Natural Wine

“We do not see nature with our eyes, but with our understandings and our hearts.”
- William Hazlitt

“In nature, nothing is perfect and everything is perfect. Trees can be contorted, bent in weird ways, and they’re still beautiful.”
- Alice Walker

The term natural wine is useful for three reasons. The term is by no means definitive, but is intended to highlight growers who work in a particular fashion, with minimal mediation, ideally to obtain the purest articulation of terroir in the wine. The expression implies that there are wines which are either unnatural, or less natural. This distinction is fundamental to the debate about the way that the wine proceeds from the vine to the bottle.

Ideally, natural wines are made in small quantities by artisan or independent producers from organically grown grapes in low yielding vineyards and then made without sugar, artificial yeasts or enzymes, or recourse to acidification or other adjustments. Most natural wines are neither filtered nor fined. The few that are will either be filtered extremely lightly or fined with organic egg-white. Many are made with only tiny amounts of added sulphur and some with none at all. Nowt taken out and nowt put in.

One would have thought that wine would be natural by definition, however, there’s many a slip (or intervention) between grape and bottle, many choices that can be made, and additions and manipulations that push the final wine further from its origins. But the word natural does not only mean produced by nature without human assistance, it is the very nature (sic) of assistance, the degree of human interference that distinguishes a natural wine from a conventional one.

There is no such thing as completely natural wine since without someone to make it there would obviously be no wine. Grapes are natural, wine is not.  Given that there must be some sort of human intervention, any definition of natural wine is just a line in the sand. The most natural possible wine would be vinegar.  Natural wine is then a relative term, natural in the sense that it aims at naturalness, and in the sense that it is more natural than other types of wine.  Broadly speaking what natural wines have in common is purity and honesty of expression. They taste of the grapes from which they are made and the place where they have grown. Natural wine makers are gentle interpreters…

“I don’t like the word winemaker. It doesn’t mean anything to me. You make shoes; you don’t make wine. I prefer to call myself a “wine helper” You help the wine make itself. That’s how I consider my job. That’s the way to keep a low profile – under nature, under the climate, under the fruit. Wine is a great gift.”

Louis Barruol – quoted in The New France – Andrew Jefford

The natural process necessarily begins with an enlightened approach to viticulture. Conventional chemically controlled agriculture damages the fertility of the soil, releases large amounts of toxic chemicals into the ecosystem, and encourages resistance in the pests it seeks to control.  It is also detrimental to the quality of the harvested crop.

Organic viticulture is the minimum requirement for natural wine. It is essential to create the preconditions for a living soil. Luc de Conti describes the deadening effect of modern agricultural methods: “The soil is lifeless, a cadaver”. First it is necessary to rid the ground of toxins, then nourish it with revitalizing remedies. Biodynamics, with its homeopathic preparations and supranatural solutions is one path, its prescriptive, holistic philosophy wholly endorsed by some growers, partially espoused by others, determined to bring their vineyards to full health. However, it does not specify what the winemaker should do in the winery; because even with beautiful grapes, the winemaker can “unmake” the wine.

A wine is not great simply because it is natural. Not every vineyard is capable of producing a great wine. But organic farming and natural winemaking is the way to get the best out of a vineyard, whatever its potential. A natural wine is born in a healthy, sustainable vineyard. The natural vigneron will be dedicated to the life of the soil, the search for or rediscovery of terroir; he or she will favour selection massale, promote historic or autochthonous grape varieties, seek vine health through natural balance and respect the variability of vintages. Knowledge of the vineyard, every plot, each patch of soil, each vine in relation to its microclimate is essential. The skilled (and intuitive) vigneron will help bring the vineyard (and the vines therein) to a natural balance.

It has been proved irrefutably that vineyards which are not sprayed with chemicals yield healthier and better quality grapes than those that do. All natural wine is the product of sustainable agriculture. A great natural wine can only be made on land that has been farmed organically for many years as the vine needs to derive its nourishment from a living soil, one that is full of microbial activity.

