In modern winemaking, as, indeed, in different areas of our life, many processes are inextricably linked with the use of the latest technologies, the existence of certain fashion trends and the commercialization of the market. Natural wines give us a unique opportunity to go back in time and taste wines as they were many years ago, before the advent of modern technology. Undoubtedly, the methods of making wine have improved significantly over the centuries, but in their desire to control all processes from A to Z, modern winemakers sometimes practically lose touch with nature.
Back to basics
The term “natural wine” does not exist as such, but by tasting the wines and researching the blogs of various wine experts, we have come to certain conclusions.
Natural wines are made from organically or biodynamically grown grapes. Many processes are carried out by hand, with the utmost respect for the vine and the final product. Ideally, no additional chemicals other than SO2 should be added prior to bottling. Some manufacturers do just fine even without it. In other words, natural wine is grape juice, which becomes wine during the fermentation process.
The cellar and the winery are where this process actually takes place. And absolutely no laboratories are required with all these flasks, bags full of sugar, and manipulation of various acids.
Making natural wine can be compared to walking without belay on a narrow rope stretched 100 meters from the ground. One wrong move – and you have already fallen, ridiculed by the ignorant crowd. Opponents of natural wines very often describe them as “unsustainable” or as wines with many “side effects”. To be honest, among natural wines, there are indeed a lot of not very successful samples with unpleasant acetone notes, barn aromas and signs of still ongoing fermentation.
But who is not without sin!
After all, in ordinary, traditional wines, we can also meet the same mistakes! The best producers of natural wines are very careful about the land, watching it, learning from it, gradually gaining invaluable experience. You can listen to stories told by “natural” winemakers with your mouth open for hours on end, admiring their experience and information that you will not read in any book.
Natural and organic wines are not the same
Organic wines are made from organic grapes, but this does not mean at all that the winemaker cannot add anything to the juice or wine. Official legislation has not yet developed clear rules for the use of this definition. Winemakers can harvest with tractors, add yeast and even wood shavings. The law defines only the minimum allowable amount of SO2, and what happens at the winery itself is, as they say, on the winemaker’s own conscience. Undoubtedly, organic winemaking is a huge step forward, but control over all vinification processes by the relevant authorities should become stricter.
The quality of natural wine directly depends on the vineyard, on how strong and healthy the vine gives. Since only in this case one can hope for an excellent end result. Chemical fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides, pesticides, as well as various types of heavy metals heavily pollute the land. Over time, the course of all processes in such a soil becomes very difficult. Due to pollution, earthworms that ventilate the earth leave or die, the life of soil bacteria involved in the processing of potassium, phosphorus and nitrogen, which the vine cannot get in its pure form, is disrupted.
In such an environment, microscopic yeast cells on the skin of berries also do not survive. Therefore, winemakers have to complicate their lives and add artificial yeast. It is possible to destroy the earth very quickly, but it may take many years to restore it.
In order for all processes in the vineyard to proceed in accordance with biological laws, it is necessary to use an organic or biodynamic farming model. What is the difference between them?
Living land and dead
Thanks to the workaholic worms, who are actively plowing the ground, channels are formed in the soil through which air circulates freely, and water penetrates deep into the ground. Worms also process various organic substances, turning them into nutrients that are easily absorbed by plants. If worms do not live in the soil, it becomes dull, dusty, begins to crack and resembles cement.
Residues of organic matter – leaves, particles of last year’s plants, etc. – protect the land from excessive moisture, prevent the spread of weeds and during heavy rains reduce the risk of flooding. Without mulch, erosion begins to develop in the soil, the roots in its upper layer are exposed, and the risk of clogging of the nearest drains increases.
Microorganisms – bacteria and fungi – act as a kind of filter that protects the soil from pollution, stabilizes it, limits erosion and “glues” the soil.
Grass and other plants growing between vineyards reduce soil erosion, improve soil versatility, help absorb water during heavy rainfall, and reduce the risk of weeds, diseases and pests.
The term Organic means the rejection of all artificially created chemical products: pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and any kind of synthetic fertilizers. Instead, a layer of organic fertilizer is actively formed in the soil.
Definition of biological farming by the University of Agriculture of Latvia
In biological farming, the use of mineral fertilizers, pesticides, and growth stimulants is not allowed. To combat pests and various kinds of diseases, microbiological preparations and means of protection of biological origin are used. Permissible elements of fertilizers of mineral (natural) origin – K, P, Ca, Mg. In order to preserve the fertility of the soil, the number of planted plants is monitored, only organic fertilizer and compost are used. The high biological activity of the soil is one of the fundamental principles of biological farming.
These postulates are valid almost all over the world in relation to food. With wine, everything is much more complicated. There are a number of institutions / communities (Nature & Progres, Ecocert, Australian Certified Organic, and others) that have developed their own personal guidelines and standards.
An important detail! Once the grapes are in the winery, you can do almost anything with them.
