The first thing I’d like to mention is that wine is not natural. “But I thought this was an article about natural wine?” I hear you say.
Well…… if you simply let grapes grow pick them and put them in a bucket there’s a good chance
they will eventually ferment and some alcohol will be produced, but the resulting liquid is unlikely to set the wine world alight. All grapes are on an inevitable journey towards vinegar after they have ripened.
The intervention of humans during the process is crucial. One of the philosophies of natural winemaking is to minimise the amount of times you have to intervene during the process. Ideally, making wines with grapes and grapes only, nothing added, nothing taken away.
Left – natural wines from Partida Creus of Catalunya Spain.
What is Natural Wine – ‘the do’s and don’ts’
The term natural wine doesn’t have a strict definition but there are a few things winemakers agree on that makes a wine a ‘natural’ one.
- Do use Grapes from Organic and/or Biodynamic vineyards
- Don’t add anything to the wine (things like acid, extra sugar, tannin, artificial yeast etc)
- Don’t filter the wine (only very lightly if necessary)
- Don’t use much sulphur (SO2)
Sense of Place
The small scale, artisanal nature of natural wine means that many of the wines have a sense of place, this is not exclusive to natural wine, but it is something most winemakers aim to have in their wines.
Things like soil, sun exposure, slope, surrounding plants, rivers, mountains can all have a huge impact on the final taste of the wine. This is what the French call “terroir”. There are a few things a winemaker can do to make sure their wine tastes like where the grapes were grown.
Wines with nothing added…….or taken away
In a big commercial winery, there may be lots of things added to the wine. Wines can be acidified to bump the acid levels up if the weather was too hot, tannins can be added to beef up the wine, commercial yeast can be used to get the fermentation going easily. Lots of clever tricks are used to ensure the finished wine is stable, clear, the same every time. Natural winemakers focus on making wine by intervening as little as possible and using as few additives as possible.
Fermentation – Be spontaneous!
Many natural winemakers believe that the use of commercial yeasts for the fermentation “kills the magic” and they prefer to use wild yeasts that float around the winery or from the skins of the grapes instead. When you are aiming to create a wine with a sense of place, it makes sense to use local yeast strains.
Filtering – Embracing the murk!
When a wine is crystal clear, it may look pretty in a glass but all of that cloudy stuff they took out could have had a lot of flavours. Apple juice is a good example, the best apple juices are the cloudy ones, there are little tasty appley bits floating around.
Those little bits of murky hazy goodness you might see in an unfiltered wine add to the flavour and texture, most of it is yeast and sediment for the winemaking process. Natural winemakers are determined not to remove too much of this, it’s all about retaining the wine’s unique personality.
Sulphur! Fake News!
Sulfites in wine don’t cause hangovers, sulphur is a natural addition to wine that has been around for thousands of years. It may interest you to know that a dried apricot contains a lot of sulphites, a lot more than a glass of wine, there are a very small amount of people who have a sensitivity to sulfites, which is why you see the warnings on bottles of wine (in the US) but they are nothing to worry about.
SO2 don’t kill my vibe man
Sulphur (dioxide) also known as SO2 is a gas used to clean winemaking equipment such as barrels, a little bit during bottling is good for protecting wines from oxidizing and also killing certain strains of bacteria that could spoil the wine.
Many natural winemakers are moving towards using very little or no sulphur in the winemaking process. Wines that have had too much sulphur during the winemaking process can taste muted, lifeless and can lose some of their nuances. Making wine without sulphur isn’t without its risks, you have to be very experienced, have exceptional cleanliness in the winery, have a very good healthy crop with few damaged grapes. Not everyone can make wine without the addition of SO2, the ones who can are making vibrant, energetic wines that really do taste alive.
Living on the wild side
Many of the best wines in the world have been risky to make, the most celebrated natural winemakers are known for being a bit rebellious and breaking the rules. Natural winemakers are more likely to be experimental as they are not working to produce a wine that meets all of the local winemaking rules and regulations.
Whether it’s leaving the grapes on the vine longer, even if that puts them at risk. Using hardly any sulphur in an attempt to retain all of the nuances of a wine, even if there’s a chance of the wine going bad. Keeping the wine unfiltered to retain all of the interesting flavours and textures. Using new types of vessels for fermentation or ageing.
Many natural wine producers decide to allow the skins of their white grapes to sit for a while with the juice (rather than pressing the grapes and collecting the juice right away). Sometimes the maceration (juice and skins being in contact) can last for weeks, even months. This is not a new phenomenon, winemakers have been doing this for centuries in places like Italy, Slovenia, Georgia and Hungary.
The result is a white wine that has a structure reminiscent of a red wine. The colour darkens and they are sometimes called ‘orange wines’. Skin contact wines have texture, a fuller body, and quite often have a bit of nuttiness and bitterness. If you haven’t
tried an orange wine yet, you should!
One producer rocking the skin contact is Elisabetta Foradori up in northeast Italy. She allows her pinot grigio juice to sit with the skins for many months, resulting in an orange wine which tastes very different to the clear crisp pinot grigio we are used to seeing. It’s full of energy and has lots of interesting textures. A wine worth seeking out. There is a cult orange wine producer on the Italian/Slovenian border called Radikon, they are quite expensive but they are some of the most interesting and complex skin contact wines imaginable.
There are many rules and regulations winemakers must follow if they want to call their wine Chianti, for example. Specific types of bottles, labels, corks, farming methods, specific winemaking techniques. Many natural winemakers are making wine in a slightly different way and do not need to follow these historic winemaking rules and regulations, they have more freedom to experiment and often have weird and wonderful labels. That also means they have to call it something else (rather than the appellation name) but the upside is, they can have unique and eye-catching labels and quirky, memorable names.
One of my favourite natural wine labels is Gut Oggau. A superstar husband and wife team from Austria. Their labels have faces on them and are not easy to forget. Their wines are even more memorable. So pure, so fresh and alive. Their wines are bursting with “deliciousness”.
You will notice that there are a large proportion of natural wine bottles sealed with wax. It is quite fashionable to have a wax seal at the moment. The wax seal does not always mean the wine is a natural wine, however many are sealed in this way.
Geordie Wine Top Tip – To open a wax-sealed bottle, I would recommend pulling the cork halfway out and dusting off the loose wax. This will prevent pieces of wax from going into the wine.
One of the wax sealed wines I’m always encountering is the Morgon Cote de Puy from the legendary Beaujolais producer Jean Foillard. If you have a magnum of this at a party you will be the centre of attention! So drinkable, juicy, exciting with spicy berries leaping out of the glass!
Give ‘natural’ wine a try
The natural wine world is full of diverse wines bursting with unique and interesting flavours, colours and textures. Some, you wouldn’t know were ‘natural’ wine if you tasted them blind. But some are wacky, fizzy, funky tasting,
they may even look like a glass of cloudy fruit juice!. There is something for everybody in the world of natural wines, the best way to start drinking natural wine is to find a shop, restaurant or wine merchant selling smaller artisanal producers.
Look for shops that really care about where their wines come from, the stories, the struggles, the winemaking processes, the growing techniques. The chances are they will have many organic, biodynamic and natural wines. Many classic producers have already adopted many of the techniques mentioned, even if they are not advertising the fact that they are biodynamic or natural on the label.
When you start drinking natural and minimal intervention wines, you really do start discovering more about the liquid in your glass. I firmly believe that the more you know about the wine you are drinking, the more pleasure you can get from it.
Sean Evans – The Geordie Wine Guide