The lowdown on additives, ‘woca-wola’ and proper natural wine

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   Wine started life a simple commodity but it has now been hijacked by fashion and consumerism. Natural wines are a nostalgic snapshot of what wine was like before hi-tech got involved. Understanding the science behind making wine has been very positive but we have gone too far and rather than using science to produce wines with as little intervention as possible we use it to gain absolute control over every single aspect of growing grapes and making wine. Very little is left to nature.

    For me, natural wines are about coming full circle and going back to basics and simplicity. They are real and raw.

  Thanks to their innate individuality and ‘new’-ness as a category on the international wine scene, they are wines with little homogeneity, consensus or indeed regulation so my enquiry into them and their world is going to be an ‘organic’, shape-shifting process. Let me know if I have missed anything. I’m hoping this site will provide you with a framework so that you can explore these great wines.

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   There is no official definition of ‘natural wine’ so here is one that I have come up with after a lot of tasting, reading and talking to producers.

   Natural wine is made from grapes that are, at a very minimum, farmed organically or biodynamically, harvested manually and then made without adding / or removing anything during the vinification process. Ideally nothing is added at all but – at most – there might be a dash of SO2 at bottling. A handful of farmers manage to produce great wines without adding any SO2 whatsoever.

   It's basically good old grape juice fermented into wine. As nature intended.

   The cellar is simply the place to guide what is fundamentally a naturally occurring phenomenon rather than a high-tech lab, full of gadgets and sacks of sugar, tartaric acid and powdered tannins.

   It is still a small movement, which isn’t particularly well known but it is time to take it seriously.

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   Producing natural wine is like walking on a tight rope without the safety net. Detractors of natural wines claim that it is sloppy / lazy winemaking and to be fair to such critics, you do find deviant / faulty natural wines out there. Too much volatile acidity, too much brett, refermenting wines, but there are faulty wines in both camps: conventional and natural.

   Great natural wine producers are not only very brave but they are exceptional men and women who not only deeply respect the land they farm in the terra madre sense of the word but they are also great observers of nature with great knowledge and sensitivity. I have learnt more (and still am) about wine from these producers than from anyone else or any books.

   This website is dedicated to these farmers who, through the love of their vines have brought wine back to its roots, giving it a simple sensuality that resonates to a growing number of us.

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   Sustainability is a complex issue and a fashionable, catch-all phrase that is being increasingly used and abused as a marketing message and that will get you media attention.

   Natural wines are made in the vineyard and as a result you need extremely healthy, vibrant grapes, borne of a complex, living earth. If there is no biodiversity or natural balance in the vineyard, you will need to resort to additives and gadgets further down the line.

   You can cheat nature and bring artificial life to dead grapes using SO2, added yeasts, nitrogen, enzymes, minerals and vitamins and make up for what was missing in the vineyard. But when you make natural wine, your soil and sub-soil have to rely on the richness of their own ecosystem in order to draw all the  elements necessary to produce wine in a self-sufficient way.

   No irrigation, no-heavy machinery, no pollution from spraying pesticides, herbicides or fungicides. It is all about preservation, giving back and farming for tomorrow. Natural wine by its very nature is sustainable and green.

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   Natural wine and ‘organic wine’ are not the same thing.

   Organic wines are made from organically grown grapes but this does not guarantee an additive-free wine. Regulations regarding winemaking are pretty loose. You can for example machine harvest, add yeast, pasteurise and add oak chips. Certifying bodies may guarantee slightly lower levels of SO2 allowed in the wine but lack really strict parameters in terms of what happens inside the winery walls.

   Organic agriculture is obviously a great starting point and needs to be encouraged but I cannot help but be a little cynical about it in wine terms as in many cases it seems to have become just another marketing message - the terroir story, having crashed and burned and lost real meaning, has now been replaced by 'organic' for a new, powerful marketing edge. It's a shame because organic farming (pesticide-, fungicide-, herbicide-free) is definitely the way forward, but regulations in terms of winemaking are not up to scratch.

