Unveiling the Craft: How Is Natural Wine Made?
In recent years, there has been a growing movement towards a more natural approach to winemaking. The term "natural wine" has been present among wine enthusiasts and experts, sparking curiosity and discussions about what truly defines this category of wine. Natural wine, often referred to as raw wine, represents a type of winemaking where there is minimal intervention from the winemaker, a deep connection to the land, and the natural aspects of the fruit in the spotlight.
At the very core of natural wine production lies a profound desire for transparency. It seeks to reveal the authentic character of the grapes, the terroir, and the winemaker's touch without the veil of excessive additives or manipulation. This often comes with the intention of giving the certainty to natural wine consumers that they are tasting the product of an unadulterated fruit and that it comes from a chemical-free environment.
In a world where commercial winemaking can often be shrouded in mystery and ambiguity, natural wine offers a refreshing glimpse into the art and science of winemaking in its purest form. In recent times, that search for transparency led to France releasing its natural wine certification, the “Vin Méthode Nature”.
This comprehensive journey through the world of natural wine will cover various aspects of its production. From grape growing and harvesting to fermentation, aging, and the role of the winemaker, we will uncover the secrets behind this increasingly popular wine style. Along the way, we will address common questions, such as "Do natural wines have sulfites?" and explore the sustainability and ethical considerations inherent to this craft.
Grape growing and harvesting
Natural wine begins in the vineyard, where the foundation for exceptional wine is laid. Many natural winemakers embrace organic and biodynamic farming practices, excluding the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. These methods prioritize soil health, biodiversity, and a harmonious relationship between the vineyard and its surroundings.
In the quest for quality, natural winemakers often also prefer to hand-pick their fruits over machine harvesting. Hand-picking allows for a more selective harvest, ensuring that only the ripest and healthiest grapes make their way into the winery. Machine harvesting is a technology that is prohibited in natural wine-making.
The use of technology is very limited in natural wines, as there can’t be uses of machines in any part of the process. Since there are no chemicals involved in the process, the use of drones that spray grapes with it is discarded, too, as well as the use of land scanners.
The role of terroir in natural wine
Terroir, the unique combination of soil, climate, and geography in a vineyard, is a fundamental concept in natural winemaking. Natural winemakers believe that terroir should shine through in the final product, and they work diligently to preserve its integrity. This connection to the land is a hallmark of the natural wine movement.
The art of fermentation
One of the key distinctions between natural wine and conventional wine is the use of native yeast for fermentation. Rather than relying on commercial yeast strains, natural winemakers allow the grapes' natural yeasts to initiate fermentation. This approach can result in a more complex and unique flavor profile.
The use of cultivated yeasts in a way provides traditional winemakers the certainty of being able to control the amount of sugar in their wine. In natural wines, the use of yeasts is restricted to only wild yeasts, even though the presence of any specific wild yeast can’t be predicted, the winemaker must study them in order to preserve them in their grapes and master their process.
Carbonic maceration is another technique often used in natural winemaking. It involves fermenting whole grape clusters in a carbon dioxide-rich environment, where the yeasts can’t start fermenting the grape since there’s no oxygen. The grapes start to burst and are then transferred to a container with oxygen and the yeasts are activated to start the fermentation process. This method enhances fruitiness and results in wines that are light, vibrant, and approachable in their youth.
Not all natural wines use this process, as it is exclusive to light red wines, so this is a case where the use of technology can be implemented in natural winemaking. But, most of the time, when it is decided to go with this process in natural wine, semi-carbonic maceration is used. This is mainly the same process, but without using carbon dioxide, which will be produced naturally later on.
Minimal intervention winemaking
The essence of natural winemaking lies in minimal intervention. This philosophy means allowing the wine to evolve naturally without heavy-handed techniques such as filtration or excessive sulfur additions. The result is a wine that showcases the grape’s true character and the winemaker's skill.
The use of sulfites
A common question among wine enthusiasts is, "Do natural wines have sulfites?" Sulfites are naturally occurring compounds present in all wines, but they are often added in larger quantities in conventional winemaking as preservatives. Contrary to some beliefs, natural wines do contain sulfites, albeit in lower amounts than their commercial counterparts.
Sulfites in natural wine
Sulfites must be present in all wines since they prevent oxidation and spoilage, so natural winemakers use sulfites sparingly and mainly at bottling to protect the wine from them. The levels are typically much lower than those found in conventional wines, making natural wine a viable option for those sensitive to sulfites.
The use of sulfites in natural wines must be somewhere between 20 ppm (parts per million), or lower. In traditional and commercial wines, this rate can be higher, they usually have around 350 ppm. 10 ppm or lower is usually considered a sulfite-free wine.
