Thinking Natural Thoughts
I’m always banging on about natural wines, so I thought for once I would shut my trap and let someone far more qualified give you some insights into the wonderful world of ‘vin au natural’.
Let me introduce you to Doug Wregg, Sales and Marketing Director of the UK’s most highly respected importer and supplier of natural wines, Les Caves de Pyrene. Over the past year, Doug has become a good friend and mentor, leading me gently by the hand into the often overwhelming world of wild producers and obscure grape varieties that make up much of Les Caves’ vast wine list.
Here are some excerpts from two of Doug’s beautifully written newsletters. I hope those of you with even a passing interest in organic/Biodynamic/natural food and wine production will find his wise words inspiring. They certainly challenge all we think know about wine.
Sebastien Riffault's beautifully tended 'natural' vineyards in the Loire Valley
Einstein sagely observed: “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex… It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.” With natural wines it takes the genius of nature and the courage of the winemaker to leave well alone.
Trying to define ‘natural’ wine…
I’ve been asked by sundry, if not all, to come up with a simple definition of natural wine. Loathe as I am to reduce things to mechanics this should clarify things for some.
Natural wines are wines where non-invasive farming methods and non-interventionist vinification allows for the best expression of the terroir and the vintage.
Desirable vineyard practice
The objective is to attain a healthy vineyard where the vines develop their resistance to disease. Chemicals are eschewed, every effort is made to ensure that the soil is alive with nutrients and mineral content. No chemicals may therefore be used except very light doses of copper and sulphur mixture.
Natural solutions should always be sought to natural problems
Biodiversity should be encouraged at every opportunity and habitats for insects, bugs, birdlife and flowers be allowed to thrive.
The vine is part of a polyculture – the land and the countryside must be respected
Dynamic remedies may be used to nurture and bring the vineyard to optimum health such as natural manures, homeopathic remedies and biodynamic treatments
Other vineyard practices that may be encouraged
Travail du sol Selection massale Promotion (where possible) of indigenous grape varieties Low yields Hand harvest and selection of fruit Respect for variability of vintages Seeking maturity and balance
Desirable winery practice
To carry out fermentation with the fewest possible additions or subtractions
Healthy grapes sorted before vinification Wild yeast ferment No added enzymes No additions or subtractions (addition of acids, sugar, dealcoholisation – “reverse osmosis”) No added flavourings (oak chips etc)
No chaptalisation No or very light filtration No or very light fining Minimal sulphur used (total sulphur less 25 mg/l white wines; less than 10mg/l for red wines)
Natural wine is not a set of absolute rules but an aspiration to make the purest possible wine in a given situation out of the best possible grapes. Like nature it is not about judgements and fixed positions but embraces arbitrariness and even chaos. I will elaborate.
The natural wine journey always begins in the vineyard where growers work in harmony with their environment. Some vineyards are born natural, some achieve naturalness and some need to have nature thrust upon them. Respecting what nature gives us, not taking more than it will allow, is the principle tenet of natural wine.
Only after the last tree has been cut down, only after the last river has been poisoned, only after the last fish has been caught, only then will you realize that money cannot be eaten.
–The Cree People
The grapes have to be made into wine and here the natural movers and winemakers want to be holistically consistent. For why grow something organically if you are going to smother it in additives and, in effect, denature it? Putting chemicals in the ground and additives in the wine is a comparatively recent phenomenon. Whilst we now accept that polluting the soil with synthetic fertilisers, pesticides and insecticides is untenable we fail to apply the same logic with additives in wine.
Natural winemaker, Giorgio Clai's moscato in Istria, Croatia
The rules of engagement
“Natural wine” has perversely been corrupted to mean unnatural. If one looks through the lens of a supermarket buyer this means unsellable (and that is unnatural in a supermarket environment). But this ain’t necessarily so to a consumer who loves drinking wine. We are more than happy to brew our beer at home and drink it, we’re positively itching to buy fruit and veg from farmer’s markets and don’t care whether it is misshapen or blotchy. Before standardisation and subsequent homogenisation we would drink unpasteurised milk without question, eat butter (not margarine) and drink wines that had not been cleansed of personality.
We now appreciate that natural cloudy apple juice has all the goodness left in, that unpasteurised smelly cheese has more flavour, that food can look relatively unappealing, smell and taste unusual and not only does not this not invalidate it, but indicates that it has not been denatured by endless interventions. We insist, however, on a correctness for wine that is fundamentally artificial; that wine should not nakedly taste of wine, but instead be a chemical product, stripped, fined and filtered.
