Why Natural Wines?

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What is “natural wine?” Natural wines have no governing body or official accreditation, but hold themselves to the strictest standards. Many natural winemakers practice aspects of biodynamics and all are at least farming organically.  There’s an argument that wine is inherently unnatural.  We are, after all, just hitting pause on the life of some grape juice that wants to turn itself into vinegar.

It’s worth noting that over 50 additives and processing aids (such as non-wine sugar, various acidic chemicals, beet juice for sweetness and color, something called MegaPurple, oak essence to mimic barrel aging, etc.) can be added to wine in the US and EU without listing them on the label. This fact alone might make you more interested in natural wine.  Wine, to us, is about conveying a sense of place where the grapes are being grown, or terroir.  The more unobstructed the grape, the better the wine.

The best way to consider natural wines is to start with the notion of zero pesticides and zero additives, and go from there. What can be added to wine and still be natural?

The best definition we’ve found of natural wines comes from Isabelle Legeron, M.W. in her book Natural Wines:

“Whether or not it is certified, natural wine is . . . wine from vineyards that are farmed organically, at the very least, and produced without adding or removing anything during vinification (wine making), apart from a dash of sulfites at most at bottling.” (Natural Wines, page 23)

What does it mean to grow grapes organically?

Organic “viticulture” rejects the use of man-made, synthetic chemicals in the vineyard. This means no pesticides, herbicides, fungicides or synthetic fertilizers. Organic farmers instead use plant and mineral based products to combat pests and diseases, improve the health of the soil and build up plant immunity and nutrient uptake. It’s estimated that between 5-7 percent of vineyards are now organic or converting to organic. (Natural Wine, page. 33)

It’s important to remember that all farming was organic before inorganic methods were an option.  The industrial revolution saw the development of these methods in the form of tractors, hybrid seeds, and synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.  Organic farming as it’s known today is a direct response to those synthetic methods developed in the early 1900s.

An example that is often used is Roundup, a popular herbicide that is allowed by some regulatory boards such as California’s “SIP Certified” (SIP = Sustainability in Practice). There’s also the “Bordeaux mixture,” a fungicide made of copper sulfate and calcium hydroxide, that is permitted by all except natural winemakers who are only self-governed.  I can’t imagine that spraying copper in the vineyard is a great way to encourage more microbiological activity in the soil.

It’s worth noting here that many organic vineyards and farms that are farming organically, particularly the smaller ones, are choosing not to be certified organic because it’s a costly and cumbersome process. Their grapes are no less organic than a certified grape.

What is biodynamic farming?

It’s hard to mention organic farming in the wine world without whispers of biodynamics.  Biodynamics is an ethos started by Rudolf Steiner in the 1920’s. (Yes, the same Steiner who was the brain behind the well known Waldorf Schools. And, yes, the same Steiner who never farmed a day in his life!)

It’s founded on a holistic approach to a self-sustaining micro-ecosystem with perfectly balanced microbial life, soil, grapevines, livestock, insects, and other plants.  The essential principle is that more life in the vineyard and more microbiological activity in the soil will naturally lead to happier and healthier grapes.

 

Bruno Allion Vin de Gamay: a natural wine

Bruno Allion Vin de Gamay.

 “Demeter” certified and no added sulfites

Demeter is the only biodynamic certifying board in the world. Some smaller producers who are farming biodynamically using wild yeast and adding a tiny amount of sulfur at bottling, may not be able to fork over the money necessary for Demeter certification, especially when they’re starting out.

What is natural winemaking?

Wine can be made from grapes alone without the addition of anything else. So, is it okay to add yeast during the wine making process? The short answer is “no.” Yeast is an invisible fungus that consumes the sugar in the grape juice and releases alcohol as a by-product, along with complex flavor compounds. Natural wines are made using the yeast that naturally occurs in vineyards and on the grapes. This indigenous yeast is the foundation of natural wine making because it is part of the terroir, or natural environment, which includes the soil, climate and topography. The decision to introduce foreign yeast into the wine making process severs the relationship between the wine and the place the grapes were grown. This means the terroir is not being expressed in the wine when you drink it.

What does a natural winemaker look like?

Meet Beatrice & Pascal Lambert. They founded their Domaine in 1987 in the Loire Valley near the town of Chinon, in the region of the Touraine, or the “garden of France“. Beatrice and Pascal have been carefully cultivating Cabernet Franc and Chenin Blanc on approximately 25 acres (soils range between sand and gravel deposits, limestone-clay soils and flint based clay soils) and the estate has been practicing organic viticulture and biodynamic preparations since 2005, becoming certified in 2012. With their draft-horse Isis, they plow the rows between the vines, planting each year different cover crops to assist in the uptake of the biodynamic preparations while adding back nutrients for the following season. They closely follow the lunar cycle from vineyard to cellar, only using indigenous yeasts with fermentation occurring in concrete or wooden vats. They mature and age their wines according to the different terroirs using concrete and wood vats. They also rack and bottle according to the lunar cycles as well. Their success as growers and natural wine makers is based on accentuating the purity of the terroir from which their vines come as well as elaborating on their personalities in the cellar.