In the spirit of minimal intervention, some natural winemakers explore alternatives to sulfites, such as utilizing other natural preservatives or practicing hyper-hygienic winemaking techniques. These approaches, however, require a high level of skill and attention to detail. Even when implementing these techniques, sulfur dioxide is a compound naturally occurring in fermentation, so sulfites will always be present.
Aging and Bottling
Choosing the right vessels
Natural winemakers carefully select the vessels for aging their wines. Stainless steel, concrete, and clay all have unique characteristics that can influence the wine's flavor and texture. This choice plays a pivotal role in shaping the final product.
For example, stainless steel won’t intervene in the wine flavor, and it will prevent its contact with oxygen, they are easy to clean and are more durable than oak barrels. Concrete vessels allow oxygen to be in contact with the wine, which slows down the aging process but provides smoother tannins.
The use of minimal additives
Consistent with the philosophy of minimal intervention, natural winemakers avoid the use of additives like fining agents and stabilizers. This hands-off approach allows the wine to retain its natural, unfiltered charm.
The process involved in the making of natural wine excludes every non-natural material, and many of these wines even exclude filtration fining, enzymes that are accepted in traditional winemaking. This is done in order to preserve the natural aspect of the grape.
The bottling process of natural wine
Bottling natural wine requires precision to ensure that the wine remains stable and continues to evolve gracefully. Many natural wines are bottled unfiltered, which can result in some sediment at the bottom of the bottle. This is a testament to the wine's authenticity and commitment to minimal intervention.
The role of the winemaker
Hands-off winemaking philosophy
Natural winemakers often adopt a hands-off approach, intervening only when necessary to guide the wine's journey. This approach values the natural course of fermentation and aging, allowing the wine to express itself fully. This process must be studied and analyzed deeply by the winemaker in order to create the best product possible out of their own natural materials.
Natural Wine as an expression of the winemaker's creativity
Despite the minimalist approach, natural winemaking provides ample room for creativity. Winemakers can experiment with various techniques and styles to produce wines that reflect their unique vision and the character of their vineyards. The only condition they have is to maintain the flavor, fermentation, and harvest as naturally as possible by letting the grape evolve by itself mainly.
Natural winemaking is not without its challenges, including the risk of spoilage and a longer maturation period. In the end, these complications provide a wine that will be as close to the fruit as possible. Winemakers must possess a deep understanding of their craft to navigate these obstacles successfully.
Tasting natural wine
Identifying the main characteristics of natural wine
When tasting natural wine, you can expect a wide range of flavors and aromas, often reflecting the grape variety and terroir. Natural wines may exhibit earthy, fruity, floral, or funky notes, depending on the winemaker's choices and the unique conditions of the vintage. Smokiness and balsamic vinegar notes are part of the flavors that can be present.
You can rest assured knowing that natural wine can taste like any traditional wine. Depending on the type of fruit, the soil it grew in, and the wild yeasts, the wine can take a different structure and flavor. In some cases, you may even find sediment, fruit leftovers, and seeds, but this isn’t dangerous and it won’t ruin your experience unless you didn’t know about it.
Sustainability and Ethics
The impact of natural winemaking
Natural winemaking places a strong emphasis on sustainability. By avoiding synthetic chemicals and promoting biodiversity in the vineyard, natural winemakers contribute to healthier ecosystems and reduce their environmental footprint. The reduced and sometimes prohibited use of machines avoids releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Ethical considerations extend beyond environmental stewardship. Many natural winemakers prioritize fair labor practices, ensuring that vineyard workers are treated with respect and paid fairly for their labor.
Supporting local and small-scale winemakers
Choosing natural wines often means supporting local and small-scale winemakers who are deeply committed to their craft and the well-being of their communities. This connection adds an extra layer of authenticity to the experience of enjoying natural wine.
The unique charm of natural wine
Natural wine represents a return to simplicity and a celebration of the raw beauty of grapes and terroir. It offers a unique charm that captures the essence of a time-honored craft. As we unravel the intricate process of crafting natural wine, it becomes clear that this approach is more than a trend; it's a profound connection to the land and a testament to the winemaker's artistry.
To truly appreciate the magic of natural wine, consider exploring a bottle from a local, small-scale producer and savor the unfiltered, unadulterated essence of this captivating wine style.
We invite you to take your time to read more of our entries to better understand what’s behind your favorite drinks. As well, as we invite you to visit Caravaggi Naturwein Bistro in Berlin to taste the best natural wines of the city!