WHAT IS NATURAL WINE?
What is exactly natural wine? Its detractors and lovers of rubberized wines love to say that “wine doesn’t make itself, how can it be natural if man’s intervention is always needed?” Of course no one ever argued that bottles just fall of the vine, the term has gained a precise meaning over the years and refers to:
· A truly revolutionary movement in wine, only an apparent innovation as it has its roots in millennia old traditions and cultural heritage.
· A mostly shared set of common beliefs and practices with regard to farming and winemaking practices in the cellar.
So, what defines natural wine? Aside from the ethical and ecological aspects of the movement, which are not secondary at all, let’s try and see what is done (or NOT) concretely in the vineyard and in the cellar. Let’s go:
· In the vineyard no chemicals of any kind are ever employed, whether they be pesticides, fertilizer of others, as well as no irrigation.
· Some but not all natural producers are certified organic and/or biodynamic, but that is not a strict prerequisite.
· In the cellar all fermentations are spontaneous with the yeasts naturally present on the grapes and in the cellar itself. Industrial selected yeasts are a huge NO NO, as this is one of the main tools used to make industrial wines taste like critics and focus groups want them to, completely divorced from terroir, grape, vintage and the vision of the vigneron.
· No aggressive temperature control.
· None of the allowed and perfectly legal winemaking additives and invasive techniques found in conventional wines, such as enzymes, fermentation starters, acidification, de-acidification, reverse osmosis etc etc (believe me the list goes on, and on, and on…)
· No fining or filtration, which are aimed at obtaining a crystal clear beverage where all nutrients and soul have been stripped away.
· Very moderate amount of added SO2 ONLY before bottling.
WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN CONVENTIONAL, ORGANIC, BIODYNAMIC AND NATURAL WINE?
Basically the amount of additives, chemicals and intrusive processes you are allowed to use.
What you can do and not do in natural wine we just covered just now, but what is interesting is what you can put into conventional wine and even organic one, as regulated by law.
· Conventional wines:
In the vineyard, a wide range of chemically synthesized pesticides, fertilizers, fungicides and other chemical products, about many of which there is more than serious doubt about potential health hazards.
This allegedly is meant to protect the vines from disease and pests, but actually vignerons have been doing this naturally for thousands of years.
In the cellar, under EU law, aside from grapes (which should be the main ingredient, but is actually not) there are overall more than 60 chemical additives and preservatives that can be legally used in wines, in most cases this is done with the aim of having an industrially reliable product with very few simple recognisables aromas (and flavours? Hmmm… doubtful) that is repeatable each vintage.
Would you like any of these in your wine: coloring agents, acidifiers, deacidifiers, casein, pepsin, trypsin, dimethyl dicarbonate, ammonium phosphate, sodium carboxymethyl cellulose, potato protein isolate, acetaldehyde and isinglass? And this does not even begin to cover invasive techniques based on mechanical processes, such as reverse osmosys, thermal vinification or micro-oxygenation.
Of course all of these wines will be fined and filtered, so as to make them as similar as possible to perfumed water.
However probably the most influential factors in determining a conventional wine’s taste and aromatic profile are selected industrial yeasts and much higher amounts of added SO2 than in natural wines. European regulations set the limit of total SO2 at 160 mg/l for reds and 210 mg/l for whites.
· Organic wines:
It must be admitted that, while the difference with natural wine is still vast, EU organic certification imposes that in the vineyard the use of chemical pesticides, fertilizers and so on. In the cellar however, this laudable starting point is often nullified. This is because everything that is allowed in conventional wines is allowed here, including selected yeasts and all additives. Accepted SO2 levels are just a tiny bit lower than in conventional wines, 100 mg/l for reds and 150 mg/l.
· Biodynamic wines:
As opposed to organic wines, there is no legal definition but a widely accepted private body, Demeter, which acts as certifiers.
Biodynamic wines are produced using a holistic set of agronomic practices inspired by the work of Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner and Japanese agronomist Masanobu Fukuoka.
Only natural compounds are used in the vineyard but in the cellar some practices now allowed in natural wines such as: selected yeasts in critical vintages, clarifying agents and filtration and micro-filtration.
Accepted added SO2 levels also tend to be higher than those found in natural wines.
· Natural wines:
as discussed above they contain only pressed grape juice, sometimes tiny amounts of added SO2 and loads and loads of art and passion!
SULFUR DIOXIDE (SO2)... IS IT THE DEVIL?
Definitely not if used in moderation and at the proper time.
While some more ardent natural wine lovers tend to condemn any and all use of added SO2, we like to embrace a more balanced view, largely based on our wide experience over the years.
Most natural vignerons will tell you that the most devilish use of SO2 is during the fermentation process, as it tends to kill off most strains of yeasts and mute flavors and aromas.
On the other hand, adding tiny amounts of SO2 at bottling is seen by many winemakers as not harmful to the flavour profile and conducive to making the wines more stable.
While many fantastic natural wines, and it does take much skill to do so, are made with no added SO2, just as many if more do have a bit at bottling.
WHY SO MANY COLORS IN NATURAL WINE?
While color and flavor range in conventional wines is sadly limited and regimented, the world of natural wines is a sensory and chromatic explosion of wonders.
No more sad “deep ruby” or “pale straw yellow” since within one single wine type in natural wine the range can be astoundingly wide.
White wines can be lightly golden or fully dusk-colored, while red can vary from an intense violet or crimson to an elegantly deep heavy pink.
Likewise, and most importantly, the range of aromas and flavors is lightyears beyond the sad one found in conventional wines.
ORANGE WINES? WHAT DOES IT MEANS?
Orange wines refers to wines made from white grapes (and “grey” ones such as Pinot Grigio) which, just as it happens with red wines, see some extent of skin contact (maceration with the skins) during fermentation.
In most traditional winemaking countries it’s fair to say that almost all white wines saw some degree of skin contact.
The cradle and birthplace of orange wines could be said to be Georgia, where they are called “amber wines”, while the Friuli and Slovenian Collio hills are the other cultural epicenter for these wines, home to giants such as Gravner and Radikon.
Contact with the skins, where most polyphenols and other aromatic compounds reside, not only helps protect the wine and make it more long-lived but it does imbue it with a wonderful and wide world of flavors and aromas.
Contrary to what some might believe the degree of “orangeness” is often unrelated to the length of time of skin contact. The type of grape, age of the vine and soils can be far more influential factors, as can have some orange wines with months of skin contact and a light golden color and others which see a few days and burn with a delightfully deep amber hue.