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Wrigley Mansion sommelier gives his take in 'natural wine' vs. traditionally made wine debate

By Lauren Gilger
Published: Wednesday, March 27, 2024 - 11:40am
Updated: Wednesday, March 27, 2024 - 11:41am

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If you’ve looked at a wine menu lately, you might have seen a list of “natural wines” there. You might assume it means organic, but our next guest explains that it’s not the same thing. And he cares more about what happens in the vineyard.

Mark Guilladeu is the sommelier at Wrigley Mansion and said there’s a debate among wine-drinkers about which is better: natural wine or traditionally made wine. There are pros and cons to both sides, but it’s not all black and white, mainly because people can’t agree on the definition of natural wine.

Guilladeu spoke more about it with The Show.

Ms. Adahila Cole
Mark Guillaudeu

Full interview 

MARK GUILLADEU: There are a lot of different opinions. There are a couple key issues but there aren't really any places in the world other than one very narrow definition in France that really carefully legislate what it means to be natural. And that's kind of part of where the debate comes in.

LAUREN GILGER: OK. So when we say natural, I think a lot of people would first assume we're talking about organic, but this is not the same thing.

GUILLADEU: Correct, correct. I mean, organic is pretty tightly regulated around the world. It's very prescribed in what you can and cannot do and call yourself organic. In the States, we have a little bit of a weird system. So oftentimes you'll see the label wine made with organic grapes because in the U.S., unlike every other wine growing country in the world, in order to actually label the wine itself as organic, it has to have a very, very low level of sulfur, which is a natural preservative or relatively natural preservative. It's been in use since the Roman times. But like I said, no one, no one anywhere else in the world thinks that a wine has to have low sulfur in order to be organic. Although low sulfur is often one of the things that people kind of hang their hat on when it comes to what makes wine natural because it is, as I said, it's, it's antimicrobial, it's a preservative. So the idea is if you add sulfur to your wine, then you maybe have fewer yeast strains or fewer bacteria that are doing the fermentation. And some people think that means that you get simpler wine rather than all of that extra fermentation complexity.

GILGER: Interesting. OK. So it sounds like a lot of this in terms of making a natural wine has to do with what happens at the vineyard, right?

GUILLADEU: Yes, I mean to your point about organic, for a lot of people that identify as natural, what they call loosely living soil farming is pretty much at the core that might look like a certified organic farm that might look like somebody who's practicing biodynamic. The general idea being that you want to encourage as much fungal and microbial life in the soil as possible through your farming practices. 

GILGER: Does this have to do with fertilizers, insecticides? Like what you spray on the vines themselves?

GUILLADEU: Exactly. A lot of those chemicals we've learned are very unhealthy for the life in the soil. And as we've learned more and more that life in the soil is really, really key for the health of the vines. 

GILGER: So let's talk then about the taste difference here. I mean, I've tried natural wine and I, I'm not entirely sure I know enough about wine to be able to tell the difference, but it does look a little different often, like it's a little bit more, more opaque. 

GUILLADEU: Yes. Another, another common choice is people in making a natural wine, they will choose not to filter the wine or not to find the wine because they believe that every time you do that you're removing, not only are you manipulating it, making it somewhat unnatural, but you also have to remove some of the flavor or some of the texture from the wine and they would rather serve it in a, let's say a more raw state.

GILGER: Where did this movement begin, Mark? Like how long have we been talking about natural wine? It seems relatively new that it's become pretty popular, but I'm not very plugged into the wine world.

GUILLADEU: Sure, the scientist that's largely credited with this is a gentleman from Beaujolais in France named Jules Chauvet. He's the one I believe who coined that term living soil. And he really wanted to research not only how to revitalize the soil so that it could be used for future generations, but also he kind of asked this question of, you know, what, what other things are we doing to the wine that maybe we don't need to do.

GILGER: OK. So do you think natural wine tastes different or shall I even say better than quote unquote regular wine?