Sustainability also has an ethical dimension – the vine should not be a monoculture and natural wine can only be made in a context where the land is respected and biodiversity is the key. Natural wine is better for the environment because the vigneron is not trying to take out more than what nature will give.

A natural winemaker is a genuine artisan. Natural winemaking requires skill, patience, nerve, and hard physical labour. In most cases it brings small financial rewards. There is more money, less risk, and far less work in making wine conventionally. Only someone passionately committed to the idea of natural wine would choose to work in this way. These people deserve our support. In an age of mass production and homogeneity, craftsmanship should be cherished. Natural winemakers will never be able to churn out the number of bottles needed to supply a chain of supermarkets or high street off-licenses, for example. The wines are not created according to profile; there is no guarantee of consistency even from wines from the same vintage, the wines are inherently fragile – this mutability makes them wonderful; they are living wines rather than sterile, homogenous products.

At our Real Wine trade tasting I earwigged a couple of blokes opining that these “so-called natural wines” were very expensive and their price tags couldn’t be justified. Which begged several massive questions. The wines themselves are a rare commodity. The entire production of certain cuvées can be measured in hundreds of bottles rather than thousands of cases. Yields are minuscule; no short cuts are taken, elaboration is everything (some of the wines are aged for years before release) and quality is uncompromising.

Value, of course, is relative. A bargain tub of fried “chicken” gristly bits may be cheap but will have limited nutritional and no real value. £2 times crap is still crap by any measurement. A fifteen course meal at The Fat Duck may cost fifty times as much – but which represents true value for money? A second hand rust-bucket may get you from A to B, but a lot of people will pay a lot of money for a flashy car. Cheap wine is a mass-produced chemical construct; we call it wine, but it is a million miles from a real artisan product. Conversely, many snobs happily accept that the famous brands (Bordeaux cru classé wines, grand Burgundies, Napa Valley ego jobs) merit their inflated prices. The artisan breaks his nails and knuckles, ruptures a few capillaries, nurtures and cajoles the fragile vine in its eco-system and is at the very disposal of nature itself. If genius is 99% perspiration then these wines reek of it (genius) and should be accorded respect.

Benjamin Zidarich, who works the extraordinarily difficult terrain of the Carso on the Friuli-Slovenia border, describes the travails and rewards of such labours…

So you start in with pickaxe and hammer and you dig down beyond that meter of rock so you can plant vines, and you realize you’re going farther and farther down, into the bowels of the earth, to build your cellar in those rocks. There, dozens of meters underground, deeper and deeper, following the veining of those rocks where one day you’ll lay your wine to rest peacefully in a place where it will feel protected and guarded.

A job which, I can assure you, is indescribable if you have to do it with the only means at your disposal: arms and brains.

Hands that split and arms that stiffen and then hurt in the evening; a head that becomes empty from tiredness and the heaviness of a sacrifice that seems endless. A numbness that enfolds me, but it disappears as soon as I get back home and find my wife Nevenka and my children Jakob and Martina waiting for me.

I take courage from these smiles that give me new strength to commit myself here in the Carso, seeking the highest quality from these vineyards that fight, as I do, on this very difficult land.”
It’s tough and not always gratifying work, a job that keeps you for whole days and months in the vineyard, that makes you sweat and hope, that disheartens you when you’re tired and exhausted and impels you to talk to the vine, to the water and lastly to the rock, trying to understand it and shape it, to make friends with it and make it a companion in the adventure you have decided to live to the full and that will surely last all your life.

So you start in with pickaxe and hammer and you dig down beyond that meter of rock so you can plant vines, and you realize you’re going farther and farther down, into the bowels of the earth, to build your cellar in those rocks. There, dozens of meters underground, deeper and deeper, following the veining of those rocks where one day you’ll lay your wine to rest peacefully in a place where it will feel protected and guarded.

