Naked, free, wild, raw, true, clean… natural wine has many names, except its most obvious one, just plain ol’ wine. There’s no makeup or camouflage, nor is there any sort of artificial interference – chemical fertilizers or industrial yeasts, to name a few – in the vineyards or during the vinification process. Some consider this wine to be a passing fashion, but it has more than a solid foothold in its homelands – France, Georgia and, to a lesser extent, Italy – and continues to conquer palates in new countries.
One of those countries is Spain, where natural wine is proving to be a popular alternative to industrial vino, which must adhere to regulations set by the Denominaciones de Origen (D.O., the organizations that oversee the mainstream wine regions in Spain) and has a limited and fixed personality often based on artificial yeast and processes. Barcelona is natural wine’s flagship city in Spain, with an increasing number of specialized bars and restaurants joining the movement. We took a closer look at three of the most visible and important natural wine-related projects in Barcelona to learn more about the growing popularity of this vino in Spain.
L’Anima del Vi
A French oenologist and Barcelona resident, Benoît Valee has pioneered natural wine in Spain. What began as a little shop in Gràcia has grown into an attractive and welcoming bar – L’Anima del Vi – in the Born neighborhood, which he runs with his partner in business and in life, Núria Rodríguez. “We started the shop in 2006 to import the French natural wine movement to Spain and find Spanish [natural] winemakers,” Benoît says. “Although, at that moment there were very few in Spain, like the Escoda-Sanahuja winery and Laureano Serres in Catalonia, and Barranco Oscuro and Bodegas Cauzón in Andalucia.”
Benoît decided to dedicate himself to natural wine after his initial experiences in the field. “When you walk around in Champagne, you still can see pieces of plastic from the Paris garbage that was used back in the day as fertilizer. Producers in this area will tell you how it is still possible to find synthetic molecules that are currently forbidden in the phreatic layer of the soil, which have filtered through the soil layers over the years,” he explains. “Industrial viticulture…is an ecologic disaster!” he adds.
“This new generation got their start with natural wines – it’s a completely different culture.”
Considering the proximity of Catalonia to France, Benoît believes it was inevitable for the natural wine movement to influence Catalan producers. Yet the configuration of the Spanish wine industry doesn’t make it easy for the public to access these different types of wine. “In France many shops work directly with producers,” says Benoît, “but in Spain the market is dominated by distributors, and it is very hard to find independent shops.” The demand from restaurants also determines what wines are being drunk, and Benoît is surprised at how certain spots have ignored natural wine completely. “It is very strange that a Michelin-starred restaurant has no natural wine on their menu,” he says.
Yet there has been a shift in recent years: More restaurants have opened their cellars to natural wines. As for L’Anima del Vi, it is packed with young people. “I belong to a generation that started out drinking conventional wine and then switched to natural wine. But this new generation got their start with natural wines – it’s a completely different culture,” Benoît says. Nowadays, natural wine is the entryway for many young Barcelonans to the wine world; for them, environmental and health concerns trump toeing the industry line.
Can Cisa – Bar Brutal
An old bodega established in 1949, Can Cisa was bought in 2013 and transformed into one of Barcelona’s best spots for natural wine. This bar-restaurant-shop was founded by the natural wine distributor Joan Valencia, who owns the wine shop Cuvé 3000; the Colombo brothers, Max and Stefano, both chefs; and the winemaker Joan Ramón Escoda, a pioneer in the production of natural wine in Spain. They stock hundreds of natural wines from all over the world, a list that is constantly being updated. Many are available by the glass, and in the company of excellent Mediterranean food that draws inspiration from both Catalonia and Italy.
In the beginning, they struggled to get people on board with natural wine. “We were explaining and building it up every day – it was like a war, trying to make sure people didn’t send back the wine again and again,” says Víctor Martín, Can Cisa – Bar Brutal’s sommelier. But as natural wine became more widespread and well known, they amassed a loyal following.
For Víctor, the fact that Barcelona is at the forefront of the natural wine movement in Spain goes beyond the French influence. “We are lucky to be in a city like Barcelona that is very global and progressive,” he says. “Culturally, the city totally goes in the ‘bio’ direction, and not because it’s fashionable. Here it is a genuine, growing interest related to environmental concerns. We generated so much crap that we have to contribute to some kind of regeneration.” As the climate crisis escalates, the natural wine movement is gaining visibility as one way to protect the earth. “It is always good to consume something that is not poisoning the planet,” he says.
Wine is one of many humble products, like bread, cheese and beer, that have recently reached new heights of excellence thanks to craft producers. Nowadays people are concerned not only with where their wine comes from and how it’s grown, but also with the human touch behind it – the art of the winemaker is what gives shape and personality to these fruits of nature. “Natural wine forces you to learn more about the producer and the work behind it,” Víctor says. “In a wine made inside a D.O., you already know what rules they are following. But with the natural wines you need to go and find out more.”
But equally as important as the hand that creates the wine is the mouth that drinks it. Víctor gives us some advice to enjoy the dynamic, ever-changing complexity of natural wines: “It is a matter of energy. It is about how this wine makes you feel. It is a vibe that in other wines is not so present.” Furthermore, any aromas that could be considered faults should be viewed within the full picture of a natural wine’s expression, with the aim of finding a good balance of flavors. Because, to paraphrase Víctor, a fault is no longer a fault if it gives us pleasure.
Despite the rise of natural wines in Barcelona, a piece was missing – the scene needed something to pull everything together. That special something was Vella Terra, a fair fully dedicated to natural wines. Organized for the first time in 2016 by Italian sommelier Stefano Fraternali and his partner, Ale Delfino, the fair is perhaps the most important natural wine event in Spain.
“Vella Terra is like a family,” Ale explains. “We have a lot of friends dedicated to natural wines and we wanted to join and connect all of them. And we realized that the sector was lacking organization in Spain, so we decided to make something really big, that everybody heard about.”
The inaugural Vella Terra – the result of this vision – attracted a lot of attention; 800 people participated in the fair, including top names like Stefano Bellotti, an Italian pioneer in biodynamic viniculture (who has since passed away), and Nicolas Joly, founder of the association Renaissance des Appellations.
Next year will mark the fair’s fifth edition. In a short period of time, Vella Terra has helped establish Barcelona as the main natural wine city in the country and put Spain on the international natural wine map, promoting Catalan and Spanish wines in the process. And all of this was done without help or sponsorship from the major Catalan wine institutions.
While the fair is a one-time event, its effects can be felt year-round: Producers and customers gather together at Garage Bar, Stefano and Ale’s bar in Sant Antoni. They stock the bar with natural wines sourced from a wide range of distributors as well as directly from producers – essentially all the wines showcased in the fair can be found here.
For drinkers unfamiliar with natural wine, Stefano counsels them to give it time – the flavors of a natural wine are continually changing, unlike the rigid identity of wine developed by the D.O. – and to learn more about the producers. “Very often in a natural wine there are some initial unpleasant aromas, but they go away in the first few minutes,” he says. “There are many things that can make you fall in love with these bottles, when you know a bit more about the wine and give it a bit more time.”
Wine should be “alive,” the product of dynamic vineyards. As with all living organisms, change is the name of the game: Natural wine evolves as you drink it, and the natural wine movement is changing our wine culture.
Editor’s note: To celebrate the start of fall, we’re running a series focused on the grape harvest and winemaking.