Making Wine Naturally

By Julee Resendez

Within the world of wine, there’s few statements that spark heated debate like the term ‘Natural Wine.’ In her book “Natural Wines,” Isabelle Legeron MW makes a strong argument for the purity of natural wines versus modern winemaking. “Rather than use science to produce wines with as little intervention as possible, we use it to gain absolute control over every step of the process—from growing grapes to making the wine itself.”

There are several factors that make non-chemical influence difficult. Climate change is one. Whether or not one agrees with scientific opinion, the climate in the majority of wine regions has changed within the last few decades. Champagne is a fickle region, whose vineyards are often convalesced by mold the common antidote is to use a chemical compound called Bordeaux mixture. After all, the region is best known for its meticulous attention to winemaking style, not the purity of the vineyards themselves.  But Champagne producers have made moves within the past 20 years to change that—one way has been to limit the spreading of copper, an element within said Bordeaux mixture.

Frost is also a major problem for growers within other regions. At a recent tasting with winemaker Pierre Breton, he spoke of the difficulties faced by various vineyards. At Les Galichets, for example, 2017 brought frost damage to three of the four harvests (15,000 bottles) when a cold snap hit in late April. Alternative methods can be used to combat frost but they are often labor intensive, resulting in an increase of price to consumers.

Rex Neve (owner of Chabrol) recently returned from Porto, Portugal, where he reported on the region’s grave drought and fires. The prevalence of wildfires, early harvests and droughts appear to be clues that something is amiss; there is an urgent need to take care of what we have been given.

But the process of shifting to making wines naturally, much like any change, is hard to implement. But the final element must not just be about a principal; the wines must be of good quality. It is more important to make a good wine than to simply justify a theory. Recently in The Drinks Business, there was an interview with Peter Sissick, the famed winemaker of Pingus. He talked about the gap between wines that have been over-processed and that of Vin Nature, where a lack of knowledge is justified by some. “Nature doesn’t make bad wine, people do,” Sisseck says while proclaiming that the volatility and haziness in wine, “is just plain lazy.”

With Organic wines, it all starts in the vineyard. Organic wines must be made with organic grapes. These practices must be in place for at least three years before they can begin to be classified as organic. Regulations prohibit artificial fertilizers, chemical weed killers, and genetic modification. However, the use of sulfites and copper is still allowed in minimal quantities. Organic producers are subject to periodic unannounced inspections, which are organized by outside organizations. “Organic farming is an overall system of farm management and food production that combines the best environmental practices.” (Britt and Per Karlsson, 2014. Biodynamic, Organic and Natural Winemaking).

Within the Biodynamic winemaking style, it goes a bit further still. Honestly, I have yet to taste a wine produced within this method that doesn’t showcase something extraordinary. These are wines with high flamboyance and flair. The viticulture methods practiced mostly start from an organic base. Overall, it’s about making the vines stronger and more vigorous so that they are resistant to attacks and disease. When looking for wines that are produced in this method, look for the Demeter label (the leading organization for biodynamic farming). Most producers are certified with them.

Vin Nature wines have become fashionable and there are certain practices that are in place. One is the minimal use of sulfites, which, if used, is only added at bottling. What do sulfites do? They stabilize wine. If wine is meant to have any age then it should have sulfites. They also enable a wine to be transported. But Vin Nature has no definitive set of laws that it must adhere to; it is largely based on trusting the winemaker. It is this lack of standards that has officials and consumers perplexed. The simplest definition of Vin Nature is wines that have a minimum amount of manipulation. Pick the grapes, throw them in a vat and voila: wine.

Vin Nature sits on the opposite end of the spectrum from modern winemaking styles. Some purists complain that these wines are not uniform in quality.  But rather than sitting across the room throwing darts at one another, I believe both can take cues from each other, and make great wines.