The natural wine movement is a relatively new phenomenon, that could be seen as the wine industry’s participation to a whole raft of sustainably minded paradigm shifts in business throughout the world. But the wine industry, in it’s commercially minded sense, still remains fairly cynical to the whole thing…
Natural wine’s themselves, however, have been around since the very beginning. When wine was first made approximately 8,000 years ago, it was not made to standard measure, large export, commercial quantities, using bags of enzymes, yeast, vitamins, cryoextraction or artificial tannins – it was simply made from crushed grapes that was fermented into wine – it was made to be drunk, and to be enjoyed.
So natural wine, in it’s truest sense, is not new. It is, in fact, an ancient tradition that is experiencing a ‘novel’ resurgence throughout the world, where winemakers are simply getting back to basics.
The return to the vineyard and away from the winery idea comes from the history and heritage of ‘old world’ winemaking countries, such as France, Italy and Spain, but there is not really a single identifiable winemaker, vineyard, or region that the natural wine movement can be pinned down to. It is more of a combined effort, a collective consciousness from dozens of like minded individuals that all happen to be railing against the mass ‘new world’ industrialisation of winemaking of recent decades past.
Take the Australian wine industry for example. It is the fourth largest exporter in the world, with only 40% of wine produced here actually ending up on Australian tables. In the year 2000, for the first time ever, Australia was exporting more wine globally, than France – this is due, in part, to commercially focused business models, that see wine as merely another product that is produced, advertised, sold and consumed – and that is fine, if you’re an accountant.
Of course, there are loads of big name wines to be enjoyed every now and again – but are they making wine just to make a buck, like any other commodity – or are they making wine to express an emotion, a history, a passion – an art form?
Biodynamic winemaker and consultant Monty Waldin explains how ‘new world wines succeeded on the back of technology – specifically long, cool, temperature controlled fermentations, often in huge metal tanks for fruit driven wines…’ Natural winemaking, however, is the complete opposite.
Rather than using science and technology to produce wines, controlling it every step of the way, natural winemakers create their wine with as little intervention as possible, preferring to leave, almost, the entire process up to nature. And this philosophy is carried right from vineyard all the way into the cellar… French winemaker, Nicolas Joly puts it perfectly when he says, ‘to achieve zero technology in the cellar, you need to be an artist in the vineyard’. Vine’s are left alone, free from chemical sprays and pesticides, and this in turn allows them to develop their own means of combating disease, which eventually strengthens their immune systems – so they evolve to cope better to their surroundings.
Once the grape’s are crushed and fermented, natural winemakers insist on no rectification of sugars, or acidity, no addition of yeasts, and no removal of excess dilution in a wet vintage – there is no fining with milk , fish or egg products – they are as nature intended, the truest representation of the vineyard – the terroir – the ultimate sense of place.
But, what about faults, and spoilage? How do you get around that without using additives?
Wine’s made without some additives, like sulphur dioxide (SO2, sometimes displayed on the label as ‘Preservative 220’) can be susceptible to perish, especially when they’re not transported or stored correctly once they reach their destination, so most natural winemakers will use the minimum amount required in order to prevent this from occurring. Sulphites occur naturally in every living thing, and generally speaking, these additional additives are harmless for consumption, unless you suffer from severe asthma or do not have the particular enzymes necessary to break down sulphites in your body.
The amount of sulphites that a wine can contain is highly regulated around the world – in Australia and New Zealand it is a maximum of 250 parts per million (ppm) for dry wine’s and 300ppm for sweet wines. Natural winemakers will tend to average under 30ppm for reds, 40ppm for whites, and around 80ppm for sweets (Association des Vins Naturels) – some will not use any at all.
So what does a lack of additives and preservatives in these natural wines actually mean?
Well, for one – and this is strictly anecdotal – less headaches in the morning. While working in London at Albertine wine bar, we used to have access to, and drink a lot of natural wines. To me, these wine’s always expressed a deeper aroma, and character than their machine manipulated counterparts. They were fresher, more dynamic, vibrant and expressive – they sometimes had bits, and sometimes they had a little fizz… most of the time they did not. They had an individuality about them; earthy and fruit driven, and sometimes these faults are what helped to make the experience of drinking wine just that bit more exciting, more adventurous and a lot more real.
The main stumbling block for natural wine at the moment is accreditation. Unlike organic and bio-dynamic in Australia and elsewhere, there is none, and there are no solid definitions that allow for any guidance when making, or indeed buying, natural wine. Any grower can call themselves ‘natural’, so it is up to his or her own integrity and a little trust from the consumer when making the choice to drink or not. There are steps being taken to rectify this lack of regulation – but until then, you’ll just have to keep a little bit of faith, and keep on reading The Wine Idealist for the latest updates and recommendations of what to drink in the world of natural wine…