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Defining Natural Wine

The other evening at JOEY Eaton Centre I flipped open the wine list to discover a delicious surprise: a bottle of sparkling natural wine from Tawse Winery in Niagara—made with organic and biodynamic grapes.

And beneath it, a bottle of Wines of Substance Cabernet Sauvignon from Washington state bottled unfined and unfiltered. Both made with native yeasts and minimal added sulfur, the wines followed the same naturalist principles that have become increasingly popular at many of the most sought-after wine bars in the country.

All told, there were nearly a dozen bottles that followed similar naturalist principles. The style of winemaking that iconoclastic sommeliers at restaurants like Joe Beef once used to help put their establishments on the map has gone undeniably mainstream. But despite being this far into the trend, the term “natural wine” is still unlegislated, and no one can agree on a proper definition for what it means.

“Natural wine involves grapes issued from organic and biodynamic viticulture,” explains Joe Beef’s Dave McMillan. “It should also have very little or no filtration, little or no new oak and, preferably, no added sulfur.”

At Joe Beef, sommelier Vanya Filipovic calls her offerings “natural wine.” Nearby, Joe Beef alumnus and now Nora Gray sommelier and co-proprietor Ryan Gray chooses not to define the wines on his list as “natural.”

Others use the terms biodynamic and organic as if they were interchangeable (they aren’t).

While JOEY head sommelier Jason Yamasaki’s sees all wines that adhere to a minimal intervention philosophy as being naturalist but argues that the term is more statement than category.

“Many of the greatest and most famous wines in the world are grown and produced from organic or biodynamic vineyards,” Yamasaki explains. “Most of them are made using indigenous yeast, no additives, and a deft and intentional sulfur dose. So why would these wines not live under the “natural wine” category on a store shelf or wine list?”

It’s an important point to consider. But even if natural wine is the latest hot fashion statement, it’s one that’s certainly being heard by discriminating sommeliers and wine drinkers alike.

–Claudia McNeilly

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