Finding an organic or natural wine only a few years ago often meant choosing from a limited selection of dusty bottles in the back corner of a shop. Not anymore. Now, there's hardly a wine list without a few organic options, and shops specializing in low-intervention wines are popping up everywhere. For Italian winemakers, the shift has led to big opportunities.
Currently, Italy is a global leader in the percentage of organically certified vineyards. Italy, Spain, and France currently share about 75% of the total global organic grape production by acreage. The growth in Italian organic vineyards is only part of the story. The rise of the natural wine movement has helped Italian wine regions, where commercial vineyards have been less viable, become profitable once again whether the grapes were conventionally or organically grown.
First, let's unpack some terminology. Organic wines are made from organic grapes. Europe and the United States have different definitions of organic – Europe allows sulfites, but Americans don't. But, not all organic wines would be considered natural or low intervention. Neither natural nor low intervention is a regulated term, but sommeliers and enthusiasts have a consensus on the meaning. Typically, natural wine refers to wines considered biodynamic, meaning fermented with naturally occurring yeasts found on the skin or in the air rather than commercial yeast added to the grape juice. However, the term low intervention is often preferred to indicate wines made with the fewest human interferences throughout the whole process. Conventional wines often add extra sugar, adjust acid levels, filter the final product, or age wine in oak barrels, but low-intervention wines usually do not.
Added sugars help increase alcohol by volume in conventional wines, so natural wines tend to have lower alcohol by volume. Since low-intervention wines aren't filtered, they can be hazy or contain sediments because the yeast remains in the wine. Another feature of low-intervention wines is the grapes used to make them are more likely to be hand-picked than mechanically picked. Small vineyards are more likely to hand-pick than large ones and the machines can also damage the vines. Hand-picking ensures only the ripest grapes are picked creating an opportunity to sort out bad grapes. Low-intervention wines may not taste like conventionally produced wine, and that is part of the appeal.
"There is something absolutely delightful about that unexpected thing you can get in a glass of unconventional wine. I think that's why so many people are coming to it and finding it joyful," explains Matthew Doyle, owner of Graham Wine Co. in the Italian section of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The shop specializes in natural and low-intervention wines with a focus on sustainability, including environmental and labor practices. "It's also a little bit less exclusionary than other categories of wine that have become prohibitively expensive." The cost of land in traditionally successful wine-growing regions is high. In turn, high costs mean wineries are less likely to take risks. However, in less prestigious wine regions, affordable land has allowed low-intervention wines to experiment because of lower startup costs. That's been a major benefit for many of Italy's undervalued wine regions.
"When it comes to Italian organic and natural wine in general, the Italian growing regions typically held in the highest esteem are often the places you are least likely to find low intervention winemaking," says Danny Boyer, Sommelier at the Dirty Bacchus in Beacon, New York, a shop that specializes in low intervention wines. "Part of the reason for this has to do with economics and the "brand" associated with the regions, which drives up the costs of winemaking and acquiring land," he adds.
Sicily, Campania, Abruzzo, and Le Marche have taken a lead in organic, natural, and biodynamic wines. For instance, one of Italy's largest organic producers, Planeta, has been growing grapes in Sicily for 400 years. Another reason Italian wines are expanding into natural and low-intervention wines is the rising threats posed by climate change. New rainfall patterns and heat waves are increasingly becoming a problem for traditional grape and wine production regions. The instability caused by heat waves and erratic storms makes it more difficult for conventional vineyards to match the standards of their regions or to provide a consistent product year over year. "Natural winemakers usually do not care if their wines are inconsistent–that's part of the appeal," Boyer says.
Over the coming years, wine-growing regions are moving northward as average temperatures rise. Especially in southern Italy, hot and dry conditions are already the norm and increasing temperatures threaten the existing grape varietals and production yields. Creating low-intervention wines eliminates the expectations created by past vintages and embraces the unexpected.
With so many more organic, natural, and low-intervention wines coming into the market, the average consumer might find themselves overwhelmed, especially since traditional styles are not always reproduced. For the inexperienced, visiting a natural wine bar rather than going straight to a wine shop might be a good alternative. "If you are trying to dip your toe into natural wine, a wine bar is the way to go. You're not committing to a bottle," Doyle says. "If you walk into a natural wine shop, sometimes you are going to leave with something you will love and sometimes you aren't. I think it's fun to be in a restaurant setting where you're getting a little taste of something."
Some wine shops will even offer classes on natural and organic wines, like Ruffian in New York City, where the curious can buy tasting sessions with an explanation of each wine.
When it comes to finding natural Italian winemakers, Boyer recommends Josko Gravner, Frencesco Cirelli, Frank Cornelissen, Stanko Radikon, and Arianna Occhipinti. But, like any good sommelier, he also can suggest organic and biodynamic versions of conventional styles like Barolo. Perhaps the most important lesson imparted by the wine sellers we spoke with is that buyers need to trust the person selling wine. Sommeliers will have done their research, know the wines well, and maybe even have met the vintner, so they can point drinkers toward what they're looking for.