Probably the best words ever written on natural wine from the author Isabelle Legeron MW (Natural Wine: an introduction to organic and biodynamic wines made naturally).
Read it carefully!
A loose definition
“The most excellent wine is one which has given pleasure by its own natural qualities, nothing must be mixed with it which might obscure its natural taste” (Columella)
Given that the microbiological life of the vineyard is what enables both successful fermentations in the cellar and the creation of wine that is able to survive without a technological crutch, sustaining a healthy habitat in the vineyard for these microbes is fundamental for the natural wine grower. This microbiological life follows the grapes into the cellar, transforms the juice and even makes its way into the final wine in the bottle. Natural wine is therefore, literally, living wine from living soil.
In its truest form, it is wine that protects the microcosm of life in the bottle in its entirety, keeping it intact so that it remains stable and balanced. However, production is not a question of black and white. As with everything in life, problems arise and commercial realities inevitably inform choices. Natural wine growers can (and do) lose all. Henri Milan, for example, whose celebrated sans soufre cuvées are drunk around the world, lost nearly his entire 2000 vintage when bottles and vats started to referment. Minor interventions, therefore, (such as the restrained use of SO2 at bottling for instance) can provide both a sense of security for the grower and a readjustment of the microbial life, if aberrations threatening quality begin to occur, while also minimally impacting the wine. What’s more, while producing wines that are ‘nothing added-nothing removed’ takes enormous skill, awareness and sensitivity, it isn’t always, every natural grower’s intention. I, for one, added 20 mg/L of sulphites to the first wine I created because I was too scared to not, and while it is definitely not as natural as Le Blanc from Le Casot des Mailloles, for example, it is certainly more natural than a standard organic example with 150 mg/L of added sulphites and industrial yeasts.
Natural wine is a continuum, like ripples on a pond. At the epicentre of these ripples, are growers who produce wines absolutely naturally – nothing added and nothing removed. As you move away from this centre, the additions and manipulations begin, making the wine less and less natural, the further out you go. Eventually, the ripples disappear entirely, blending into the waters of the rest of the pond. At this point the term ‘natural wine’ no longer applies. You have moved into the realm of the conventional.
While no legal definitions of natural wine currently exist, various official-ish ones do, set by groups of growers in various countries, including France, Italy and Spain. These self-regulated charters of quality are far stricter than regulations imposed by official organic or biodynamic certification bodies. All require a minimum of organic farming in the vineyard but prohibit the use of any additives, processing aids or heavy manipulation equipment in the cellar, with the exception of gross filtration, which most tolerate and sulfites, which varies according to association. The French S.A.I.N.S., for example, is the strictest of all, not allowing additives whatsoever but tolerating gross filtration. For the AVN, total levels of sulfites are set at 30 mg/l for red and sparkling wines while totals for whites are 40 mg/l (regardless of residual sugar). While for Italian-based VinNatur a blanket total maximum sulfite level of 50 mg/l applies across the board. Level 3 of the Renaissance des Appellations is also very strict on all aspects of additives and processing used but remains vague on permissible total sulfite levels. For the purpose of the Pantry, all wines featured comply with VinNatur’s totals, in order to be able to include a wide range of examples, but in any case, total levels are included so you can make up your own mind.
For me personally, having tasted thousands of examples over the years, I have become less and less tolerant to sulfites. Consequently, the majority of wines I drink, are produced without any sulfites, or at max contain 20 or 30 mg/l total. They are usually neither fined nor filtered.
But perhaps all this is splitting hairs. If you look at the entirety of wine production, and you begin by removing all non-organic vineyards, followed by any others that use added yeast, then those who use enzymes, sterile filtration, and so on, you eventually end up with a very small, precious core of people. Yes, there are differences between a grower who doesn’t add anything at all and one who adds 20 mg/l of sulfites at bottling, but, using the ripple analogy once again, while being clearly distinguishable, they are also very close to one another at the centre of the ripples.
All in all true natural wine accounts for a very small proportion of the wine world. And it is this tiny group that this book celebrates. Not the one-off, lucky cuvée by the likes of me, but the growers who year in, year out produce exceptional natural wine.
For these growers, what they do goes well beyond the wine itself, it is also a philosophy, a way of life, which undoubtedly contributes to its profound appeal to people across the globe. In our disconnected world that salutes the money King, these are people who chose otherwise and who did so well before it became popular. They chose out of conviction, a love of the land and a desire to nurture the most fundamental force of all – life. Be it human, animal, plant, or other, natural growers are primarily, as Jean-François Chêne, a natural producer in the Loire, puts it, about “respecting the living above all else”.