GUILLADEU: Well, it's one of the choices that people think about when they're thinking about is the wine natural or not, is whether or not they're using a commercial strain of yeast or whatever yeast they have coming on the grapes of the vineyard. There's a winemaker in Oregon, the winery is Cristom and they checked their fermentation on time. And Cristom, I would lump into one of those producers that is on paper very much natural, but doesn't necessarily taste natural. But he found that during their fermentation, they had 50 different strains of yeast conducting the fermentation as opposed to a typical fermentation that might have one, maybe two. And so it's kind of like if you already have that many more different strains of yeast, you're inherently going to have more complexity, you're going to have a greater diversity of flavors and aromas and textures. 

One of the main kind of flavor differences that people will notice with a lot of natural wine is because they use lower sulfur, they have more different types of yeast fermenting them. And so very often those other less common, shall we say yeast provide more kind of earthy and savory aromas. Now, I mentioned as well that a lot of this kind of conversation goes back to the type of farming, and we found over time that because of that greater mineral uptake from the soil, we get more trace minerals in the resulting wine and very often that also will contribute to the complexity of the wine. One time for a team of staff, I did a tasting for them and I poured for them blind the exact same variety, the exact same vintage, the exact same region, the exact same vineyard, but it from three different producers, one of which was conventional, one of which was organic and one of which was biodynamic, and the most flavorful wine was the biodynamic one because you have just all of, it's not just the vine extracting flavor out of the soil into the grapes in that point. It's the vine in partnership with these dozens of different other micro organisms of the soil that are only there because you're farming in that more intentional way.

GILGER: Hm. So you're on the side of the natural wine in the end, huh?

GUILLADEU: I personally, I, I care a lot about what happens in the vineyard. A lot of those choices for me, of sulfur or are they using a bunch of oak or even to an extent the question of, are they using native yeast or not for me, are very much more like, you know, I don't really particularly care if the artist uses piano or if they use guitar, it doesn't matter to me so long as the song is good. But there are real impacts in terms of carbon and in terms of the environment in what happens in the vineyard. So for me, I've, I've always hung my hat on very much that natural leaning side, at least to the winery door to get the raw material. And then after that point, some of the wines that are made in a natural style can be very, very delicious and some of them very, very expensive and some of them can, you know, it's, it's a little bit less controlled, shall we say. And so sometimes when you don't have control, things can go wrong. But in a lot of places, it ends up in the bottle either way, fair enough.

GILGER: OK. I want to talk lastly about the the the other side of this, right. Which is that like farmers are not using things like synthetic fertilizers or insecticides, right? Because they want wine that is, you know, quote unquote synthetic, like it's because of basically like stability survivability.

GUILLADEU: Right. Exactly. I mean, a really good example of this is champagne, which of course, we all know and love around the holidays. And all the time, champagne was a region that had been converting gradually more and more and more from a very small base in organics and biodynamics. 2012 vintage that just came out even Louis Roederer Crystal as of the 2012 vintage is now 100% biodynamic in the vineyards that it uses so very, very iconic name. And it, you know, organics was coming along, there was more and more acreage every year. And then in 2021, there were many organic producers that lost 100% of their crop due to the weather. And so for a lot of these producers, you know, the choice came down to, I'm either going to be able to put food on my family's table by using these chemicals that I hate, or I'm going to have to sell the family farm and we don't know what we're going to do with our lives. And for, you know, I'm not going to fault anybody when confronted with that choice and choosing to keep their livelihood over choosing not to spray because you know, the soil will heal in time if treated right. And so you can always go back, right. It's never, it's never a once. And for all you're either conventional or you're organic, it's always a process and a spectrum.

GILGER: Yeah. All right. We'll leave it there for now. That is Mark Guilladeu, sommelier at the Wrigley Mansion, joining us. Mark, thank you so much for coming on and explaining this to us and giving us a little taste of the wine world. I appreciate it.

GUILLADEU: My pleasure.


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