Natural wine: what the f*ck is it?!

It dawned on me the other day that the two biggest wine fairs we attended this year have been celebrations of natural wine, but we haven’t explained what natural/biodynamic wine actually is. Well fear no more, that’s about to change.

But first… story time.

I remember when I first got really into wine. It was in 2014. Up until then I had always had an appreciation for wine but didn’t see it as a thing to base my career on. One of my distinct memories, the turning point if you will, which got me looking at wine as something more than just an accompaniment to food was when I did a tasting with a distribution company called Dynamic Vines. They supplied Merchants Tavern, the restaurant I worked in (read about their  deep fried oysters here) and came to do some training with us.

Dynamic Vines are a great company, run by a delightful French man named Fred and they specialise in distributing natural wines across London and the rest of the United Kingdom. When they came to do the tasting with us we were treated to a delightful 2011 Vouvray from Clos de la Meslerie. Fred explained to us the difference between the previous year’s vintage, how the 2011 wasn’t as sweet as Vouvray tends to be and how it was down to the fact that they had a hot spring that year so they had to bring the harvest forward by approximately six weeks.

This piece of information was the turning point in which I started to become fascinated by wine and it gave me the desire to want to learn more. I didn’t come across anything from Clos de la Meslerie again. Partly because I forgot the name of the winery (face palm).

Three years later, I find myself at the RAW Wine Fair in Brooklyn, New York. Rachel Lightfoot of Lightfoot & Wolfville biodynamic winery tells me I have to try the Vouvray at stand 50. I walk over and instantly recognise the label. It was Clos de la Meslerie. I sampled an array of their catalogue and had a good chat with Peter, the owner and winemaker. We exchanged business cards and agreed to catch up.

 

Ok, back to the main point.

A lot of people have different opinions on what makes a wine natural but it’s basically  a wine that has had little or no sulphites added to it. When I caught up with Peter from La Meslerie I asked him what he defines as ‘natural’ wine, to which his response was “You can ask 10 different winemakers that question and get 10 different answers, but to me low intervention is really about getting back to nature and letting nature play a primary role in how wine is made. We have been making wine for at least 5,000 years but it’s only been in the last 60 years where technology has become the primary driver of winemaking. Today, a lot of the wine we drink is technology driven, so it’s a standardised process and the wine is made in the winery rather than the vineyard. To me, natural wines are about the vineyard and less about the winery. It’s about the grapes”.

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Peter Hahn

This is a great way to put it. Made in the vineyard, rather than the winery. Essentially meaning that the winemakers are using just what nature has given them rather than adding preservatives or other elements in order to create a standardised product year in, year out.

Organic wine and natural/biodynamic wine are two different things. Organic wine, under European regulations dictate that there can be no synthetic herbicides or pesticides put on the grapes while they are growing on the vine, however in production, you can add things to it. It basically just stipulates that the grapes were grown naturally, but actually under European regulations there are dozens of chemicals that you are allowed to add to the wine and it still be labelled organic. In some cases a winemaker is allowed to add over 300mg of sulphites per litre of wine and it will still be in line with the regulations. In natural winemaking there won’t be a trace of these chemicals in the wine, however some low intervention winemakers do use a tiny amount of sulphites. Peter from Clos de la Meslerie goes by the mantra ‘less is more’ and in terms of his winemaking he wants to keep it as natural as possible, however he will still use a small amount of sulphites, around 60 mg per every litre. This is just under one third of the amount that is permitted to call a wine organic, however, Peter went on to say that some winemakers may claim that his wine isn’t 100% ‘natural’ because to be given this status it shouldn’t have any sulphites in whatsoever.

Sulphites or no sulphites, his wine is still fucking delicious.

To be honest, it’s pretty complicated and there aren’t many regulations to define natural wine. Industry and wine authorities are starting to respond to this and have established a difference between organic and biodynamic/natural wine. As of 2016, The AVN (Association des Vins Naturels) dictated natural wine must be produced through a natural process, without any additives. But this is still pretty vague. However, it is great to see that things are going in the right direction and the identity of low intervention/biodynamic/natural wine, or whatever you want to call it is becoming more popular. Even if you want to dispute the amount of sulphites permitted until a wine becomes ‘unnatural’, I would think that it’s safe to say that everyone who had a stall at any of the RAW Wine fairs this year will agree with Peter’s ‘less is more’ mantra.

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Lightfoot & Wolfville biodynamic Winery – Wolfville, Nova Scotia, Canada

One thing I found very interesting surrounding my conversation with Peter is how in a way, low intervention wine helps bring back ‘the vintage effect’. Peter mentioned that since the development of technology there are so many factors that we can control so the product becomes consistent. Before technological advancements, we couldn’t really control many things, like the weather. “Today we still can’t control the weather but we can control so many other things, if we think its too sweet we can reduce sugar level by diluting the juice with acidulated water, we can add sugar, we can acidify or de-acidify, if you want to use reverse osmosis and enzymes to lower the alcohol then you can do that. You can use a centrifuge to clarify wine you think is too cloudy. All these things lead to a standardised product and people can expect every year to get the same wine from the same winery, but in the past, the vintage was hugely important and that’s what we’re doing. We are saying the less you intervene, the more you’re going to have a vintage effect”. This year, Clos de la Meslerie harvested earlier than normal because of the hot spring which indicates that the 2017 vintage is going to be slightly drier, different to his 2016 vintage and massively different to the sweeter 2009 vintage. This is the vintage effect and I applaud the fact that people like Peter are heling re-establish it. Don’t get me wrong, it hadn’t been lost forever but with the amount of mass produced, standardised wine readily available in supermarkets all over the world, the differences between vintages can be widely lost. One thing I fell in love with about wine is the fact that it differs from year to year, as it makes it exciting and interesting. I mentioned it in a previous article called ‘why do you love wine so much?’.

 

To finish off this article, and to sum up natural wine (the best I can) I am going to finish with a couple of quotes from Isabelle Legeron, master of wine, natural wine expert and acquaintance of us here at Wined Up. In her book ‘Natural Wine: an introduction to organic and biodynamic wines, made naturally’ she writes “Whether or not it is certified (or indeed certifiable), natural wine does exist. It is wine from Vineyards that are farmed organically, at the very least, and which is produced without adding or removing anything during vinification, apart from a dash of sulfites at most at bottling”. She goes on to say “In its purest form, natural wine is a miraculous feat – a great balancing act between life in the vineyard, life in the cellar, and life in the bottle”.

I agree.

– J A M E S

For more information on the featured companies in this article please follow the hyperlinks in the article or the links below…

Clos de la Meslerie – http://www.lameslerie.com

Dynamic Vines – http://www.dynamicvines.com

Lightfoot & Wolfville – http://www.lightfootandwolfville.com

Isabelle Legeron – http://www.isabellelegeron.com

The Merchants Tavern –

http://www.merchantstavern.co.uk

 

 

 

 

 

 

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