NATURAL WINES……..what’s it all about?
We are hearing more and more about natural wine. Given all the marketing hype, it seems to have just appeared in a short space of time, however when wine was made 8000 years ago, it was not made with our modern knowledge, additives or techniques. The ancient natural wines were made from crushed grapes that fermented into wine. This all sounds very idyllic but would you really want a drink what our ancestors proclaimed to be natural wine?
Before the invention of the glass bottle, natural wine was exposed to the air and oxidised quickly. Winemakers tried to preserve wine with resin, which made the drink sticky and thick. Other delightful additives included lead, salt, pepper, vinegar and herb infusions to make the wine somewhat drinkable. To lessen acidity, chalk or marble dust was added, and in some instances the wine was boiled to add more concentration and sugar. And even before drinking, many wines were then diluted with honey, dried fruit or seawater.
Sounds very appealing to our modern palates. Why did they drink these wine concoctions? In some instances, it was an alternative to poor water quality or for consumption during religious rituals, and in the middle ages it was for its health benefits, taken as a tonic.
It was not until around the sixth or seventh centuries when the church began cultivating vineyards that wine became a more common drink. The medieval monks in Burgundy may have been the first to give wine making a new status as an art, and as a consequence the exclusivity, social status, demand and marketing hype that entailed is still present to this day.
So if a natural wine is not made like our ancient natural wines, how is it made and what is it?
To confuse the topic somewhat, there is no official or legal definition of a natural wine and there are no organisations that can certify a wine is natural. The current guidelines for making a Natural wine are (1) Organically or biodynamically grown grapes, with or without certification. (2) Dry farmed, low yielding vineyards (3) Hand Picked (4) No added sugars, no foreign yeasts. (5) No adjustments for acidity. (6) No additives for colour, or the taste of the wine. (7) Minimal or no fining or filtration (8) No heavy manipulation such as micro-oxygenation, spinning cone, cryoextraction (9) Minimal or no added sulphites.
However, there is an issue with the above criteria, that many wines are made with very little manipulation and could easily be labelled natural but they are not.
Regis Moro, who makes Château Pelan Bellevue from the Côtes de Franc, has been following these principles for years and yet does not label his wines natural. Nor does Damien Marres from Domaine Montmartel in the Cote de Rhone, who makes organic and no added sulphite wines.
Juan Pablo Peñalba acquired a Toro vineyard in 1999 and from the off, practiced low yields, no irrigation, fermentation by plot in small tanks, natural wild yeasts, non-filtered, minimum sulphites, yet his wines are not labelled as natural or organic.
Fanny Beaubois from Château Beaubois sums it up well “A wine is not good just because it is natural, but natural winemaking is the best way to get the full potential out of your vineyard and cellar to make a good wine”.
In our modern society we are becoming more aware of what we eat, but surprisingly we do not ask the same questions about what we drink, we search for organic, free range food but swill back bottles of manipulated, consistent tasting, mass produced wine. So next time you’re buying wine, ask the questions. Where is the wine from? Who makes it? And how is it made? You might be surprised by the answers, that is, if you can get a reply.