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Myth or Mystery: Natural wine?

Myth or Mystery: Natural wine?

A: This is a hotly debated topic amongst vignerons, buyers, sommeliers and all other wine professionals, and perhaps an even less understood topic amongst novices. In short, there isn’t a hard-and-fast legal definition for natural wine, but its essence is the creation of a wine that has nothing added to it and nothing removed. It is simply a drink made from fermented grape juice.


As is often the case with wine and with this concept in particular, it is easy to get philosophical, especially regarding the role of the farmer and winemaker in the creation of natural wine. People may use the words zero intervention or hands-off approach to describe the role of the vigneron in the winemaking process but, in truth, it is inevitable that the vigneron is going to have to intervene at some point - whether this be tilling the land, managing the canopy or picking the grapes. Unfortunately, grapes cannot turn themselves into wine. 


However, there are many interventions from winemakers that are definitely not allowed in the process of making natural wine. Somewhat confusingly, it is almost impossible to tell from looking at the labelling on a bottle of wine as to whether any of these interventions have taken place or not. There are useful indicators, such as wines being certified organic or biodynamic. Although, this is only a reference to what happens in the vineyard and not what then occurs in the cellar. Unlike most other consumable products, wine does not have the same expectation to list everything that goes into the making of it and most people don't realise the host of things that are often added to wines, especially mass produced wines. This can range from chemical farming with herbicides and pesticides and once in the cellar, it is perfectly legal to add acid (to give more freshness), water (if the wine is a bit too boozey), sugar (known as chaptilisation which gives more alcohol and body to the wine) and even sachets of tannin (to enhance the robust nature of the wine) and synthetic colouring.


A somewhat contentious point in the discussion of natural wine is the use of sulphur. Just to clarify, sulphur is a natural preservative that has been used in winemaking since Roman times and can be found in many other foods such as dried fruits, pickled vegetables and fruit juices. When it comes to wine, it is good to understand why it is used; it protects an inherently living and unstable product as it heads into a long and sometimes turbulent life - think travel and high temperatures.


A lot of the natural protection for a wine is stored in the seeds, skins and stems which means that red wines typically have more innate protection that white wines. This is mirrored in EU law as red wine is allowed a total of 150 mg/litre of sulphur, whilst for white wines 200 mg/litre is permitted. To put this into perspective, many die hard naturalistas follow the zero-zero idea of zero additions - zero sulphur. However, there is an unwritten rule that up to 30 mg/litre is still acceptable in the world of natural wine.


One of the most common questions we get asked is whether you can tell a wine is natural from simply looking at it? This is a common misconception; just because a wine is orange or perhaps cloudy, does not mean that it will be natural. Indeed, a wine can be both of these things and be made in exactly the same way as your cheap corner shop plonk. The waters are getting murkier as large, conventional wineries jump on the marketing bandwagon of l0w intervention and natural wines. Many of the celebrated natural wines of the world are neither cloudy, orange or funky looking at all. To look at them, you would never know. They are simply well-made wines that happen to be natural. 


In its essence, natural wine is about the search for authenticity and its multitude of intricacies from the vineyard to the cellar make it almost impossible to define. Aside from some cornerstone, such as no use of chemical farming and no additions of yeast (preferring wild or natural fermentation), the concept is fluid. Perhaps this is the beauty of the idea of natural wine? These wines can’t be boxed in and can mean many different things to many different people.

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