Understanding Virginia’s “Natural Wine”

By Matthew Fitzsimmons

Understanding Virginia’s “Natural Wine”

Natural wine is a trendy term in the wine industry. It certainly hits several items on the hipster bucket-list. Some claim that it’s healthier for you than regular wine (unlikely to be true). Natural wine is often confused with organic wine (not the same, but somewhat in the ballpark). While there is some overlap with biodynamic, natural wine doesn’t necessarily have to be biodynamic. So if it’s none of those things…what is ”natural” wine?

The U.S. wine industry has struggled with this question because – unlike organic wine – there is no legal definition for the term ‘natural wine’. It’s also unfair to imply that conventional making is somehow ‘unnatural’, or that organic automatically means ‘good for you’, further adding to the confusion.

So lacking a U.S. definition, France’s adoption of the term vin méthode nature is a good starting point. Introduced in 2019, French wines utilizing this label must adhere to the following standards:

  • Low (maximum 30 ppm) or no sulfites (with separate logos for both options)
  • No additives (except for sulfur) in the wine cellar or “brutal” treatments
  • Only indigenous yeast fermentation is allowed
  • Grapes must be organically farmed and hand-picked

But even France’s wine industry admits this is more of a marketing term that qualified producers are allowed to post on their label, not an official certification for ‘natural wine’. Moreover, pinning down specific criteria may miss the point. As natural wine expert Alice Feiring once said, “In my heart of hearts, I just don’t think natural wine is certifiable”.

So rather than think of natural wine as a product, think of it as more of a philosophy how wine can be made. As winemaker Ben Jordan of Early Mountain Vineyards explained, “It seems to me that the market accepts something as natural when a wine checks most of those boxes, and when the character of the wine fits the overall ethos, but since there is no certification, there are no hard and fast rules.”

The Natural Winemakers of Virginia

Lacking a U.S. standard to go by, several Virginia wineries – including Arterra Wines in Delaplane, Briede Family Vineyards in Winchester, and Rock Roadhouse Vineyards in Hot Springs, have created their own approaches to natural wine. While they diverge in individual areas such as their use of sulfites, natural yeast fermentation, or farming practices, their overall approaches are very much in tune with the ethos of natural winemaking.

Rock Roadhouse’s method addresses the use of sulfites – perhaps the most divisive aspect in defining natural winemaking. Sulfites have gotten a bad rap for years as it’s often (inaccurately) blamed for ‘wine headaches’ (blame your 5th glass of cabernet for those), but in reality it’s often naturally present in wine.

Sulfites have been an important ingredient in winemaking since at least Roman times, acting as a preservative by preventing oxidation and defeating unwanted bacteria. But sulfites also kill non-hostile microbes. Add too much and you can remove the natural features which makes a wine truly terroir-driven – the antithesis of what natural winemaking is all about.

Bob Donze showing off his Italian fermentation equipment.

Owner Bob Donze addresses this through the use of specialized equipment which protects against oxidation and using a special yeast called “Alpha” which slows the fermentation process, tactics which help him minimize or sometimes skip the use of sulfites. His location in the mountains also allows him to limit the use of pesticides, in line with the philosophy behind natural winemaking.

Jason Murray of Arterra Wines is one of the most well-known ‘natural wine’ makers in Virginia, although he uses the term ‘clean wine’ to describe his products. It’s a minor but notable difference; ‘natural’ winemakers usually don’t filter their wine to remove cloudiness, as most winemakers do. However, Jason worries that some wine drinkers will assume cloudy wine is faulted, so he’s willing to make this concession to make ‘clean wine’ more approachable.

Besides that, the term ‘clean’ speaks directly to his signature style – the use of native yeasts, which won’t ferment without especially-clean fruit. Jason explained “One thing all of these wineries agree on is natural wine starts with clean fruit. While none (of the natural winemakers in Virginia) currently use certified organic or biodynamic grapes, they take extra precautions to ensure the fruit they use is free of residual pesticides/fungicides.”

Paul and Loretta Briedé of Briedé Family Vineyards know more than a thing or two about natural wine, as they previously managed one of Virginia’s only organic vineyards. They also understand how challenging this undertaking is, as in 2018 they were forced to give up their organic certification when disease threatened to destroy their vines and they had to use conventional pesticides to save them.

Having farmed both organically and conventionally, the Briedés understand that having an organic program doesn’t mean that organic grapes aren’t by definition more exceptional, or that conventional viticulture strongly deviates from organic viticulture. Many of their current vineyard practices borrow heavily from when they maintained their vineyard organically, including minimal spraying and housing beneficial insects to control the balance of good bugs and bad ones.

It also helps that they planted grapes which perform well in Virginia’s humidity, minimizing the need for conventional pesticides. Hybrids are a popular choice for natural wines, as European-style vinifera grapes are difficult to grow without using conventional pesticides.

One of these grapes is a newer red hybrid from Cornell University named Arandell. The other is Cayuga, a white grape hybrid extensively planted along the east coast and especially used in sparkling wines. As for sulfites, even their Sparkling Winchester wine still has 35 ppm, all of which is naturally occurring yet higher than what the French definition of ‘natural wine’ would allow.

Local Natural Wines You Can Try

While it’s a small market, Virginia does have a number of options you can sample. Here are some favorites:

As a longtime member of Arterra Wines, I can attest to their entire lineup. The natural yeast Jason uses gives his wines a viscosity and raciness not found in more conventional wines.

A wine flight at Arterra Wines

But my favorite is his Tannat. Jason is something of a Tannat magician, and his have a width on the palate that I can’t get enough of.

Rock Roadhouse’s wines are harder to describe – perhaps because until my visit I’ve never had wine made in this style. The 2018 Cabernet Franc with strawberry notes on the nose but a full but fruity palate was arguably my favorite, but their Cayuga and Merlot-blend Rosé was up there.

The lineup at Rock Roadhouse Winery

Briedé’s Arandell is possibly the most difficult of this lineup to describe, but my take is it reminded me of certain earthy Italian varietals, despite a heritage which includes Pinot Noir. Recently they also released a 50/50 Arandell/Tannat blend, which is an exciting combination.

Arandell and the Speed of Sound red blend

Regardless of what you drink, remember; “natural” is still in the eye of the beholder. But so long as producers are up-front with what’s in the glass, natural wines will find avid consumers looking for something different.

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