What is natural wine?
First, we’ll start with a simple definition, then we’ll move on to a more complex one.
What we call natural wines are wines made with the least possible use of chemicals, additives and overly technological procedures. That includes chemicals in the field, such as pesticides, as well as things like sulfur or any of the almost 200 allowed additives that are legally permitted in wine.
And it includes many technological manipulations of wine that we think erase the individuality of the product and the place it comes from–the terroir. Our definition of natural wine is very similar to the German purity laws of beer making, which say that beer can be made only of water, barley, and hops. Purely natural wine, to us, is made of grape juice and little else.
For those of you that enjoy drinking wine but get bored with dissections of winemaking processes, the previous definition is probably enough for you. If you want to look under the hood a bit more, so to speak, continue reading.
There are a lot of ways one can get to a wine we would consider natural. They include organic and biodynamic grape growing. But grape growing is just that: what is done in the fields. For a wine to really be natural for us, the same philosophies must continue into the winery up until bottling occurs.Organic wine
Organic grape growing means that no pesticides or chemicals are used in the vineyard. Ironically, however, often when organic is stated on a wine label, the wine is often less natural according to our definition. The complicated thing with organics is that there are many people really growing in the spirit of organics, who are not legally certified. That is because it costs money to become certified, and many of the winemakers we work with are very small operations that do not care to pay these fees. If they wish to certify, they must first pay a fee in France, and then another fee to be certified in the US.
Organic grape growing for us is essential at minimum. But that alone is not enough, because one can grow grapes organically, but remain free to add anything one wants to add during winemaking, and manipulate with technology as much as one wants, yet still retain the organic certification on the label. In fact, it is often the larger companies that can afford to pay for the certifications, rather than the small artisanal producers that make up the majority of our portfolio, so one can not trust that organic on a label means that a wine was made naturally.Biodynamic wine
Biodynamic grape growing is a type of organic viticulture that uses special preparations of herbal sprays and composts, and time their applications according to the lunar calendar. Biodynamicists look at their land as a complete living ecosystem, as a living being that needs biodiversity in order to be healthy. Biodynamic winemakers often also live and work in a farm, with wheat fields, animals, fruit trees, woods, and vines striving to be self-sufficient. The soil is not seen as the surface for production but rather is considered an organism in its own right, and preparations are used to enhance the micro-life in the soil. The soil is part of the context of lunar and cosmic rhythms.
While some of the techniques of biodynamics often sound hokey and strangely spiritual to us, they in fact date way back to the ancient ways of our ancestors, to a time before many technological manipulations existed. Rudolph Steiner, an Austrian philosopher, is often credited with having laid out the basic tenets of biodynamics in a series of talks he gave in the early 20th century. Steiner gathered together the oral traditions passed down by simple farmers for thousands of years. Many of these ideas were based on the work of monks such as the Cluny sect in France that spent countless years tinkering with various mixtures and timing of preparations to find what worked best, in a trial and error basis.
Many organic vineyards use some biodynamic tools, so there is often no clear-cut line between organic and biodynamic. Biodynamic certification also costs money, so just as with organics many biodynamically prepared wines do not say so on the label.So what is natural wine again?
For a wine to be considered natural by us, it must also be vinified as naturally as possible. This means that after it has been cultivated organically or biodynamically, there must be a minimum use of additives and technological manipulations. Examples of additives include sugar, acidifiers, and powdered tannins. Manipulations can include the use of spinning cones to remove alcohol, micro-oxygenation to accelerate aging, and the use of laboratory cultivated yeast.
*The key aspects of what we consider to be a natural wine are:
• No synthetic molecules in the vines
• Plowing or other solutions to avoid chemical herbicides
• Use of indigenous yeast
• Handpicked grapes
• Low to no filtering
• Low to no sulfites
• Winemaking that respects the grapes: no pumping or rough handling
of the grapes, no micro-oxygenation
• No chaptalization
This style of winemaking for us represents an excellent way to express a sense of place, of terroir. We do not eschew modernity, but we favor techniques that help to express the natural terroir rather than new-fangled modern ones that tend to homogenize wine styles and erase individuality.
*For the pedants out there, it should be noted that all of these aspects are ideals. We accept that some may be on the path to these ideals and not quite there yet. We work with their wines because they share the spirit of these ideas and a desire to get as close to them as they possibly can. The road to healthy organic soils and wines is not a quick and easy path.