the “somewhereness” of a wine, meaning the sum of those factors contributing to a sense of place from which a wine comes.
I’ve spent hours in vineyards with grape growers explaining the differences in soil texture, color and mineral/chemical content and then retiring to tasting rooms where all the strands converge and are revealed in the glass.
If, as it often is, the grape grower and the winemakers are the same person (or work closely together), the message you received in the vineyards is the same message speaking to you from the glass.
However, with the recent discovery of the vine-devastating phylloxera louse in Colorado’s vineyards, the opportunity is gone to walk vineyards (the louse can spread from one vineyard to another by the soil on your shoes) but you still you can look from a distance and, of course, talk to the winemakers about the most-basic of the tools they work with.
While the type and condition of the soil is a common topic of discussion in other winemaking regions, I’ve rarely heard the topic presented in Colorado tasting rooms. Maybe the hosts and hostesses just don’t get asked, or maybe there’s a feeling that the audiences may quickly go glassy-eyed at the very mention of soil chemistry.
And, indeed, some wine critics are skeptical of the concept of terroir or that a vine’s roots can absorb and transfer flavor-enhancing compounds from the soil to the roots.
There’s an interesting article (at least to the stone-suckers among us) about the role of soil to terroir and wine flavors on the wineanorak.com site. The New York Times’ wine critic Eric Asimov recently wrote about the “many variables” that go into “making a wine from a particular place can often be overwhelmed by grape-growing and winemaking decisions.”
This, he argues, loses the “intricacies of terroir” that one finds in wines from, say, Burgundy where that expression “has been raised to a high art.”
He does emphasize, terroir not withstanding, that “the human element” remains uppermost in winemaking. A talented winemaker (the human element) can make good wines no matter where the grapes come from, that’s a given. And that same winemaker learns to use the flavors of the terroir to the wine’s best advantage.
Now let’s return to Colorado wines. I’m often asked (it’s the nature of the job) for my favorite Colorado wine and over the years I’ve discovered there isn’t one, only favorite winemakers.
I’m a firm believer in the role of terroir (I wrote about it here) and this valley and the North Fork Valley have immense ranges of terroir. The Grand Valley has sandy terraces on the west and heavy clay soils on the east, with a few ancient riverbeds, floodplains and long-dry lakebeds thrown in.
The most-obvious example might be in the North Fork, where the Gunnison River divides the landscape into distinct geological regions, volcanic on one side, lots of Mancos Shale across the river, and the wines reflect those differences.
The wines might not taste exactly alike, depending on their origin (part of the terroir). Even grapes from within the same vineyard can taste differently, which is what French winemakers learned centuries ago.
You can test this: Find a winery that makes estate-grown wines and also makes wines from purchased grapes and see if you can distinguish place-of-origin (estate grown) vs. winemaker’s touch theory.
It’s certainly not a bad thing that the human element has a determining role in a wine’s finished product, and you may find it’s not the place or the grape but the winemaker that lifts your spirits.
– Story and photos by Dave Buchanan