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   I think the photo says heaps, especially given its context.
   Natural wine is all about the vineyard because it's here that great grapes are made, and healthy, vibrant grapes are key to producing fine, natural wine.
   The heavy-handed use of synthetic fertilizers, weed-killers, fungicides, pesticides and inappropriately applied heavy metals like copper have destroyed soil life in most vineyards. This is problematic for wine. Vines need soil life in order to feed themselves properly, and winemakers need rich indigenous yeast populations in order to create complex, terroir-driven wines. Synthetic chemicals in the vineyard mean unhealthy vines and few yeasts so an arsenal of additives have to be used to compensate. Many growers I have spoken to say that  it takes years to bring life back to conventionally farmed vineyards.
   In order to create balance and health  in  a vineyard, its grapes and so too its wines, various agriculture practices (organic, biodynamic, etc) can be used. It's not the name that matters, it's the result.

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   Organic viticulture (grape growing) is all about eschewing manmade synthetic chemicals in the vineyard. It's basically very similar to the organic farming of other foodstuffs - no pesticides, no herbicides, no fungicides and no synthetic fertilizers. Instead farmers build up organic matter in the soils. As the Soil Association (UK) puts it (in relation to organic food): "Organic farming recognises the direct connection between our health and the food we eat. Strict regulations define what organic farmers can and cannot do. In organic farming, pesticides are severely restricted and artificial chemical fertilisers are prohibited...". These are standards that apply to most organic food certifying bodies around the world. For wine it's a bit trickier. There are dozens of certifying bodies around the world, (Nature & Progres, Ecocert, Australian Certified Organic...) each with varying regulations and standards to meet. So far, it seems that the USA has the toughest criteria for a wine to be called an 'organic' wine. In Europe, once grapes hit the winery however, different rules apply and all sorts of things can be added.

 

 

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   Biodynamic agriculture is a form of organic cultivation developed by Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s.

  Steiner's teachings promote farming methods  that encourage self-sufficiency in the farm unit by helping plants and animals strengthen their own immune systems rather than rely on synthetic chemicals to combat disease. There is no monoculture in nature so the idea is to develop biodiversity. Plant and mineral-based preparations are used to boost this immune system by increasing the microbiological life of the growing environment. Truly understanding this environment means giving the farm context - i.e. it exists not in isolation but as part of a land mass that is part of a planet that is part of a huge solar system, where large bodies of mass exert considerable forces (gravitational, light etc) on each other. Life on earth is also affected and by extension so is agriculture. There is nothing obscure about it, it's just common sense. It's about promoting a farming model that disapeeared with the advent of intense, industrialised farming. And the results speak for themselves. Read Maria Thun for practical illustrations. 

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   There are all sorts of other agricultural systems that exist that are share the same general philosophy as organic and biodynamic agriculture - namely observing nature (this is paramount), promoting life and developing strong, healthy plants that don't need man as their crutch to survive.

   Personal favourites of mine include the teachings of Fukuoka and its more formalised  anglo-saxon counterpart: permaculture - 'permanent sustainable agriculture'. This is all about designing ecosystems that are entirely self-perpetuating and so sustainable in the real sense of the word.

   In the end, whether you call it organic,  biodynamic, permaculture or indeed perhaps by no name at all, it's not the label that counts. Any truly 'green', sustainable agricultural practice is built on real understanding and fundamental principles that support nature rather than fight against it. It's done out of respect yes but also because in the end it gets the best results. It's all about outlook, and wines from vineyards that apply these principles quite honestly speak for themselves.

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   We have a romantic view of wine. We think all wine is natural when it isn’t. In fact most wine isn't (be it cheap or iconic) but we are sold the illusion through successful marketing (pretty labels, rows of green vines, sunshine). Meanwhile, back at the vineyard and winery,

 



 

all sorts of stuff is added and the goodness of the wine is removed by fining, filtering, reverse osmosis and dozens of other processes and gadgetry. Pesticides, herbicides and fungicides are routinely used in vineyards, which is not only questionable for biodiversity but can also end up in the wines we drink. As microbiologist Claude Bourguignon puts it "there is more life in the Sahara than in many vineyards in Burgundy".

