First and foremost, natural wine is for us an adventure beyond the usual worlds of taste. Natural wines can get us out of our comfort zone, surprise and inspire us. They counter the uniformity of industrially produced wines with colourful diversity. The wines give us questions, they create friction and invite us to forays. They are hotly discussed, loved and criticised. They leave no one indifferent.
What is natural wine exactement?
‘Wine is made of grapes’, they say. ‘Wine is a natural product’, they say. It’s a romantic idea. Unfortunately, it is often wrong. In fact there are over fifty authorised additives and processes in the EU. Only sulphur appears on the labels. (And even here no exact quantity is required, only a general note.) This is probably one of the reasons why sulphur still plays such a prominent role in the discussion about natural wine.
Due to the technical development in the twentieth century, the number of adjusting screws in the cellar has increased extremely. This means more control and a certain protection against all kinds of imponderables. Today, wine can be produced more easily in large quantities and without obvious errors than ever before. The financial incentive is clear: larger quantities at lower cost. Sulphur is just one of many substances that can be used.
In today’s conventional winemaking, sulphur is…
cultured yeasts are used …to constantly maintain desired aromas and properties.
Nutrients and enzymes added …to achieve stable, controlled fermentation.
Acid, sugar and tannin added or removed …to counteract vintage differences and influence the wine style.
the wines clarified, embellished, filtered and sterilised …to produce a constant, long-lasting product.
This seems understandable. Less comprehensible is the lack of transparency about which wines have gone through which processes and which substances have been added to them. Since wine is categorised as a stimulant and not as a foodstuff, the legal framework is very broad. Toxic substances, allergens and various animal products may also be used in the course of wine production, without this having to be stated on the bottle, as long as their respective concentration in the finished wine does not exceed a certain threshold value. This also applies to organic viticulture. In the organic sector, too, larger companies exert greater pressure on the legislator. And their interests are not fundamentally different from those of other large companies.
Sebastian Bordthäuser has published a nice article in Effilee on the subject of additives in wine.
The question arises: what should wines be called that do without the majority of possible additives and permitted processes? Who adhere to the requirements of organic or biodynamic agriculture, but still outbid them? The partly generous legislation creates the need for another category.
The designation “natural wine” is not legally protected or regulated. And what is understood by natural wine, natural wine or vin naturel in normal usage is extremely diverse and often the subject of discussion. However, there is a certain intersection or direction of impact that makes the term useful. Natural wines do without most of the arsenal of conventional winemaking today. Organic or biodynamic cultivation, whether certified or not, are basic requirements for natural wine, but often thresholds are far below and interventions in the cellar are avoided as far as possible. Whether a certain wine should no longer count as natural wine due to a very small amount of sulphur, one may argue that the majority of wines on the market today, however, do not belong in this category, is out of question.
The omission of potentially toxic substances is probably self-explanatory. This may be ideologically found by those who wish. Behind other decisions is often the will to better express a particular grape variety, a particular region, a particular terroir and a particular year.
Yeasts, for example, occur naturally in the vineyard and in the cellar, so they belong to one place. The idea is: if I ferment the wine with these natural yeasts, I give the wine a little more of its origin. However, natural yeasts are less predictable than cultivated yeasts. The aromas they produce are not controllable. The winegrower just works on his yeasts and tries to make their work possible and easier.
Filtration, clarification and fining are used in conventional winemaking to remove unwanted substances from the wine. However, these processes function like a trawl in which other substances also become entangled. Natural winegrowers try other, more gentle methods: they often give their wines more time to settle coarse cloudy substances on their own; they use the natural fermentation carbonic acid to protect the wine from oxidation; they sometimes fill wines with a little fine lees; and they trust that the natural ingredients of the wine – alcohol, acid and tannin, for example – protect it sufficiently. It is really exciting how well some natural wines can actually mature.