A job which, I can assure you, is indescribable if you have to do it with the only means at your disposal: arms and brains.

Hands that split and arms that stiffen and then hurt in the evening; a head that becomes empty from tiredness and the heaviness of a sacrifice that seems endless. A numbness that enfolds me, but it disappears as soon as I get back home and find my wife Nevenka and my children Jakob and Martina waiting for me.

I take courage from these smiles that give me new strength to commit myself here in the Carso, seeking the highest quality from these vineyards that fight, as I do, on this very difficult land.”

The wonder is that the wines are not more expensive.

Where natural wines are most distinct is in their use (or relative lack) of sulphur in the winemaking process. Sulphur dioxide (SO2) is the most widely used and controversial additive in winemaking. Its main functions are to inhibit or kill unwanted yeasts and bacteria, and to protect wine from oxidation. SO2 is added at several points in the process of conventional vinification and is present in the finished wine in the form of sulphites. Sulphites occur naturally in all living things and are present in small quantities even in unsulphured wines. They can cause potentially fatal allergic reactions.

The systematic use of sulphur dioxide to control fermentation and to stabilise the wine at bottling was perfected by the French in North Africa early in the twentieth century. It was a way of making wine in conditions that were essentially too hot. This approach quickly caught on in other climates, as a way of making wine without having to worry about it.

The risks of not using sulphur are such that very few winemakers are prepared to take them. Without the preservatives and sterilisation techniques used in conventional wine, natural wine is also more at risk from spoilage. This possibility is drastically reduced by careful handling. The myth that sulphur dioxide is always necessary needs to be corrected.  In certain circumstances sulphur dioxide is the only option.  Used at bottling in homeopathic doses it does little or no damage to the flavour of the wine, and can help to protect it from being mishandled. The majority of our natural winemakers work in this way.

Oxidation is the reaction of wine with oxygen. It can alter its colour and odour (tending to make wines darker and dryer) and is often dismissed as a fault. Whilst excessive oxidation does ruin wine controlled oxidisation can add complexity, and is crucial to certain styles (certain sherries, for example, and the vins de voile of the Jura). It is also an important part of the ageing process. This is why most wine authorities will tell you that it is impossible to make a wine which ages well without using sulphur dioxide. The SO2 drastically inhibits the process of oxidation. Whether what you have is a wine which ages well, or merely one which ages slowly, is a moot point.

All wines contain sulphur dioxide in various forms, collectively known as sulphites. Even in completely unsulphured wine it is present at concentrations of up to 10 milligrams per litre. Commercially-made wines contain from ten to twenty times that amount. There are several reasons why the addition of sulphur dioxide is not entirely desirable. It has an unpleasant smell, like that of a struck match, detectable at very low concentrations. Secondly, it can cause allergic reactions and has been linked with numerous other health problems, including hangovers.

Some people try never to use SO2. This is a small world of adventurers, whose wines stir up polemics and comments, because they result from excess and doubt: stars rub shoulders with failures. It is undeniable that, when successful, those cuvées provide incomparable feeling, because they achieve an aromatic finesse, ethereal and pure, truly superior, and so it is impossible to tell amongst good winegrowers who bottled the same wine with or without sulphites, like Marcel Lapierre in Beaujolais or Thierry Allemand in Cornas. And their argument is an ethical one. Wine is a product of nature; it is the winemaker’s obligation to keep the unique signature of the terroir alive, not to destroy in order to create. Thus all additions to the wine are eschewed and sulphur is kept to a minimum.

But, like unpasteurised cheeses, those extreme wines are fresh products, alive, fragile. They need cold storage: they must always be under 15oC. They are sometimes subject to “off” periods of several months, when the yeasts “devour” each other. When just opened, the carbonic gas needs to evaporate as it can disturb less-experienced wine drinkers. These wines are exceptional and need to be handled with care. I find that chilling the wines in the fridge for half an hour and decanting it a good option. Non/low-sulphured wines are extremely aromatic – often redolent of yoghurt or cheese (the whites) or the barnyard (reds). You can almost smell the explosive interactions of the yeasts.