We are also overly exercised by the notion of bacterial spoilage. Butter left out in a room grows mould, margarine doesn’t. Does that make margarine better? Or isn’t it that there is nothing for the bacteria to feed on? “Natural wine is recalibrating how we think about wine,” says Max Allen. “It’s not just a commodity you can buy on a supermarket shelf and leave there for three years until somebody comes along and buys it. It’s much more like an artisan cheese or a beautiful fresh homemade apple pie. You can’t leave it lying around. You’ve got to look after and be a bit gentle with it.”
If it is matter of taste then surely it is a matter of taste. As it were. Critics are quick to judge and consequently write off an entire genre of wine (as if wine could be poured into such neat categories) on the basis of a few examples tasted, but mostly because of what they’ve read or what they’ve heard. Wine education is skewed because it gives the impression that taste can be scientifically calibrated and that good wine is almost no more than a series of (bio)chemical reactions and expert manipulations. We have to recognise that wines are, or rather can be, very much living products, subtle, mutating and individual.
At Les Cave de Pyrene’s ‘Real Wines’ tasting
Simplistic as it sounds the justification for using sulphur in wine is not proved. It may be that small amounts of sulphur help to stabilise the wine without materially altering the flavour; it may be that a wine contains enough of natural preservatives; it may that in certain years a tiny amount of sulphur is required but not in others. What is undeniable is that it is overused as are all the tricks and tropes of the interventionist winemaker. You would only do this to alter the nature of the wine (and thereby denature the wine) and this is surely against the spirit of organic and biodynamic viticulture, against the spirit of wine as a product of nature.
A good chef doesn’t season a dish without first tasting and one wonders whether winemakers have lost touch with their raw ingredients, the grapes, and practise winemaking by rote. Beautiful healthy grapes contain their own preservatives; there is often no necessity to manipulate. Using sulphur has become a safety-first approach rather than a sensitive or sensible one.
Individuals make individual wines
You don’t need to be a scientist to be a poet, painter or musician. You don’t need to be a scientist to be a great chef or a great winemaker. You don’t need to understand why things work to make beautiful things. We often say “he has an ability that can’t be taught”. On the other hand, a lot of natural winemakers have studied oenology, served apprenticeships in conventional wineries and have come to the intellectual position that wine should be made with the fewest number of interventions, that less does indeed mean more.
The spectrum of natural wine confusingly ranges from cloudy, earthy and feral to vibrant, fruity and elegant and sophisticated. Yes, really. As Anatole France proudly wrote in The Garden of Epicurus: “I cling to my imperfection, as the very essence of my being.” For example, reduction is not necessarily a wine fault per se, nor is oxidation when it is part of the process of winemaking; even high levels of volatile acidity are acceptable in certain circumstances. Wild yeast fermentations provide signature flavours to their wines. Some of the greatest wines of all time were made without temperature control and have lasted and strengthened across the decades confounding expectation; it is always what is in the wine and not what is in the mind of the critic that matters. Just because we understand the chemistry of winemaking doesn’t mean we understand the wine itself. Human beings are chemical, physical and biological constructs – and so much more than that. We should celebrate edginess and unorthodoxy. Did not Goethe say, “Certain flaws are necessary for the whole. It would seem strange if old friends lacked certain quirks.”
Natural winemaking reduces the element of control that a winemaker has over the finished product (which increases the element of risk in a difficult year, from a commercial standpoint). Exactly how a wine is made is not something that can be decided in advance. Each year, and each wine, is different. Basically, though, what really matters in the end is whether the wine stimulates the drinker in some way. Drinking wine isn’t really a necessity; why bother drinking it if it doesn’t create energy or an emotion?
Stéphane Gallet of Domaine Le Roc des Anges carries his son through his 'natural' vineyards in the Roussillon, France
So many things are added to conventional wine to reconfigure flavours or to add something which wasn’t there before. Some wines can be asphyxiated by being overlarded with enhancements. It is very difficult to drink a glass let alone of a bottle of such wines.
At the heart of winemaking is the fear of failure predicated on the notion that losing control over the process leads to the spoiling of the wine. Natural winemakers aren’t inferior or technically incompetent; when one leaves so much to chance one has to be extra vigilant in the winery. However, they taste assiduously and understand that it is important to have confidence in the wine.
Anton Klopper (Lucy Margaux) puts it succinctly: “We aim to produce wines that express themselves. To achieve this at the highest level I would never consider adding yeast, bacteria, acid, sugar or any of the other artificial or natural additives. A winemaker can choose to be an artist or a chemist. I believe that winemaking is a craft; all our decisions are made with the aid of a wine glass and traditional skills, with the aim of developing the wine’s true identity.”
–by Doug Wregg