Much like everything in the world, wine and its various styles have evolved over the thousands of years. In previous decades, society had access to just four different styles of wine - red, white, rosé and sparkling, with rosé even being called a fad that just never went away for a couple decades! Single grape variety, big and bold were the only attributes a wine was supposed to have for quite a while.
Fast forward to the present day and those lines have been blurred and experimented with in many different ways, resulting in multiple variations within each style of wine; dry and sweet rosés, a sparkling version of every color and white wine that’s fermented in-contact with its skins resulting in an orange/amber colored wine. We believe the blurring of lines regarding wine styles in recent years is for the good, but before we tell you why, let's dive a little bit deeper into the history of each wine style.
A Ancient History of Each Style
Wine generally is believed to have come from Georgia in around 6,000 BCE with some of the earliest found versions of it in Iran, Sicily and Egypt. According to BBC News, Spanish scientists recently discovered from an acid left by compounds in wine that it was red wine left in King Tutankhamun’s burial tomb.
What would have been considered white wine millennia ago is what today we call orange wine. White wine as we know it today (clear or very light in color) is actually the product of post World War II winemaking when the industry decided that the best flavors were in the pulp and not in the skins, so they started pressing the wine off.
Rosé wine was around since the beginning of wine creation in Greece and became popular in the 6th century, when the Phoenicians brought their lighter red wines from Greece to Massalia which is now known as Marseille in the south of France. Rosé became the new hot talk of Europe once the Romans arrived, they gave the pink-colored wine access to a trade network that covered the whole of Europe.
Sparkling wine in Champagne was initially made as an accident when they shipped their (still) wine to Britain and it became carbonated on the trip, leading them to write back letting them know how much they loved the bubbles and making the Champagne producers ponder what they meant! The ancient monks of Saint-Hilaire were the first ones to write about sparkling wine back 1531.
Post World War II Wine Styles
As mentioned above, wine changed completely with the rise of conventional farming and the industry we know today has only functioned this way since the 1950s. With that in mind, natural winemaking is far more in line with the ancient winemaking styles than what we've grown accustomed to, but let's do a review of what that has looked like.
Wine since World War II started the trend of popularized grapes (Chardonnay, Cabernet) replacing native ones as well as greater manipulation and higher alcohol content becoming popular. Oaked Cabernet Sauvignon and butter Chardonnay led the day for quite awhile and by a lot of standards, still do! The rise of rosé started a couple decades ago and has only increased in popularity, which, in my opinion, is one of the areas that opened the door for the blurring of lines in wine styles once more!
How The Lines Have Been Blurred Since
Arguably, the lines are blurring across the whole wine industry, but no where is it more obvious than in the natural wine community. With experimentation being the key driver of natural winemaking, the post WWII established lines of what exactly wine is supposed to look (and taste) like have been blurred, and for the better in our opinion.
Here are some examples on how today’s natural winemakers have blurred the lines of style recently;
The Use of Indigenous Grape Varieties
Between the 19th-century phylloxera crisis that struck most of Europe in the 1860’s and continued preference towards international grapes, planting and growing indigenous grapes was sacrificed for sturdy, more reliably popular grape varieties.
Natural winemakers are pre-disposed to wanting to use native varietals, as they need the grapes that will thrive best in that particular environment without manipulation. With so many varietals re-emerging, combined with the traditional winemaking styles coming back (discussed below) we are seeing a large blurring of what is a red wine, rosé wine, and even an orange wine.
Adding Skin Contact Back to White Grapes
Speaking of orange wine, like we discussed above, the first way white wine was made was with skin contact. How much and for how long determines the structure of the wine as well as the thickness of the grape skin for how much color it imparts. From Ramato orange wine (made with gris grapes) which come out as a rosé color (see the Donkey and Goat photo in the main image of this blog) to light skinned grapes like Viognier creating orange wines that would be almost indistinguishable from a white wine, it is ironically clear to see how blurry these wine styles can get.
Carbonic maceration is a process that today’s winemakers can opt for if they want to produce a lighter red or orange wine. Whole clusters or bunches of grapes (stems and pips included) ferment amongst each other in an enclosed, carbon dioxide-rich, warm environment. This process can take a wine that would traditionally drink like a hefty, tannic, complicated wine and turn it right into a glou glou everyday drinker.
Variety Blending and Co-Ferments
Tastes and palettes also evolve over time, and thankfully most of us are now past the single grape varietal, full-bodied wines that took over the world from the 80’s onwards. Natural winemakers are now experimenting with a variety of grapes in order to produce lighter-bodied wines that are thought-provoking and not so lip/teeth staining. Usually these winemakers will opt to blend two or three different grape varieties to create a balanced wine amongst them without having to use acidifiers or colorants.
Many have even go so far as to co-ferment different grapes in the same tanks vs blending post-fermentation. Even more interesting is that some producers will either blend or co-ferment white grapes with red grapes! This can really elevate some wines that would have potentially been too flabby without a zip of acidity a white can add.
All this to say, nothing is off limits in natural winemaking as far as creativity is concerned (obviously the chemicals are off limits!). To tie this off we will leave you with a quote from Michelle Obama, of course, with our own natural wine twist on it!
“For me, (natural wine) isn’t about being a specific style or tasting a certain way. I see it instead, as a forward moving motion, a means of evolving with the living nature all around our lives. The journey for (natural wine) doesn’t end.”
Holly Berrigan is the Founder of MYSA Natural Wine. She has a WSET Level 3 certification with Distinction, is a member and writer for the Porto Protocol and Slow Food USA, and is a student in Sustainable Agriculture at the University of Massachusetts Stockbridge.