   Wine today is far removed from its original definition of fermented grape juice. It is the by-product of chemically induced and tightly controlled fermentation through the aid of additives and structure-altering equipment. Why? Because the vast majority of wine has become about the bottom line. It is about producing more and more wine for less and less cash. It’s about producing it as quickly as possible and then flogging a brand – an illusion of people at one with the earth, translating a grape and a piece of earth into a bottle.

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   Natural wine is the closest thing you will ever get to pure fermented grape juice, the original definition of wine. The problem is that the vast majority of wine produced today is not just fermented grape juice, it’s a whole lot more than that. It’s an industrial product that should really be called wango or woca-wola.

   ‘Natural’ isn’t mumbo-jumbo or marketing spiel. It’s just wine that is wine and nothing else – not hijacked by additives, processing or manufacturing.

   More than 50 additives are allowed by law in the EU – many of which are used even in organic wine.

 

246    Yeasts are a key part of making wine. They convert sugar into alcohol and as they do so, they excrete aromas that we then smell and taste in the finished wine. Consequently what yeasts you use, fundamentally impacts the wine you produce.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   Traditionally, farmers relied on ambient or wild yeasts to carry out the fermentation process and make wine. These yeasts exist naturally in a vineyard and cellar. They're everywhere. Nowadays though, the vast majority of wines are fermented using lab-bred inoculated, industrial yeasts, which are used around the world to make up for dodgy viticulture and control the winemaking process in order to fashion wine styles and flavours.

   Commercial yeasts are a recent thing. The widespread use of pesticides / weed-killers / fungicides has meant that indigenous yeast populations have been severely weakened such that often they aren’t able to ferment the juice properly so the use of commercial yeasts becomes inevitable. Enter the vicious cycle of additives. Exit authenticity of taste.

   Thanks in large part to inoculated yeasts, wines made are increasingly monotone, standardised and predictable. They are not the result of intricate yeast populations created by nature but are instead a recipe that can be duplicated anywhere. Ambient yeasts are part and parcel of terroir and so are key to producing  authentic, natural wine. 

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   Sulphites (SO2 / E220, etc) are additives that deserve special attention. SO2 is a natural by-product of the fermentation process and occurs naturally in very small quantities in wine. It can also be added artificially either in the vineyard directly or in the winery or both.

It is used as an antiseptic, antioxidant, preservative and/or stabiliser, and exists in both natural and synthetic forms. Synthetic SO2 is a petrochemical derivative.

   SO2 is added by most conventional winemakers during harvest, winemaking and bottling. Some add it in small doses, others in very high concentrations. The phrase “contains sulphites” is an obligatory mention on a wine label if a wine contains more than 10mg/litre but there is no requirement to label quantity. So, you have no idea how much SO2 you are actually ingesting. That is a failing of the system. Whether you have 20mg/l or 350 mg/l, you can’t tell the difference. According to EU law, permitted total levels of SO2 are: 160 mg/litre for reds, 210 mg/litre for whites and 400 mg/l for sweet wines, which to my mind is crazy especially given WHO advice. Levels advocated by most certifying bodies for organic and biodynamic wines are significantly lower but are still a good deal higher than levels advocated by those who make natural wine, which tend to be about a fifth of the EU permitted totals. But fundamentally, for me, the ideal is to add none at all.

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   It is quite fun to visit websites from companies who manufacture the stuff. You begin to realise the extent of manipulation that goes behind closed doors.

   Here's a great link to start with. It's in French but I'll translate it for you when I get a spare minute. And here's a link to the Australian Wine Research Institute.

   Otherwise, just google 'winemaking additives' or 'essential winemaking additives' and see what pops up. (I am particularly fond of the word 'essential' here, makes you wonder what on earth people were making and calling 'wine' before these 'essentials' were introduced. And you know what's particularly crazy is that these 'essentials' are really a very new phenomenon).

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"People are often confused about the differences between organic and natural wines...Natural wine is about farming your vineyard organically and then following the same philosophy in the winery because we don't add anything at all, whereas organic producers can add SO2 and tartaric acid. They don't follow a charter of quality in the cellar. Natural wines are about respecting nature from the beginning to the end without using chemical products." - Marie Lapierre, Chateau Cambon, Beaujolais. Marie is the wife of the late Marcel Lapierre.

