Should you buy a wine based on the label alone? If the wine in question is a natural wine, the answer is more than likely yes.
Natural wines tend to stand out on wine store shelves for their distinctive label designs. From whimsical animals, cartoon characters, imagined city skylines, and creative photographic techniques to street art and designs fashioned from cut paper, the labels on these varieties are anything but ordinary.
The artists responsible for these creations are an eclectic breed. A small sampling includes a children’s book illustrator, a merman-obsessed tattoo artist, a photographer (who is also one of the natural wine movement’s progenitors), a printer whose artwork has also appeared on wallpaper designs, and a cartoonist. They reflect a movement that is diverse, inclusive, and progressive, largely run by young people; and has been especially welcoming to women and people of color.
And the contents of the bottles are pretty special as well. Natural wines are made from grapes grown using environmentally-friendly farming practices, including bio-dynamic, organic and sustainable approaches. Many of the winemakers in this niche are small producers who often have been farming this way for decades. They share a strong focus on building soil health — i.e. increasing beneficial microbe populations –, which makes a discernible difference in the taste of the final product.
The natural wine movement — and it is a movement — traces its roots back to 1990’s Paris, although its genesis goes back much farther to ancient agricultural practices developed over centuries. Forget tidily trimmed vines separated by rows of bare soil. The new breed of natural wine grape growers use cover crops that shield the soil from the withering sun, provide food for rodents that would otherwise snack on the vines, and enabling the development of healthy microbial populations that are responsible for laying the groundwork for the wine’s rich, complex taste. These practices increase the soil’s water retention ability, minimizing flood risk while reducing or eliminating the need for irrigation at the same time that it sequesters carbon dioxide. The vineyards also support a diverse assortment of birds and insects who help to create balance in the ecosystem along with native plant species. It’s not too lofty a claim that the natural wine movement can help save the planet.
Wines labeled as organic need to meet national organic standards established by the USDA, have to have been produced in a certified USDA facility, and may contain added sulfates in quantities less than 100 ppm. Natural wine producers, however, tend to use little or no sulfur, incorporate native yeast in the fermentation process, and eschew the 300 or so additives that are permissible in wine making but result in diminished flavor.
So raise a glass to natural wine and the labels that proudly proclaim the distinctiveness of the beverage that spawned a movement.