This page explains why we have selected small, family winemakers who produce delicious natural wine.
We represent a number of small, interesting winemakers who are all passionate about their region, their locality, their wines and their terroir. Most tend their vineyards either organically or biodynamically. Many of our suppliers make their wines ‘naturally’ using no commercial yeasts or enzymes or other additives.
We have used three terms here that might be unfamiliar to some: terroir, biodynamic and ‘natural wine’. We will give our understanding of these terms and why we seek out producers who implement the practices. We will also describe organic and ‘minimal intervention’ practices so you can see where they fit in.
Obviously we think this term is important as we have named our wine importing business after it. The term means different things to different people, but essentially terroir is a term the French apply to those natural factors making the grapes behave and taste as they do in that place at that time.
A very important contributor to terroir are the rocks and the soil that is derived from them. Gamay grapes grown on granite soils produce wine that is different in taste, density and structure to wine made from Gamay grown on clay soils. Similarly Carignan seems to come to life when grown in ancient schist soils such as those found in the Saint Chinian area of the Languedoc.
Most Burgundy lovers know that the Chardonnay produced around Beaune produces wines that are quite different to the steely, minerally Chablis wines made further north but from the same grape. Many point to the influence of the prevalent Kimmeridgean limestone layer that sweeps through Chablis and emerges again on the borders of Sancerre.
So soil and rocks are important contributors to the flavour and structure of wine but they are not the only contributors to ‘terroir’. Two vineyards with very similar soil may slope towards or away from the sun, one might be steep and one might be flat, one may be sheltered and one might be exposed to heavy wines.
Many factors can contribute to terroir or what makes a place good to grow grapes. This even extends to the worms, fungi and bacteria that inhabit an area. Recent research has shown that yeast colonies vary dramatically from one side of a valley to the opposite side and one end of the valley to the other. Yeast has a strong influence on the nature of the wine if the winemaker is using the natural yeasts.
We were once standing with a French winemaker in the middle of an important vineyard where many winemakers maintain small plots. During the discussion he pointed to two rows of vines not 20 metres from his own and said that he had been offered these two rows but he was not going to buy them because ‘it was not a good place’!
If you want to learn more about the concept of terroir then we can recommend the detailed book about wine terroir in France by James E Wilson called, as you might expect, Terroir!
The term organic viticulture refers to the organic treatment of the vines in the vineyard. No chemicals or poisons can be sprayed on the vines to combat disease or attacks from predators. No artificial fertilisers can be spread on the vineyard to promote or enhance the growth of the grapes.
There are many organisations throughout the world that also certify that growers are organic. One of the most active is Demeter.
Minimal intervention viticulture
Some growers are in the process of converting to organic or biodynamic and are learning how to develop a natural ecosystem that protects the vines from disease and other attacks.
They therefore adopt many of the practices of organic agriculture without necessarily committing to 100% chemical free treatment of the vines.
A more rigorous, and ultimately more successful and rewarding, approach to management of the vineyard is the application of the biodynamic processes espoused in the 1920s by polymath Rudolph Steiner – the same person who established new methods for teaching children through the Steiner schools.
Some in the industry are passionate believers in biodynamics others deride it as lacking a scientific basis and being more of a belief system than an approach to agriculture. They point to burying manure in cow horns to create a starter for biodynamic sprays and tending the vines at midnight during certain phases of the moon as being examples of the edginess of this approach.
All we can do is look at the results. When we wander through the d’Meure vineyard in southern Tasmania we see a vineyard that is alive! There are worms and spiders and ladybirds and insects and crickets all keeping an eye on each other. We see wasps captured in spiders nests before they can damage the grapes. Above all we see incredibly healthy grapes. The same, almost magical experience can be had by climbing the slopes of Philippe Gimel’s vineyard near Le Barroux in Vaucluse, France where there is an incredible divergence of both flora and fauna – and healthy, flavoursome grapes. On the other side of France, Thierry Michon has turned marginal land near the Atlantic shores into a large (37 hectare) productive vineyard where delicious wines are produced under his Domaine Saint Nicolas.
