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 - Isabelle Legeron, Master of Wine and Author
With the recent explosion of the use of the term 'natural wine' and the term being bandied around more than ever, it's important that we all can agree on what it means. Isabelle Legeron, a master and well-known figure in the natural wine movement globally puts it concisely above. Organic or biodynamic grapes with nothing added or removed in the cellar outside of marginal amounts of sulphur.
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 Chamomile, 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/)
(Image courtesy of James Erskine/Jauma)
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 ageing 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 sulphur, 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, sulphites are often liberally used to control ‘risk’ factors, such as microbes or to fashion a particular style of wine. They also can use animal products like eggs or animal fat to fine the wine in order to achieve that pristine and clear style of white 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 sulphur at all, others, to face the realities of running a business (i.e. later release of a vintage) add comparatively tiny amounts at bottling.
No natural winemakers should be filtering or fining their wines outside of natural processes like racking.
When bottling, it is still common for natural winemakers to add marginal amounts of sulfur to prevent the wine from spoiling. There are quite a few of those who avoid this, they often believe that if you’re creative in the art of winemaking and care for your wine, this should not be necessary.
Saša Radikon (Radikon) notes ‘you notice the difference even with the smallest dash of SO2…we made two versions of the same wine: one with SO2 (25mg/l) at bottling and one without….each year we would show to professionals and 99 percent of the time, they preferred the one without SO2.
The Philosophy of Natural Wine
With still no formal definition or regulation, one can understand how many are capitalising on the term ‘natural wine’, although all too often they are following conventional processes, grapes grown with pesticides and adulterating their wine with yeasts, preservatives and other additives. This is not to say there is anything wrong with the approach, however, it does create an uneven playing field for those that are taking things seriously in the game.
A lot of the winemakers who are truly passionate about natural wines are those that also care immensely about their food, provenance, sustainability and the future of our planet. They tend to make wines that reflect a time and place. Where no year or bottle is the same. It's these values that resonate with us and drives us to become a better wine store every day.
A BIT OF WINE JARGON
The process by which yeasts break down sugars into ethanol (alcohol) and carbon dioxide. Natural winemakers rely on wild (vineyard) yeasts, conventionals kill wild and import yeast.
Tannin is a naturally occurring polyphenol found in bark, plants, seeds, wood fruit skins etc. Simply put, tannins add both dryness and acidity to wine. Skin contact in fermentation and oak ageing are instigators of tannins.
Colour, aroma compounds and tannins are leached into the wine by soaking grapes, grape seeds and stems amongst the wine juice.
Sulfur or sulphur is an abundant, nonmetallic chemical element. Found on your periodic chart with the letter S.
The alcoholic content is one of the main contributors to the ‘weight’ of wine. The higher the alcohol content, the weightier the mouth feels. Extracts (tannins, sugars etc.), the winemaking process of the winemaker and grape varieties also contribute to the body of a wine.
The process of leaving the skins of grapes to ferment with the juice for hours, days or event months.
When someone describes acidity in wine, this refers to the tartness or sourness of it. If you like a ‘crisp’ wine, then you prefer more acidic wine.
A natural process to lightly filter a wine whereby the winemaker will stack barrels above one another and use gravity to keep down the lees (dead yeast) whilst transferring the wine from one barrel to another.
Thanks to Manon Farm and Travis Tausend for the beautiful images.