In 1920, the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner initiated the biodynamic movement in agriculture. This trend is also based on the rejection of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and all agricultural work is carried out very carefully and thoughtfully in relation to the environment. The timing of such events as sowing, weeding or harvesting, is coordinated with the rhythms of the moon and planets, due to which there is a kind of harmonious integration of “cosmic forces” into agricultural processes. To fertilize the soil, plant and mineral components are used, which strengthen the immune system of plants and increase the microbiological activity in the soil.
In accordance with the principles of biodynamics, the vineyard must organically fit into the environment, be part of the solar system and function without violating or ignoring biological laws.
You and I would like to think that all the wines we buy are natural. Unfortunately, it is not. We are being sold an illusion embellished with professional marketing (beautiful labels, sun-filled pictures of vineyards, bright photos of mouth-watering dishes). And at the same time, at the winery, either a lot of excess is added to the wine, or the wine loses part of its taste as a result of processes such as filtration, clarification, reverse osmosis and microoxidation. Pesticides, herbicides and fungicides are used in the vineyards. As we can see, modern wine has already gone very far from the concept of “fermented grape juice”.
Why? Probably because we lowered the bar a little.
There is an expression: “There is more life in the land of the Sahara than in the land of the vineyards of Bordeaux.”
Natural wine comes closest to the definition of fermented grape juice.
Wine today is an agrochemical food industry. According to the rules of the European Union, about 50 different components can be added to wine, some of which can also be found in organic wines.
Yeast is a very important part of winemaking. They convert sugar into alcohol, extracting aromas during this process and forming different flavor nuances. Therefore, the aroma and taste of the wine will greatly depend on the type of yeast used. Ideally, the winemaker can use natural (wild) yeast. They are found on the skins of the grapes themselves, as well as in the cellar, where they get along with the grapes. They are practically found wherever there are grapes! But usually in modern winemaking, yeast artificially bred in the laboratory is used, which allows you to hide or correct various kinds of mistakes and give the wine a so-called global taste and aroma.
Heavy spraying with fungicides, pesticides and herbicides is very harmful to the formation of natural yeast cultures. They weaken and the fermentation process does not start. In this case, the winemaker has no choice but to add artificial yeast. They are convenient and predictable. But if wild yeast is part of the vineyard and everything that forms the term “terroir”, then artificial yeast is, by and large, just the result of laboratory experiments.
But sulfites (SO2 / E220) need to be discussed in more detail. SO2 is a relatively natural component of the fermentation process and is added in very small quantities. Sulfite is an antiseptic, antioxidant and stabilizer that exists in both natural and synthetic forms.
Traditionally, SO2 is added at the time of harvest, as well as before bottling the finished wine. Some winemakers add very little, and some add a lot. The inscription on the label “Contains sulfites” means that the amount of sulfites is more than 10 g per liter. This is required by law. But the law does not dictate the exact amount of sulfites, so we will never know how many are in each particular bottle. It can be either 20 mg / l or 350 mg / l – it is impossible to know the exact amount. EU law prescribes the amount of sulfites for red wines – 160 mg / l, 210 mg / l – for white wines and 400 mg / l – for dessert. Natural wine producers add SO2 five times less.
SO2 (Sulfur Dioxide) – When grape juice is naturally fermented, it must be remembered that wine is by no means a final product. The wine can start to turn into
vinegar and other substances. In order to stop all these undesirable processes at the very beginning, sulfur dioxide must be added at various stages of wine production.
For reference. Try google.com for winemaking additives, and you will be surprised how many companies sell various chemical additives for the production of wine. Think about it!
Natural wines are characterized by a rich, but not very intense taste. They are elegant, restrained, but by no means watery. They are atypical, unusual. The tannins in them are non-aggressive and perfectly balanced with a fresh fruity note. These wines go perfectly with many dishes. They are also great for our Latvian cuisine.
You just have to enjoy natural wines and not think about how many points they were assigned by the mega-authoritative magazines Wine Spectator or Wine Advocate.
For the first careful steps in the world of natural wines, we recommend trying the works of such masters as Fulvio Bressan, Vodopivec, Domaine de la Pepiere, Terre Dorees and Silvano Follador.
We advise which wines to start with:
2012 Vodopivec Vitovska “Origine”. An excellent white wine for those who are just starting to get acquainted with natural wines. Withstood 15 days on its lees in 36 hl of Slovenian oak barrels. Interesting and unusual aromas of wax, dry straw, wet stones and lemon peel. A very soft wine with a creamy texture and intense flavor. We especially recommend to fans of “white” Burgundy!
Food & Wine: Seafood-style dinner – baked oysters, fatty fish or fish curry
2013 Radikon “Oslavje”. The pioneer of orange wines. This wine / wine style from the Radikon estate has been produced since 1999. The blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris was aged for 2 years with the skins, 2 years in wooden barrels and two years in bottles before being released to the market. The aroma contains apricots, orange peel, black tea and beeswax. An elegant complex fresh wine with good acidity.
Food & Wine: Smoked chicken, pickled herring, grilled tuna or swordfish, beef tongue.