Natural wine is loosely defined as wine made without chemicals and minimal technological intervention in growing the grapes. A somewhat dogmatic movement, it inhabits the fringes of the overall wine world and is controversial mostly because of its nebulously defined nature.
What qualifies as “minimal intervention” and what doesn’t?
Strictly speaking, wine isn’t natural. Grapes don’t grow in rows on their own. Most would be eaten by birds, deer or other wildlife if not protected. The fruit, if left on the vine, doesn’t become wine on its own. Finished wine naturally wants to become vinegar.
Still, if you set the dogma aside, it’s hard to argue with the idea of making wine through sustainable, often organic, viticulture — and letting those grapes speak for themselves without adding yeast, nutrients, fining agents, etc.
“Natural is just not the correct English as far as we’re concerned,” said Paumanok Vineyards winemaker Kareem Massoud. “That’s why we call this minimalist, which we think much more accurately describes certainly this wine.”
Massoud’s minimalist line of wines, which has included chardonnay, chenin blanc and sauvignon blanc bottlings, welcomed its first red wine this fall: Paumanok Vineyards 2015 minimalist Cabernet Sauvignon ($50).
Massoud didn’t necessarily plan to make cabernet sauvignon his first red in this style. “We have some cabernet vines that we interplanted in an older block of cabernet, and we always harvest them separately. So that was kept separate and it became this wine,” he said.
Not only is this savory red wine made entirely from cabernet sauvignon, it’s made from a single clone, 412, that the Massoud family first planted in 2008. It’s since led to each of the winery’s “Tuthill’s Lane” single-vineyard cabernet bottles.
“What’s special about 412 is it is tiny berries and loose clusters, which translates into low yields. So low, in fact, that when I tried to order more vines, the nursery tried to talk me out of it. That just shows you who they mostly sell to,” he said, not-so-subtlely suggesting that many growers care more about quantity than they do quality.
Massoud describes his cellar protocol for the minimalist cabernet sauvignon: “Absolutely nothing has been added to this wine. It’s pretty simple.”
After being hand harvested and crushed, the fermenting juice spent two months on the skins. Half of the juice was then moved into stainless steel and the other half into older, neutral oak barrels for 17 months. Then it was bottled. Nothing was added, not even the small dose of sulfites Massoud adds to the minimalist whites.
Sulfites are naturally occurring preservatives created by the fermentation process, but because the total sulfites are below the 10 parts per million threshold, the back label of this wine doesn’t have the standard “Contains Sulfites.”
This distinctive expression of North Fork cabernet is decidedly savory, with layers of grilled herbs, bitter dark chocolate, leaf tobacco and cured meat, bringing a surprising complexity to a melange of ripe red and black fruits. Medium bodied, the palate shows the wine’s youth in its chewy tannins, which are still a bit angular.
This wine is made for aging — especially since it’s bottled under screwcap. But, if you want to drink this wine young, decant it for a few hours. At least be patient and enjoy the bottle over the course of an evening, watching it change as you do. Of the roughly 100 cases made, there are only a few dozen cases left.
It’s available at the winery for $50.