 

natural wine makers

 

 What about added sulfites?

In conventional wine making, sulfites may be added during various stages of wine making to control risk factors inherent in wine production. Sulfites are useful for slowing oxidation and knocking out harmful bacteria, and are a common preservative found in wine. However, natural wine makers believe sulfites mute the nuances of vintage or vineyard. Significantly, there are naturally occurring sulfites in wine that aid the natural wine maker. Added sulfites are one of the key distinctions between commercial and natural wines, but it’s not all or nothing.

Some natural producers will not add any sulfites at all, while others will add a dash at most, usually at the bottling stage. For natural producers, the decision to add even a dash of sulfites is an economic decision related to the quality of a vintage, ripeness of grapes when picked or worries about transportation or storage.

How much sulfite can be added to still be considered “natural”? In order for a wine to be USDA certified organic, the grapes must be grown organically and no sulfites can be added to the wine. By the current USDA Organic Standard, any wine, foreign or domestic, can contain only naturally occurring sulfites (less than 10mg per liter) to be marketed and sold as an “organic wine”. In the US, naturally occurring sulfur dioxide (which is often at undetectable amounts) is permitted, but not in excess of 20 parts per million (or “ppm”), which is the same as 20mg per liter of wine. Wine “made with organic grapes” can have the addition of sulfites up to 100 ppm, but are generally much lower (around 40 to 80 ppm). In contrast to the US, in the EU, organic wines can have up to 150 ppm of added sulfites.

Whether sulfites are naturally occurring in the grapes or added by wine growers and producers, all wines containing more than 10 ppm must state “contains sulfites” on the label.  Just to put this in perspective, industrial wines can be as high as 350 ppm, way more than any natural wine maker would consider adding.

Side note on sulfites:  According to the Cleveland Clinic, only asthmatics are predisposed to have a reaction to sulfites, and even then it is only 1-5% of all asthmatics.  Luckily, for those select few, we do now have delicious wine made without the addition of any sulfur whatsoever. However, if you don’t think twice before eating a couple of raisins (which can contain sulfites well exceeding 100 ppm in one serving), then the addition of 70 ppm of sulfur at bottling should be of no concern. Remember, conventionally produced wines can have up to 350 ppm.

Our final take on added sulfites and natural wine:  the addition of a dash of sulfites at bottling does not disqualify a wine that is otherwise made from organic or biodynamically grown grapes from being considering a natural wine. In the EU, natural wine advocate Isabelle Legeron has set limits for added sulfites for her RAW Wine Fair:  70 ppm of added sulfites for natural wine (compared to 100 to 150 ppm for certified organic wine and 350 ppm for conventional wine).

How do natural wines taste?

Some natural wines just aren’t very good. Farming organically or practicing biodynamics doesn’t guarantee a quality wine.  What it does ensure is that you’re ingesting something that is healthier for you than something produced from commercially farmed grapes that have been sprayed with herbicides and pesticides. But if it doesn’t taste good, what’s the point?

There are two main issues that low intervention wines face in a finished product, both of which can have extremely varying levels of influence on the wine. The first one, volatile acid, is a result of bacteria in the wine creating acetic acid at any point in the wine’s fermentation process. Bacteria are everywhere, but they thrive with more oxygen and in warmer temperatures. Ethyl acetate can be described as a glue-like or nail polish remover smell.  In small doses, under certain conditions, in certain wines and with certain foods, this quality is extremely desirable.

The second pitfall of natural wines is a recently coined term, “mousiness.”  Mousiness affects unsulfured wines, and is an infection caused by a strain of the lactobacillus bacteria family.  It is something you can only detect on the finish, and is described as dog’s breath, sour milk or dead mouse. Yuck!  However, it can be instantly stopped with the addition of a small amount of sulfites.

Low intervention wines that avoid these two potential dangers can be mind blowing.  They are not created to taste a particular way, but taste a particular way because of where the grapes come from, how the grapes are being treated and how little the winemaker has to do to alter the “sense of place” the grapes convey to us.  If you taste enough, you can tell when a wine has been acidified, chaptalized (sugar added), or over-sulfured.  The resulting wines are not harmonious.

Natural wines that come together without additives can sing, tell a story, and take you on a unique journey you will never forget!

Author’s Note:  Working as the sommelier for Manhattan Fruitier, I curate a collection of natural wines from small producers around the world. Manhattan Fruitier will deliver Champagne and wine in New York State, including NYC, and Washington, D.C. Also for delivery in NYC and DC, I  pair natural wines with Manhattan Fruitier’s gourmet gift baskets – cheese, cured meat, chocolates.

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Ryan Burkett

In addition to curating Manhattan Fruitier’s wine collection, Ryan is the sommelier at Estela, a critically acclaimed NYC restaurant with a very deep wine list. Ryan's passion for wine, particularly natural or authentic wines, was sparked while living in California. Over the last decade, he honed his knowledge, taste and skills working in fine restaurants in Charleston, SC and NYC. Ryan has a passion for introducing people to delicious and surprising wines that convey the sense of place, or terroir, with organically or biodynamically grown grapes made into wine with minimal intervention.
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