Many reasons to refrain from certain interventions look like this and similar. One must not forget, however, that risks are risks. If you do not use technical and chemical aids in the cellar, you have to work extra cleanly in the vineyard and cellar if you want to avoid mistakes in the wine. The vines and soils must be extremely healthy in order to produce grapes that will turn into really good wine without any major intervention. Less work in the cellar definitely means more work in the vineyard. And this requires a lot of experience on the part of the winegrower. Natural wine, as we understand it, means more than simply abandoning certain processes.
It is a claim that the winegrowers make of themselves and their wines and that they follow as well as they can. No more, but no less.
How does natural wine taste?
While conventionally produced wines are mostly based on primary fruit aromas (think of the classic Riesling aromas: peach, apricot, apple, some citrus), natural wines have a rawer, wilder, often earthier taste. A natural wine can be cloudy or even muddy. It often smells completely different from what it tastes in the mouth.
White wine can smell and taste of apple must, has very light to stronger oxidative notes, iodine, yeasty tones, also tea-like tannins.
With red wine we often taste an earthy direction: herbs, leaves, undergrowth. Animal notes such as stable or meat are also associated.
In principle, however, the variety of possible aromas is of course much greater if less control is exercised and an average taste suitable for the market is aimed at. Winegrowers like our Patrick Meyer talk, if at all, about the effect of their wines rather than about fruit one and herb two. It’s about tension, vibration and liveliness. With wine, as with other foods, the effect is not limited to a buzz plus aroma.
Where does natural wine come from?
Natural wine has been around for about 8,000 years. At that time, of course, no huge amounts of yeasts, vitamins and enzymes were added to wine production or worked with reverse osmosis and tannin powder – techniques that are common in conventional viticulture today. The grapes were simply pressed and fermented into wine.
So natural wine itself is nothing new. But the natural wine movement, which has been divorcing spirits for some years now, is.
The supporters of the natural wine core scene refer again and again to Jules Chauvet (1907-1989), a studied chemist and winegrower from the Beaujolais. When Beaujolais was still about fast vinification and serving the markets, he strove to improve the quality of his wines. This meant for him: agriculture without chemical fertilizers and herbicides, no chaptalization, no pure yeasts, no filtration, no fining and no addition of sulphur. He was less interested in ideology than in quality. He wanted to make wines that were particularly digestible, as pure and drinkable as possible.
Other winegrowers were inspired by this: first Marcel Lapierre, Jean Foillard, Guy Breton and Jean-Paul Thevenet (Beaujolais), Nicolas Joly (Loire), Josko Gravner (Friaul) and later numerous others. However, years of experimentation were necessary, in the ageing, in the vinification, whether with sulphur or without, if so, how much, until the wines had a level of stability, durability and also clear taste that the winegrowers wanted to achieve.
Is natural wine just a trend?
Yes and no. That natural wine is a trend is undeniable. In connection with the growing ecological and culinary awareness, we understand natural wines more as a trend-setting avant-garde than as hype. More and more winegrowers are finding themselves in the water of a movement that is making ever higher waves.
This movement has now also arrived in top gastronomy and from there is sloshing more and more into all corners of gastronomy. When it comes to food, the emphasis is on sustainability: for example, preference is given to working with old, regional varieties that have survived the general industrialisation of agriculture in small niches. People are thinking about old craft methods, avoiding products that have already been produced for reasons of taste and mass, and looking for something new on the periphery of our eating habits: vegetables, herbs or parts of animals that have been neglected or neglected.
“Tell me what you eat, and I’ll tell you who you are!”
-J. A. Brillat Savarin
Natural wines reflect the development of food: sustainable agriculture, often as a mixed culture; autochthonous grape varieties; expression of terroir and vintage differences; turning away from mass production and its means; complex aromas beyond the ordinary.
One could say that a new eating and drinking culture is gradually emerging, allowing smaller producers more courage because demand is there. Our habits are changing and with them our expectations.
We hope that the development towards more ecological and culinary awareness and greater taste diversity will remain a long-term trend.