The terms organic and biodynamic refer to the way in which the grapes are grown. However, as more became known about the winemaking process people began to ask questions about what was being put into the wine and what was being taken out of it.
In the 1970s and 1980s wine became captured by a convergence of companies pushing technological solutions to problems in agriculture and companies who manufactured artificial fertilisers and commercial pesticides and fungicides marketed under the benign term of ‘agricultural inputs’.
So not only were the vines ‘treated’ with pesticides and herbicides and fungicides, it became popular to add manufactured yeasts, commercial enzymes (many of which are genetically modified), commercial acids and many other agents designed to balance the shortcomings of the vineyard and to produce a consistency of colour, flavour and structure from one year to the next.
And it was not only what was added, it was also what was taken out. Filtering became the norm. It became de riguer to strip the wine of any and all impurities – and, of course, much of the flavour. It also became popular to fine the wine using either egg whites or commercial preparations designed to do the same job.
After thousands of years of using oxygen to enhance the flavour of wine, suddenly this too became anathema to winemakers. Stainless steel tanks became a preferred medium for fermenting white wines and many red wines as they didn’t ‘breath’ and hence kept the nasty oxygen at bay.
Of course, some oxygen is necessary so technology was developed to control it through micro-oxygenation. Then reverse osmosis machines took their place alongside other equipment to smooth out fluctuations in the wine from one year to the next.
The rise of winemaking technology and winemaking ‘inputs’ was also accompanied by the rising influence of The Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator in the United States. These two publications embedded the 100 point scoring system and favoured full bodied, deeply-coloured, high-alcohol wines that had been raised in new oak. Consumers started to use scores in the 90s as their benchmark for purchasing. A 91 point wine was clearly ‘better’ than an 89 point wine.
As a consequence wine makers began to produce extracted wines. We remember the experience of reading Wine Spectator and seeing the massive scores given to Burgundian winemaker Denis Mortet. We arranged a visit to his vineyard to try these supposed ethereal wines. Our tasting was an extreme disappointment. Instead of soft, elegant wines we were assaulted with big, brutish, over-extracted, over-oaked monsters that gave no pleasure at all.
And now to natural wines. There is almost universal agreement about what the term means although there is little official sanction of the name.
Of course, one of the reasons why we like natural wines so much is that they are alive! They have a freshness and a liveliness that is appealing and delicious. If it wasn’t for this basic fact then all this discussion would be for nought.
When we linger over a Gramenon red from the Rhone or a de Moor Chablis or a Fanny Sabre Bourgogne or a Samuel Boulay from the Ardeche or one of our delightful reds or whites from a bevy of Loire Valley winemakers including the magical wines of Jean-Pierre Robinot, there is absolutely no doubt that there is something deep going on with natural wines.
In fact one common comment among those who have embraced natural wines is that they find wines made using conventional methods and with commercial yeasts to be dead!
Here are our guidelines for judging whether a wine is natural.
- A wine cannot be called natural if the vines have not been tended organically or biodynamically.
- A wine cannot be called natural if it has been mechanically harvested.
- Vines should not be irrigated to encourage roots to plunge deeply into the soil.
- Commercial yeasts must not be used to ferment the wine, only the native yeasts found on the fruit and in the winery.
- Enzymes must not be added during the wine making process.
- Sulphites (at low levels) may be used when bottling a natural wine in order to preserve it.
- Chapitalisation (adding sugar) should never be used in making a natural wine.
- As a general rule a natural wine should not be fined as this process will also remove flavour from the wine and, in some cases, animal products are added thus rendering the wines as unsuitable for vegans and vegetarians.
- A natural wine should not be filtered or only very lightly filtered. The best solution is to leave the wine to settle.
- New wood should be used with discretion or not at all.
We get the feeling that consumers in the last decade have become bored with the predictability of new world wines and also deep down they realise that the massive over-extracted red wines with sweet oak and alcohol flavours are a phase that they are over!