"Long live natural wine! ". Do you know when this slogan dates from? We would be tempted to say the end of the 1990s, wouldn't we? Well no, this one dates from 1907 and was pronounced in Montpellier during the revolt of the Languedoc winegrowers. Indeed, in France, the years 1903, 1904 and 1907 were years of great strikes of the wine workers. The trend of natural wine is therefore not new at all, it is an old claim in the wine world. Already at that time, some winemakers wanted to offer wines produced only from grape juice and without the addition of artificial substances.
First of all, it is necessary to know that officially these wines, which some people characterize as "living", "pure" or "naked", do not exist insofar as there are neither logos, nor texts, nor codes that are legally binding. Thus, the natural wines only respond to a philosophy and a doctrine that some winemakers have decided to adopt. There is indeed a charter of natural wines that has been established by about fifty winemakers grouped within the Association of Natural Wines. The will of these producers is to find the original expression of the soil in which their vines are implanted. But this charter cannot be considered as the universal definition of natural wines, it is only a consensus which was found between the people gathered within this association. In this charter are listed the different elements to be respected in order to qualify a wine as natural.
First of all, to make it simple, we can define a natural wine as being a wine which is governed only by the laws of nature because it is indeed the non or little interventionist character in the production which is put forward by its defenders. Little interventionist because the winemaker plays a role of accompaniment in the development of his vine and his grapes.
In more detail, a natural wine is a wine to which no inputs are added during the cultivation of the vine and during the vinification. In short, the "rules" that must be respected to be able to speak of natural wines are organic or biodynamic cultivation, manual harvesting, the use of indigenous yeasts during fermentation, a low temperature and a low yield.In short, the "rules" that must be respected in order to be able to speak of natural wines are organic or biodynamic cultivation, manual harvesting, the use of indigenous yeasts during fermentation, a way of working that is respectful of the environment, and the non-use of oenological inputs during vinification (only sulphur is authorized, but in homeopathic doses).
This question of the use of sulphur is the most important and is essential to be able to talk about natural wines and not only about organic wines.
Sulfur is a chemical compound that allows wines to stabilize and preserve themselves. Indeed, wine is a "living" product that contains bacteria and yeasts, some of which are capable of damaging it and turning it into vinegar. Thus, thanks to sulfur, which is a powerful antiseptic and antioxidant, producers can protect the grapes in the vineyard and during the wine-making process. Some claim that it was the Romans who first used sulfur for these purposes. However, there is no evidence of this. It was not until the 15th century and a German royal decree that there was formal proof of its use in winemaking.
Concerning sulfites, their effects on consumers are debated. For some people, they would be the cause of headaches the day after too much alcohol. However, there is no scientific research in this direction. If it is true that people who are intolerant to sulphites are more prone to headaches when consuming them, it is dehydration, a consequence of alcohol consumption, that causes headaches. So don't think that plain wines are the miracle cure and will allow you to drink until you are thirsty, only moderate alcohol consumption and hydration during it will prevent you from having a hangover.
But what is the difference between an organic, biodynamic and natural wine? First of all, we can say that a natural wine is a wine that combines these two methods and goes even further. Indeed, the rules of organic viticulture are applied: neither pesticides, nor weed killers, nor chemical fertilizers are authorized and the grape harvest must be manual.
The real difference between all these wines and thenatural winesare to be found. The desire to let nature take its course that began in the vineyard continues in the making of the natural wine. The winemakers prohibit the use of chemical inputs and techniques that aim to modify the original juice. However, some winemakers (most of them, in fact) still use sulfur, but in very small proportions compared to other categories of wine, because "zero sulfite" requires a great deal of production control. For example, for red wines, the maximum dose of sulfur used for natural wines is 30mg/liter, while for organic wines the limit is 100mg/liter and for conventional wines with E.U. standards 160mg/liter.
As you can see, producing a natural wine implies many constraints for the winegrower, especially in terms of hygiene, which must be even more controlled than for traditional winegrowers. Indeed, since no input is used to "protect" the wines, the winemaker must be even more vigilant about hygiene in his workplace if he wants to produce quality wines. For example, the unpleasant odors that can be found in some natural wines are caused by a bacterium: Brettanomyce, which proliferates rapidly in non-sanitized areas.The winegrower must compensate for the antiseptic role of sulfites with impeccable hygiene: while sulfites neutralize bacteria and yeast present in wine, wines without sulfites (or at negligible levels) must not contain bacteria or yeast, or else they will quickly deviate, or in some cases restart a fermentation once bottled.The work of winemakers who produce natural wines is therefore very important and demanding, which may justify the higher price of these wines compared to others.
You will have understood that natural wines are living wines and here the proverb "always the wine feels its soil" takes all its sense. Thus, tasting natural wines can only surprise and amaze you.
First of all, one must be aware of the fact that the low dose of sulphur present in wine means that natural wines must be considered as fresh products that must be kept at less than 15 degrees Celsius in order to avoid the resumption of fermentation or aromatic alterations. The other consequence is that natural wines are generally to be drunk young, except in cases where the winemaker really controls the production process.
It can happen that the wine fizzes slightly when tasted directly after uncorking the bottle. This is due to the fact that some winemakers add or leave CO2 in the bottle to protect the wine since they do not use sulfites or only a little. It is therefore advisable in this case to put the wine in a decanter and to shake it slightly to allow the CO2 to escape. This will also allow the wine to air out and be better.
One of the other aspects that can surprise with these wines is their taste. Indeed, some natural wines can present unpleasant smells, which are called "reduction" smells. These smells are due to the fact that the wine lacks oxygen. So, a little time in a decanter will allow the wine to air out and thus the unappealing smells to diminish.
Nevertheless, enough theory and blabla, as they say "the truth is at the bottom of the glass" and the best way to get your own idea of natural wines is to taste them of course. Even if you may be confused at first, the unique experience that awaits you promises to be full of surprises, trust us!
Camille Ragot (for les Grappes)
10€ offered for your first order with the code : BIENVENUE10