There is a movement towards natural wine. And we’re benefiting
Nothing added, nothing taken away. That may be the mantra that drives purists in the “Vin Nature” movement, but for those dabbling in this brave (or as some would say, silly) new world of natural winemaking there is a whole lot of grey area in that statement.
As Tawse Estate winemaker Paul Pender told me only a few scant years ago: “Natural wine in its purest form is going out to the vineyard and eating a grape.” He vowed then that he would never make a natural wine even though he already had a jump on the trend with his organically and biodynamically-farmed vineyards and minimalist intervention winemaking techniques at his Niagara winery.
So — quelle surprise — Pender bottled his first 100 per cent natural wine last spring, evoking the term “never say never” because it always comes back to haunt you.
Natural wines have been getting “so much talk and hype,” says Pender. “We wanted to know if it’s possible to make a natural wine that shows the terroir of the vineyard and not just the flaws (such as oxidation, reduction, Brettanomyces, etc.)”
He admits it was “easy to say I’ll never do it” back in 2011. He’s still not sold on the concept of natural wines, calling most of the examples he’s tasted as being “oxidized” and unpleasant.
But he was willing to give it a shot and may even make a red “natural” wine from estate Cabernet Franc or Gamay depending on how the Chardonnay turns out during its evolution.
Pender’s natural wine was made from Chardonnay grapes harvested from the winery’s Quarry Road Vineyard and wild fermented and aged on the lees in new 500-litre Mercurey oak puncheons.
Pender bottled the wine directly from two oak barrels, going “old school” and drilling a hole in the bottom of the puncheons. And, because the wine has no sulphur added, which means no preservatives to protect it from premature aging, the 1,000 bottles of wine were sold with a warning to consumers to enjoy the wines in their youth (within six months of release while keeping them in a cool, dark cellar before drinking). The wine, at $36 a bottle, sold out immediately.
To taste the wine, which is ever evolving in the bottle and maturing rapidly, it has a rounded texture on the palate with flavours of pear and apple with a subtle creamy note. It lacks the freshness and finesse of its “non-natural” sibling from Quarry Road, because there is no sulphur added to the wine. It’s different, but different in a good way.
As is the Bella Wines Methode Ancestrale Rosé 2014, a Naramata Bench sparkling wine made by the chef-turned-winemaker Jay Drysdale. For this sparkling rosé, Drysdale wild ferments his organically grown single-vineyard Gamay, uses no sulphur, has zero dosage (no added sugar) and no secondary fermentation (it finishes its first fermentation in the bottle). It is essentially an early-pick Gamay with sparkle; an austere, pure, fresh, tangy and intense wine that is as true an expression of the vineyard as you can get.
“I’d rather give an honest wine than something that was doctored,” Drysdale says. “It’s so focused that I’m able to geek out just on that.”
Drysdale isn’t the first to go natural in BC. Others are jumping in with various recipes and styles. One getting a lot of attention is the Haywire winery in Summerland.
The Haywire Free Form is a blend of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc made with no commercial yeasts, enzymes or sulphur added, in other words, natural and unfiltered. The wine is pressed after full malolactic fermentation and eight months of skin contact. It is such a thought-provoking and multi-dimensional wine, with a nose of flinty minerality, lemon, grapefruit, tropical fruits and a complex array of citrus peel, mango and melon. It has lovely texture on the palate, with some weight, and bursts with flavour. It’s a pure geek wine that has generated a lot of discussion and encouraged others to explore the boundaries of traditional winemaking.
The latest “natural” wine to emerge from the shadows is from the organic-biodynamic vineyards of Niagara’s Southbrook winery.
The Southbrook “orange” wine, made with 100 per cent Vidal, shows a cloudy orange/copper-glowing hue in the glass. It’s certainly an aromatic wonder, all citrusy with lime zest and equal parts tropical and pear-apple fruit notes, but it takes some thought to nail the complex components on the nose. It gets more interesting in the mouth. There is texture, body and soul; there is something alive about this wine. The citrus fruit is substantive, pulpy, yet clean, with a lively, zesty and tangy freshness but also shows elegance and poise and makes you think and wonder, what is this? At the heart of this compelling wine is a vibrant core of racy acidity that props up all the components and energizes the palate.
It is “natural” in every sense of the word: Wild yeast fermented, no temperature control whatsoever, no wood influence and no sulphites, that’s zero sulphites, which is very important to understand and extremely risky to attempt.
Winemaker Ann Sperling says she has been waiting to make a wine like this “for a long time” and says it is only possible when “you have the structure in the vineyard” to support the wine.
It is that “structure” that Sperling is chasing with her interpretation of orange wine.
So, what is a natural wine?
The mere mention of “natural” wines strikes general discord among wine lovers. It’s been called many different things — naked, live, naturel, among them — and it has its critics and supporters on both sides of the fence.
Perhaps the most severe description comes from natural wine crusader Alice Feiring, author of Naked Wine, on Cory Cartwright’s Saignee blog. Here she describes in a letter to Cartwright what “Vin Nature” wines are not:
“Any wine that deploys aromatic yeasts, enzymes, bacteria, new oak, toasted oak, oak additives, tannins, gum arabic, reverse osmosis for concentration or alcohol removal, spinning cone, excessive sugar, mega-purple thermo-vinification, cold-soaking, anti-foaming agents, ultra-sulfuring and God knows what else, in any combination, is far from natural. To argue the point is being combative, or desperate.”
Feiring’s simple definition of what natural wines are, which leaves room for interpretation and debate, is this: “Nothing added, nothing taken away.”
I have always preferred a less severe definition like this one from Matt Mallo, who works at one of the finest wine shops in Boston, The Wine Bottega, which specializes in natural wines:
“Possibly the most controversial banner of our day, the term ‘natural wine’ really means nothing at all. There is no governing body or book of guidelines to making vin naturel. In general, when we at the shop speak of natural wine we are talking about producers that work the vineyards without chemicals, they sometimes use biodynamic principles (sometimes not).
“They cultivate healthy grapes, which they allow to ferment without the addition of commercial/industrial yeasts, colour stabilizers, acid adjustments, etc. Basically, natural wines are those that haven’t been messed around with. Where organic wines stop at the cellar door, natural wine merely begins. It’s about the simplest and most honest expression of the terroir through the medium that we call wine.”
The sticking point for most sustainable wineries, of course, is the use of sulphur, an essential component in the making of wine.
Sulphur dioxide (SO2) is used to inhibit or kill unwanted yeasts and bacteria, and to protect wine from oxidation. If you are commercial winery and want to be successful, this is a crucial step not to be missed. And not using even small amounts of sulphur is a risk most winemakers do not want to take (and fewer winery owners).