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Food food General

Wine unplugged

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by: Annette Lavrijsen
wine unplugged

The age of the Bordeaux drinking wine snob is dead, the wines du moment are unfiltered, untamed and a reflection of their terroir. Read on for an introduction to natural wine. 
If you are into wine, you’ve probably heard about ‘vins nature’ or ‘natural wine’, the unplugged version of wine as we know it. Whereas conventional wine may use up to 60 different additives (!) to improve the aroma, taste and drinkability, natural wines use none. It is wine made from grapes and only grapes.

The revival of natural wine

Some people consider natural wine as how wine was once meant to be. Before the industrial revolution all wines were natural wines. About 30 years ago French wine maker Marcel Lapierre took over the family domaine from his father in the Beaujolais and noticed a big difference in the traditional methods of winemaking within his family compared to what students were taught at the academy. Inspired by Jules Chauvet – a viticultural prophet who in the 1950’s, upon the rise of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, first spoke out for ‘natural wine’, harkening back to the traditional methods of the Beaujolais – Lapierre spearheaded the so-called ‘Gang of Four’, a group of four winemakers that called for a return to the old practices of viticulture and vinification: old vines in a healthy vineyard, not using synthetic herbicides or pesticides, harvesting late and by hand, rigorously sorting to keep only the healthiest grapes, adding none or minimal doses of sulphur dioxide, and no adding of sugars or acids at all.

The methods Lapierre and his gang used were as revolutionary as they were traditional. What began with just this handful of French winemakers is now a global movement, having spread to Italy, Spain and, more recently, South Africa, New Zealand, the United States and even Japan – the latter being one of the biggest markets for natural wine. When local consumption of French natural wine peaked in 2000, Japan was reportedly consuming 75 percent of the total volume produced. If it weren’t for the Japanese demand many small French wineries would not have survived. In Tokyo’s trendiest neighbourhoods natural wine bars were mushrooming – followed by their hipster counterparts in Europe and the USA.

Honest and unspoiled

Driving forces behind the European success were avant-garde restaurant Noma in Copenhagen and former Hibiscus in London, whose sommeliers were amongst the first to give natural wines a leading role in their funky wine-and-food pairings. Elaborating on his choice not to include the grand lady of the wine world on their menu, Pontus Elofsson, Noma’s former wine director, said: ‘Bordeaux is probably the biggest chemical factory in Europe. They use lots of chemicals in the vineyards and in the cellars, and to do that is to move away from reflecting terroir in an honest, unspoiled way.’

Natural wine is now making waves with a new generation of, mostly young, drinkers who are not prejudiced and can’t be bothered with the big traditional names; they rather drink a pleasurable, unpretentious wine and that, opposed to any mass-produced bottle, has been produced in harmony with nature – chemical-free and with a flavour imparted by the natural environment in which it is produced, including soil, climate and topography. Wines in which the purity of the grape is preserved.

No interventions

This all may sound simple, yet is anything but. Wine is considered “natural” when it is produced with minimal intervention – nothing added, nothing removed. No chemicals or artificial fertilizers are used on the vines, the grapes are handpicked, there is no manipulation of flavour, no filtering and no colour agents used in the winemaking process. Natural wine extremists believe you should add absolutely nothing at all, yet more ‘liberal’ winemakers believe a tiny bit of sulphite is sometimes needed to make the wine more drinkable; this makes their wines, strictly speaking, not natural. Confusing, isn’t it?

The stipulations needed to be certified as ‘organic’ say that no chemicals can be used to grow the grapes, but chemical and technological manipulations are allowed during the winemaking process. Biodynamic winemakers take it even a step further, incorporating lunar cycles, astrological influences and ideas about a vineyard as an ecosystem. The grapes are grown following the farming principles of Rudolf Steiner, after which the winemaker may still decide to manipulate the fermentation.

2 hands holding blue grapes

Image by: Maja Petric

This means that both organic and biodynamic wine can be produced naturally, but don’t have to be. A warning is in place here: today a lot of producers are using the organic or biodynamic stamp as a quality stamp, yet there are a lot of shitty organic and biodynamic wines. The label ‘organic’ for a supermarket wine in Europe simply means that a few pesticides have not been used, but the wine may still be (and is often) produced commercially and on a large scale.

Passionate winemakers

The absence of an official certification and rules for natural wines means that the makers need to rely on their gut feeling, knowledge of the land and years of dedication. Whoever wants to fully control the outcome, better choose a different job. In her book Natural Wine: an introduction to organic and biodynamic wines made naturally Isabelle Legeron, former sommelier at Hibiscus, writes: ‘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.’

Let’s drink!

Don’t let yourself be put off by the cloudiness of an unfiltered wine. According to insiders it’s these murky movements at the bottom that illustrate each bottle of natural wine is a living and breathing thing. Neither expect one of those full-bodied, fruity wines that carry the promise of a hangover. The absence of sulphites drastically diminishes your chances of a headache in the morning, and the taste is nothing like conventional wine. Most natural wines have an earthy flavour, are more yeasty than fruity and have a high acidity, which you may like or not. This earthiness pairs well with simple flavours and pure ingredients such as fish and grilled or fermented vegetables. Look for a local wine bar or restaurant serving natural wines and ask the sommelier to advise and surprise you.

One thing is for sure: natural wines are as natural as it gets, and a tasty and earth-friendly choice for anyone who is up for something funky.

Cover image by: Nacho Dominguez

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