Too many winegrowers go into working “without sulphur” with imprudence. “I’m fed up with those jokers whose wine doesn’t hold up one bottle in two!!” complained the owner of one of the most famous organic wine bars in Paris. Aside from some unforgettable miracles, how many broken, faded, oxidized beverages are there, when the main aim is to protect the fruit or the purity of the terroir! The issue is never simply a choice or whether you sulphur or not; it involves creating the preconditions for having that choice available. This, in turn, involves scrupulous attention to detail in the vineyard with organic viticulture, low yields, everything done by hand, triage – everything designed to make the vine more self-reliant and to promote deeper root systems. The most articulate advocate of non-interventionist wine-making is the unquestioned pope of the non-sulphur, Pierre Overnoy. This monument to self-effacement has been vinifying his sumptuous, supremely age-worthy Arbois without SO2 for decades. He explains that working “without sulphur”, is possible “when the vines, ploughed for years, have deep roots that give minerality and natural acidity which protects the wines and which chemicals fertilizers bring down”, when the harvest is “healthy, clean and sorted”, when the yeasts “alive, emit natural sulphites when the wine needs them”… In brief, working “without sulphur”, for the winegrower as well as for the consumer, “is not a commencement, it’s a closure”.

Some people fixate more about what is right or rather what they believe to be right rather than try to understand what is. It is as if the wine has to exist with a certain spectrum of accessibility. Occasionally, journalists feel obliged to second guess “the average consumer”. The average consumer is never going to be exposed to exciting and unusual wines unless those wines are given some sort of publicity.

I had an interesting discussion with Simon Woods at France Under One Roof this year. He mentioned that he really didn’t get on a wine called Jasnières Kharakter (he’s not the only one, I’m afraid) and that the oxidative character (or Kharakter) was detrimental to the grape and the terroir. Balance is crucial and where you draw the line in taste is whether you feel that flavours conferred by wild yeast ferment and ageing in old barrels are obtrusive, or part of the nature of the wine itself. Le Briseau Jasnières is a typical expression: I smell earthy, cool-climate Chenin, the edgy quince fruit and the profound minerality (like rainwater on stones). Amidst that framework is the primary yeastiness of low sulphur, and the secondary nutty notes of oxidation. I believe that these elements are an integral feature of the wine, this very particular wine. The taster has to beware of defining wines (natural wines especially) in terms of how they should be.

We love these wines for their faults; in fact their faults make them what they are. Made with wild yeasts, handled gently without filtration or addition of sulphur, the wines are alive, constantly in flux, rarely the same one day to the next. A lot of people, if they don’t see the wine, attribute it as a fault of the wine; sometimes, truths are not self-evident. 

Low sulphur wines allow wild yeasts to thrive; the presence of these very yeasts, according to some, obfuscates the subtle flavours of the terroir. I wouldn’t agree. The zero sulphur wines of Sébastien Riffault are an excellent refutation – the flavours of his two Sancerres are constantly changing in your mouth and yet there is a discernible difference in style between the Akmenine and the Skeveldra. The sense of terroir is perfectly captured, indeed it is more apparent than the grape variety, whilst the yeasty madness dissipates after a short period in a carafe.

And this is the point of natural wines. They are about raw expression. They are turbid, edgily wild, scarcely definable, possessing a furious integrity. To some they are an aberration, a needless extreme, to me they represent a necessary example of truth-in-wine. There are so many conventional wines, caked in maquillage, created for the ideal critic or the ideal consumer, that one forgets that wine is essentially a product of nature. Natural wines, whether one appreciates their flavours, are simple, unadorned and unpretentious.

Posted by Doug on 05-May-2009. Permalink
Click here to go back to the list of articles

Searching...


Please wait