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06 June 2011

‘Natural wine’

The first ‘natural’ wine fair (NWF) was held in London last month, and I’m certainly not the first person to go on about it or ask the inevitable question: what exactly is ‘natural’ wine? And do we need to define and label it anyway, when there already are systems and rules in place for those winegrowers/makers who want to go that extra kilometre (or ten) and get themselves certified as an organic or biodynamic producer. The NWF catalogue included a ‘Charter of Quality’ giving a few definitions:

“All grapes are, at a minimum, organic. All grapes are hand-harvested. No added yeasts. No added sugar. No rectified acidity. Basically none of the dozens of additives often found in wine, except perhaps a little sulphite (a preservative among other uses) added during fermentation or at bottling*. Some of the wines won’t have anything added at all.”

All sounds perfectly fair enough and commendable but nothing more than what many/most organic and all biodynamic producers already adhere to. That * clause about sulphites is perhaps one of the key things here, certainly in terms of ‘controlling’ winemaking (there’s a subtle difference between keeping the upper hand on the process and swamping a wine with technology). “A little” isn’t very specific or scientific for sure; they quantify this by adding: “For us, low sulphite levels means that the grower is ultimately aiming to add little or no SO2 (sulphur dioxide) at all… dependant (sic.) on the year.”

Tom Lubbe of Domaine Matassa in the Roussillon sets a more technical level for this at “less than 20 milligrams per litre total SO2 in bottle,” which is readily measurable in a lab and about one-fifth to one-tenth of what might be in a ‘normal’ wine (and permitted). It's worth adding that all wine contains some sulphites, even if no SO2 is added, as a natural by-product of fermentation etc. Tom also talked about copper based treatments, the traditional ‘natural’ choice for combating e.g. a particular type of mildew, as copper (present in the human organism in minute quantities but toxic at higher levels) can hang around and pollute rivers. “In a well-run organic or biodynamic vineyard (i.e. not using synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, working the soil in the old-fashioned way etc.), you don’t see a build up of copper… or a desert effect…” as a living soil manages to diffuse these solutions. And something else missing from the NWF’s manifesto is sulphur itself, which is also a mainstay of organic viticulture in a ‘natural’ form.

At the end of the day, there were many exciting wines and wineries on tasting at the show, which was obviously the point. Due to lack of time, I stuck to sampling producers from the Languedoc & Roussillon, some I knew and some I didn’t, and wasn’t disappointed. But I also overheard several people who attended comment on certain wines, which were just plain ‘bad’ in the sense of very faulty, which, as Isabelle Legeron MW said - one of the event organisers along with importers Caves de Pyrene, Dynamic Vines, Aubert & Mascoli and Yapp Brothers - is always the danger. “Producing natural wine is like walking on a tight rope without a safety net. Great natural wine producers are brave men and women who dare to go against the grain of the modern wine world…”

Totally ‘natural’ wines, e.g. SO2 free, can easily include all the undesirable stuff too, the stuff that makes wine behave, look, smell or taste odd, unstable or ‘off’; such as wild spoilage yeasts, uninhibited oxidation or excessive acetic bacteria. You could argue whether it really matters if a natural product contains these things that come with nature; but, if left unchecked, it’s about the difference between a wine tasting good, complex, wholesome or even quirky and teetering over the edge into not nice. A common character I’ve noticed on ‘natural’ white wines is a kind of ‘real-cider’ aroma/flavour, which can be attractive if not over the top (i.e. verging on cider vinegar). But I don’t think it suits a red wine. Like balancing those sometimes complex, wild, smoky or almost leather/‘animal’ notes vs a red that smells of farm compost.

See winery A to Z for profiles and notes on these Languedoc & Roussillon estates sampled at the fair: Matassa, Enfants Sauvages, Vinci, Ferrer-Ribiere, Clos Perdus, Ledogar, Clos Fantine, Les Eminades, Clos Gravillas, d’Aupilhac, Sénat, Alain Chabanon, Daumas Gassac, Mas Bruguiere.


  1. All good points. As I implied, all the wines I tasted were good to very good although I haven't posted any notes on producers and wines yet. Perhaps, as the EU has again rejected to define the term 'organic wine', as opposed to the current long-winded 'wine made from organically grown grapes', why shouldn't these winemakers adopt the term 'natural wine' to define e.g. a low or no SO2 approach. But there still needs to be a broadly accepted, more detailed charter. "A little" SO2 is too vague. And I wish people would stop pretending, or assume people understand they know what they mean, that e.g. copper and sulphur based treatments aren't 'chemicals'. You have to clarify the difference between 'natural' and synthetic or systemic chemicals, otherwise most consumers think they mean no chemicals at all. There can't be many who use nothing in vineyard and winery.
    Certification may be a pain but it means a grower is commented and has to face the consequences if something disastrous happens, i.e. lose certification if

  2. ... I'll finish that properly! Certification may be a pain, but it means an organic or biodynamic grower is committed and has to face the consequences if something disastrous happens, i.e. lose certification if they had to resort to drastic treatments to save their crop. If a grower isn't and says I make 'natural wine' anyway, then it would just be down to their conscience to stick to their beliefs; but could do something drastic if they had to without losing any certification! A bit pedantic perhaps, but you see my point...



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Header image: Château de Flandry, Limoux, Languedoc. Background: Vineyard near Terrats in Les Aspres, Roussillon.