Natural Wine 101 and Oyster Pairing with Sommelier Doreen Winkler
Before meeting Doreen Winkler, a natural wines expert and founder of Diamond Sommelier Services, I had honestly no idea what natural wines were all about.
The two words sounded superfluous together, or maybe even "marketing-esque" at first. Then a few months ago, we hosted a Natural Wine and Oyster Pairing class together at Sel Rrose, and she opened my eyes to this growing niche. Here's what I learned (and what you need to know).
What is natural wine?
I'll be the first to admit that I'm a complete layman when it comes to wine. I had a romantic view of winemaking as an artisanal, non-industrial process. Apparently, that's only a small fraction of the industry today. The term "natural wine" is a broad umbrella that includes organic, biodynamic, and sustainable wine. Natural wine is about 1% of the wine produced in the world today. Note that not all organic wines are necessarily considered to be "natural."
Instead of trying to sort out all of the labels (biodynamic vs organic vs sustainable), I found it easier to think of natural wine as a philosophy. "In the end is just about making wine that is a natural product with as little intervention as possible," explained Doreen. It is a traditional view of wine as an expression of specific terroir and grape varieties, with minimal interference by the winemaker. So what does that mean from a technical standpoint? Here's a summary from Urban Earth Wines:
For a wine to be considered natural, it must be also be vinified as naturally as possible. This means that after it has been cultivated organically or biodynamically, there must be a minimum use of additives and technological manipulations. Examples of additives include sugar, acidifiers, and powdered tannins. Manipulations can include the use of spinning cones to remove alcohol, micro-oxygenation to accelerate aging, and the use of laboratory cultivated yeast.
The key aspects of what we consider to be a natural wine are:
No synthetic molecules in the vines
Plowing or other solutions to avoid chemical herbicides.
Use of indigenous yeast
Low to no filtering
Low to no sulfites
Winemaking that respects the grapes: no pumping or rough handling of the grapes, no micro-oxygenation.
Additives in Wine
Let's talk a little bit more about what's actually in wine. In the US, there is a surprisingly large number of additives, cleansers, and fining agents are allowed to be used in the winemaking process—over 200 some claim. I was shocked to learn this from Doreen, and surprised that there wasn't more reporting about it or alarm. Last spring, CBS broke a story about a Denver laboratory finding high levels of arsenic in a number of California wines. That news and subsequent class lawsuit have since been smoldered and cast aside. Despite our national obsession with organic and chemical-free anything nowadays, we don't have that much transparency into our favorite fermented grape juice. "There are almost no federal labeling requirements to tell you what's really in wine," according to CBS. I find it strange that we know more about what's in our shampoo than what we're all drinking on a weekly (maybe daily for some?) basis.
Just for the record: I'm not against additives in wine. I'd just like to know what's in it so I can make better informed decisions! Oh, and I bet that I'm not alone. It will be interesting to see how the natural wines niche grows, and through it, bring more attention to the fact that we're all sipping on some pretty delicious ignorance right now.
Evolution through natural wine selection
I don't have the time to become a wine expert myself, so thank goodness for sweet and knowledgeable somms like Doreen. When she's consulting for her clients—like Sel Rrose—she challenges herself to curate wine lists that are both unique in taste and story. Natural wine folks are often seen as extremists and the uber-hippies of the industry. Doreen takes a more practical approach.
"I choose wineries that are organically farmed and have biodynamic practices. I don't care if they are certified; it's more about the lifestyle and meaning than the certification. Keep in mind that it takes 15 years to become biodynamic certified and a lot of money!"
It's worth mentioning that Doreen didn't start out as a natural wine specialist. As this part of the wine industry grew, so did Doreen's expertise. She walked me through several of the milestones that led her to where she is now: hotel management school, an amazing job in Switzerland, consulting for Chef Fredrik Berselius, and starting her own wine & restaurant consulting practice. Above all, working with Berselius seemed to be the catalyst to her deep appreciation for natural wines.
"At the time, I hadn't had many good [natural wines], and decided to take some time to really search them out for myself." Doreen must feel the same way about winery/importer visits as I do for oyster farm tours. :)
Meroir, terroir, and Doreen's pairing tips
Pairing oysters with natural wines is very satisfying in principle and practice, as there are many parallels you can draw between the two worlds. Both are basically created with simply what mother nature has provided, and in turn, both spark that "sense of place" that forces you to look up from your phone or stop mid-sentence, and to earnestly pay attention.
When a pairing works, they should be seen as true partners. "A good pairing changes the experience... it melds [the two elements] together." Doreen offered a few basic guidelines of how to do this well:
When you're pairing wine to brinier, leaner oysters, start with lighter, more minerally wines. "Minerality balances out salt."
When pairing with creamier, more vegetal oysters, experiment with richer wines that have vibrant acidity.
For oysters that are clearly sweet and fat, perhaps a rosé champagne or a more fruit-forward white (that's still bone dry) would do the trick.
Most importantly, don't worry so much about what's right and what's wrong."For oyster pairings, one should have a little bit more fun." It's all about having an open mind and willing to try new things.