The best way to start the conversation about natural wine is to look at the Côtes de Roussillon in France, a place where the terroir basically mandates that the wine that grows there be made naturally. Ahhhh, the Roussillon: dry like a warm tundra, wind-swept like a goddess, seaside like my dreams. I'm drinking a little red wine from there called C'est pas la mer a boire, or, as I call it, "ya can't drink the ocean."
In a region that produces a smattering of mostly Rhone-y grapes like Syrah, Mourvedre, and Carignan, this little ditty is mostly Grenache with a side serving of the other varietals. It's grown in schist (a slate-y, mineral-packed soil), which gives it brightness and depth.
So — what is natural wine, anyway? No pesticides, no herbicides, low intervention in the vineyard, no tinkering with chemicals in the cellar, low sulfites (sulfur is a natural byproduct of fermentation, so you're never gonna totally escape it). Somewhere like the Rouissillon, the strong winds of the region take care of many things that can ail vines, the grapes are hand-harvested, semi-carbonic maceration takes place (that is, the juice inside a lot of the grapes ferments on its own before the grapes get crushed), a ton of other dope shit happens, and then BOOM we get a serving of this fine pie.
"Thank you for not forcing it," I think to myself. You make me feel like a natural woman? Well, yes in some ways you do. Let's take the microscope to the vigneron, a man named Loïc with a toothy smile and skinny limbs, who worked in front of a computer at Amnesty International but quickly aborted that mission for a place near where he grew up. A place he named Domaine du Possible to make the point that good natural wine is possible. A place where he could actually afford to buy vines and a place where — maybe because it's always been thought of as no big deal — he could produce wines that are in fact a big deal. To me, to us, to steak lovers, to mushroom risotto, to rice bowls.
I cook sushi rice and I chop carrots, kale, garlic, and shiitakes and think, damn, this dinner is going to be epic. In the glass next to me is this Côtes du Rousillon that, ever since I first tasted it, I've wanted to pour by the glass at Animal. And it always sells out too fast; ahhh, natural selection. Nothing that good can be limitless.
I listen to Harmony: Melody & Style on vinyl (it's so good; find it). The rice bowl is almost done. The saying c'est pas la mer a boire literally means "it's not the sea to drink." But what it means is: Guys, it's not that big a deal; it's not that hard; it's not as hard as drinking the entire sea would be. Shit, life lessons on a label? Then you drink a glass and give yourself a goddamn break? Maybe. What is hard is tackling a conversation such as natural wine and coming out of it on the other end. It's a merciless pursuit in these days of intellectualizing wine, often in a way that elevates things that are out of harmony and pooh-poohs wines that — even if they are classic and just as natural — happen to be fancy. So, you fancy, huh? Not me, says my little no-big-deal-but-really-a-big-deal humble wine. In the end, aren't we really talking about drinkability?