"What we mean by natural wine is wine produced as naturally as possible which means without adding anything or adding as little as possible. Sometimes we add a little bit of sulphur to our white and rose but for our red wines we have developed a way of making wine without adding any sulphur. We always get a little bit of residual sulphur from the yeasts because yeasts are living organisms who use sugar to produce alcohol and, during this process, there is an excretion which is a little bit sulfurous. But we don't add any ourselves to our red wines." Emile Hérédia, Domaine de Montrieux.

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   We have essentially reduced what used to be a 'live' product to being a dead, homogenised drink. We have beaten the life out of the wine. It used to be nutritious, wholesome, flavoursome and full of personality. It is now, by and large, bog-standard and boring.
   When I discovered natural wines a couple of years ago, I stumbled across an amazing, underground world that made me rethink everything I stood for.

   I discovered a panoply of detailed  flavours; wines with big personalities and temper tantrums. They really made me question the authenticity of taste and what we in the conventional wine world understand wine to be.
   What opened up was a world of cloudy wines, orange wines, wines made without SO2, in short wines that resonated and rang true.
   Natural wines have purer flavours, more personality and are easier to digest. They are also better for you. A big claim I know, although really, it’s just simple common sense. Great wine made from 100% organic or biodynamic grapes, with few, if any, additives, is surely better for you than drinking an additive soup.
   Great wine is delicious, moreish and has an amazing ability to really give you something. What we drink today and call wine doesn’t do that. It’s just a drink, nothing more. Natural wine is more than that and you can really fall in love with it. I know, it turned my wine world on its head.

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"Tasting natural wine made me change the way I think about wine altogether putting an emphasis on the purity and the essence of the taste rather than distinguishing the various components that make up a taste. I started a new wonderful journey of discoveries thank to that crazy French woman. Thank you Isabelle!" - Chiara, academic / scientist.

"Natural wine is rather like natural pet food! Earnest, small producers making a food/drink with integrity that has an authentic taste of nature itself. Not adulterated, messed around with, filled with preservatives and flavour enhancers. Just nature squeezed into a drink with as little interference as possible from manufacturing conglomerates. Natural wine is delicious - has a fresh, earthy taste and none of the headaches that mass produced wine leaves you with." - Henrietta, Lily's Kitchen.

"I always liked wine but I found as I got older that it seemed to disagree with me more and more. I'd get headaches even after a single glass so I had pretty much stopped drinking wine altogether. You can imagine my surprise when I tasted natural wine. No more headaches at all! Quite extraordinary." - Mary Rose, retired lady.

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A few natural wine places I'd recommend:

Elliot's Café in Borough Market - the most local, seasonal place to eat out that I know in London. Delicious food and an all-natural wine list.

Hibiscus in Mayfair - 2* restaurant with Claude Bosi

La Trouvaille in Soho - specialised in wines from the South of France. one of the first places to focus on natural wines.

Terroirs & Brawn - Two great natural wine bars owned by the same team with fabulous food (for me Brawn has the edge in terms of atmos)

Green & Blue - Great shop and bar as well as online retailer in East Dulwich

Chez Casimir - fab food and conveniently near Gare du Nord, Paris

Le Verre Volé - Simple but great food and a wine shop as well near the Canal St Martin, Paris

Some great sites on natural wine...

Fiona Becketts' take on natural wines

Alice Feiring in the USA

French Association for Natural Wines

La Renaissance des Appellations, a French association of biodynamic growers headed by Nicolas Joy

More than organic

VinNatur, Italian natural wine association

 

 

 

 

This might look like an eclectic choice but I think it gives great context to understanding wine generally and natural wine specifically.


The One-Straw Revolution by Fukuoka

The Battle for Wine and Love by Feiring

Le Vin au Naturel by Francois Morel (my favourite, a real bible to understand natural wine)

Gardening for Life by Maria Thun

The Biodynamic Year by Maria Thun

Monty Waldin's Biodynamic Wine Guide 2011 - congratulations for self-publishing this very comprehensive source of info Monty!

NATURAL WINES ARE AUTHENTIC IN TASTE