Thoughts from the Grapevine – Vol 2 Issue 2 – Natural Wine – Part 1

Thoughts from the Grapevine – Vol 2 Issue 1
March 4, 2021

What is Natural Wine?

 

In the first of a three-part Blog, I will attempt to define and describe what is meant by Natural Wine. It's quite the task but I am up for it. Part 2 will focus on the challenges faced by natural wine producers and Part 3 will outline the key selling points of natural wine. I hope you enjoy it.

“Natural wine is wine made without crap in it.”

A simple, precise, definition that Natural Wine Blogger and Author, Alice Feiring - tongue firmly in cheek - proposes in her book Natural Wine for the People - What is it, Were to find it, How to love it . Of course there is more to natural wine than that. The principle is to make wine with minimal intervention in the vineyard, and in the winery. Additives and processing aids are minimized while ensuring the health of the vines and the wine. A noble cause for sure.

Historically, the term “natural wine” has not been regulated in the same way that Geographic Indicators (GIs) have been regulated. Only a handful of growers’ associations have attempted to set natural wine standards, but there is no consensus regarding what makes a wine “natural”. Also, no government body has created regulations governing natural wine – until recently.

The 2020 July/August edition of Wine Spectator, Suzanne Mustacich reported that the French government has approved a charter, trade syndicate and label for natural wine. The approved qualification requirements are described in the adjacent table. Wines that meet these qualifications can be labeled "Vin Méthode Nature".

"Qualification Requirements"
FarmingCertified Organic
HarvestHand-picked
FermentationAmbient yeasts
Winery PracticesNo additives No modern techinques (i.e. reverse osmosis, sterile filtration)
SO2 limitsNo more that 30 mg/L of added SO2. Label must specify that sulfites have been added.

The natural wine community has been resistant to standardize and create a legal certification for natural wines. However, most proponents agree to the following principles:

  • natural wine must be made from hand-picked grapes that are farmed either sustainably, organically or biodynamically.
  • during winemaking, ambient yeasts are used in favour of flavour-enhancing cultured yeasts.
  • intervention in the winery should be kept to a minimum.
  • little or no sulfites should be added during the winemaking process.

In fact, the community’s resistance to regulation seems consistent with the principle of “limited intervention”. This principle leads to certain typical practices in both the vineyard and the winery that are common among most producers of "natural wine". 

In the vineyard use of synthetic fertilizers, fungicides, herbicides, and pesticides are not permitted. Instead, natural steps are taken to improve the quality of the soil and, hence, the health and disease-resistance of the vine. Key features include:

  • The structure of the soil is improved and the amount of biomass in the soil (microbes, beneficial insects, and worms) is increased with compost that helps to breakdown the soil. As a result, nutrients, particularly nitrogen, that are important to vine growth are slowly released.
  • Cover crops are grown, reducing soil erosion, and adding life to the soil. When necessary, they are plowed into the soil to create a natural compost.
  • Only natural fertilisers such as animal dung and natural calcium carbonate are used. In some cases, particularly if moving towards biodynamic farming, animals are raised on the farm and allowed to roam freely.
  • Polyculture of the vineyard is increased by the addition of cover crops, planting hedges rather than raising fences, and increasing the biodiversity in and around the vineyards by growing fruit trees or keeping bees nearby.
  • Natural predators (i.e. parasitic wasps), cover crops or mulch are used to reduce dust, while the use of pheromone capsules to create sexual confusion replaces chemical pesticides.
  • Traditional remedies to combat mildews, such as copper sulfate, are used judiciously. The weather is closely monitored to determine when spraying is necessary.

Some farmers may use systemic vineyard products absorbed by the pores of the vine rather than “contact treatments”. This requires fewer treatments per year and thus fewer heavy metals absorbed by the soil. For example, Floris Lemstra, Owner and winemaker at Château Canet in Languedoc, a Terra Terra Vitus ® property, treated his vines only 6 times in 2018 compared to 18 treatments by his neighbouring organic farmer.

Hand-picking ensures that healthy grapes are transferred to the winery, which helps reduce the amount of SO2 required. Mechanically harvested grapes are easily damaged and suffer rot which can result in early oxidation and potential bacterial damage.

In the winery, limited intervention is the cornerstone of natural wine. Processes such as sterile filtration, chaptalization, acidification, and dealcoholisation are either avoided or not allowed.  Little to no SO2 is added in the winery. Winemakers still must take steps, however, to reduce the impact of oxygenation during the winemaking process. These include:

  • Transferring hand-picked, whole bunches of grapes to protect them.
  • Using inert gas such as nitrogen to protect the grapes/wine from oxygenation in the wine-making process while:
    • Pumping grapes and/or juice from the de-stemmer/crusher
    • Transferring the grapes/juice for maceration, fermentation, and malolactic conversion (MLF) through the hoses and tanks
    • Bottling
  • Minimum amounts of SO2 use just after MLF and/or just before bottling.

Other decisions made by the natural winemaker include:

  • Using only ambient yeast for fermentation
  • Neither encouraging nor inhibiting Malolactic Conversion (MLF) - the process which converts tart malic acid to softer lactic acid - allowing it to occur naturally.
  • Keeping a wine on lees during fermentation and ageing.
  • Using inert vessels for fermenting and ageing of the wines. Neutral wood barrels and/or casks, which allow for micro-oxygenation of the wine while ageing, are permitted.
  • Clarification by sedimentation with minimal fining with neutral, organic sourced fining materials.
  • Using only gross filtration, if any.

Clear as mud? At least you have a bit more information on what Natural Wine is. In part 2 of this blog, I will outline the challenges facing natural wine producers and how they are adapting....See you again soon.

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