Isabelle Legron, a well-known figure in the natural wine movement in globally puts it concisely, “It is wine from vineyards that are farmed organically, at the very least, and which is produced without adding or removing anything during vinification, apart from a dash of sulfites at most at bottling”.
If we take a step back from the jargon and break out the winemaking process, it becomes a lot more obvious how natural winemaking differs from that of convention or even just organic wines. At an incredibly opaque level, we know there are generally four (rather lengthy) parts to winemaking:
- Growing the grapes
- Post harvest/fermentation
Growing the grapes
Grapes grown in vineyards and the varieties of grapes growing, as with any agricultural produce, are influenced by environmental factors such as climate, soil, topography and surrounding plants. Natural winemakers, tend to respect and maintain such an awareness of all of these elements that there is little need for artificial intervention.
It is widely accepted that natural winemakers should always select (or grow) organic or biodynamically grown fruit. Soil that is vibrant, not abused by synthetic fertilisers nor pesticides or herbicides can often create unique tasting produce, paving the way for a delicious grape. Biodynamic approaches tend to focus on prevention rather than treatment and encourage self-sufficiency of the farm unit. Natural preparations based on plants (think Chamomille, nettle, oak bark, dandelion etc.), minerals and manures are all used to stimulate microbial life, boost the immune systems of plants and improve soil fertility. Biodiversity or even the notion of permaculture (designing self-sustaining systems in agriculture, is also commonly practiced and a way of naturally managing vineyards. (Reference: https://madrose.com/concept-of-terroir/)
The moment grapes are HARVESTED determines the acidity, sweetness and flavour of the wine. Natural winemakers prefer to do this by hand and will often harvest the same field at different times for experimental purposes.
Post Harvest & Fermentation
Following the harvest, the goal for winemakers is often to establish conditions that will let the character of the fruit speak through the wine. It is here the vinification and aging process takes place. Here the winemaker must take critical decision that may reflect stylistic preferences. In the eyes of Anton Gerrard Van Klopper (Lucy Margaux wine) ‘to adulterate nature’s work by filtering, fining, or any addition, including small amounts of sulfur, is not natural’. Wild vs cultured yeast, skin contact, oak vs steel, grapes vs whole bunch, are all examples of decisions one must face.
In conventional winemaking, sulfites are often liberally used to control ‘risk’ factors, such as microbes or to fashion a particular style of wine. Natural growers, on the other hand, welcome diversity and work precisely with the hand that nature deals them each year. Some choose to add no sulfite at all, others, to face the realities of running a business (i.e. later release of a vintage) add comparatively tiny amounts at bottling.