Every once in a while I get asked the question, “How come Lieb doesn’t make natural wine?” Sometimes by colleagues, sometimes by friends, sometimes by customers.
“Because our winemaker doesn’t make wine that way” usually suffices for a response. No further questions asked.
Recently I was invited to attend a virtual seminar presented by a Master of Wine and Master Sommelier titled “Is natural wine natural…and does that mean regular wine is unnatural?”
It occurred me that if these most BASIC questions about natural wine were of interest to the TRADE, people like me who have worked in this business for years, then what do my friends know about natural wine? Do they even know what they were really asking me? No wonder there are no follow-up questions!
To test this theory, I texted three random friends. All three would fit into the “drinks wine regularly and has basic wine knowledge but isn’t a connoisseur” category.
I asked, “Without googling it, what is natural wine? Tell me in one sentence or less.”
Here are the responses:
“Wine with no sulfates”
“Wines made with old traditions”
No, not always (and it’s sulfites, not sulfates, Alyssa), and what??
One of them was even one of the people who asked me why Lieb doesn’t make natural wine. Hmmf.
Because “natural” wines are becoming more and more popular and because Lieb doesn’t make them, now seems like a good time to explain what they actually are and why we don’t.
First of all, like the descriptor “Reserve” on a wine label, “natural” means absolutely nothing in the wine world. At least in an official sense. There is no third-party certification, legal definition or even strict set of standards. So if you see “natural” on a wine label, just be aware that the wine could be far from it.
What exists, however, are commonly accepted standards among the industry which can all be boiled down to 3 basic characteristics.
That’s it. Not organic, not zero sulfites, not traditional, whatever that means.
But easy enough that all wines should be made this way, right?
Wrong. At least not our wines.
Let’s break it down.
1) Use no pesticides in the vineyard
Not possible on the North Fork of Long Island. High humidity and rot pressure require the use of some “chemical” sprays in the vineyard. But, in moderation. We’re certified sustainable and that means the sprays we’re permitted to use and how often we can use them are strictly regulated. Many would argue that our practices are more restrictive and less harmful than organic farming on Long Island. “Natural”? No. As environmentally conscious as we can possibly be? Yes.
2) Indigenous (or “native”) yeasts
You can’t see them, but yeasts live in our vineyard, on our grapes and all over the winery. Kind of gross but kind of cool, right? Considering their ubiquitous presence, it stands to reason that grapes and juice left alone for periods of time would spontaneously start fermenting? Right? Right. But, would the fermentations be controlled, consistent or what a winemaker desires? In some cases, yes. In our case, no.
Because our winery is a custom crush facility – meaning other small producers share our equipment so they don’t have to invest in their own – grapes coming into our winery hail from all over Long Island and even the east coast. Our winery doesn’t have just one unique yeast strain, it probably contains hundreds! Which means the native yeasts making their way into our juice are a total crap shoot. They could make beautiful, expressive, interesting wines. Or they could go horribly wrong and completely spoil the wine. Or even worse, not fully ferment it. Our winemaker, Russell, prefers not to take that risk.
Instead, he spends a lot of time carefully testing and choosing commercially made yeasts for each and every wine that we produce. He selects yeasts that bring out the best and cleanest fruit aromas and that are strong enough to carry out the full fermentation. This method means our wines are consistently and exactly what Russell intends them to be.
Does he sacrifice some “artistry” and wildness? Arguably yes. But Russell prefers to make good wine every time.
3) No or low sulfites
What are sulfites anyway? In short, they’re preservatives. In wine, there are naturally occurring sulfite compounds produced as a by-product during fermentation and added sulfites which, like their name suggests, are added by a winemaker during and sometimes after fermentation. So sulfite free wine? Yeah, that doesn’t exist. And sulfites causing headaches? Yeah, that’s a myth as well.
Where natural and conventional winemakers differ on this matter is whether or not to add them. Natural winemakers add very little or none. We actually do that, too. We add on average 30 parts per million of sulfur. Natural wine circles generally consider 10-35ppm to be acceptable. For context, the US allows up to 350ppm!
But zero sulfite additions? Hell to the no. Sulfites are an antioxidant and antibacterial. They kill bacteria that makes wine go bad. They keep the wine tasting clean and fruity and age-able, the way Russell intended it. Without sulfites most wines turn to vinegar or worse within 6 months. This is why you’re told to drink most natural wines “right away” and why many of them fall into the “funky” camp. Russell doesn’t do funky.
While we don’t meet the (very loose) criteria for natural wine status based on our sprays, yeasts and sulfites, we do define our wines as “minimal intervention”. Russell makes choices in the vineyard and in the winery to make consistently high-quality, flawless wines. He doesn’t need to mess with or manipulate the wines to “fix” or “save” them because he puts them on the right path and steps out of the way.
“Natural”? No. We leave that to the wine regions of the world whose climatic conditions do allow them to farm organically and the winemakers with cellars that have gifted them with effective and desirable native yeasts.
Rich Olsen-Harbich is a winemaker making wine with indigenous yeasts a few miles away from us at Bedell, and I enjoy many of his wines.
Jenny & Francois Selections is an importer that specializes in finding and selling the best natural wines from all over the world and their natural wines are some of the best and coolest I’ve tasted.
But for Russell and Lieb Cellars, well, we don’t make them that way.
General Manager & Certified Sommelier