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Everything you’ve always wanted to know about natural wine (but were afraid to ask)

Eating & Drinking
Long read

Georgina Wilson-Powell

1 March 2017

Natural wine sometimes doesn’t help itself. There's natural, organic and biodynamic for a start. Plus the cloudy appearance and lack of knowing what to look for doesn’t always get us off on the right foot. But put the Oyster Bay down a minute. Master of Wine Isabelle Legeron (who’s also the organiser of the Raw Wine Fair) fills us in on why natural wine should be a natural choice.

Why should we care about natural wines?

Bog-standard wine is about as good for you as eating a battery chicken. We’ve become used to watching what food we put in our mouths, we question the traceability of water, coffee, tea, gin and whisky but when it comes to wine, most of us assume nice vineyards make non-nasty wine.

“Even those who are big foodies, who watch what they eat, don’t actually think about what is in their wine glass. The wine industry is full of the same big brand issues that exist in the rest of the food world, it’s just that most people have never thought about it”, says Legeron, a Master of Wine, author of Natural Wine: an introduction to organic & biodynamic wines made naturally and the creator of RAW WINE, which is back in London in March for its tenth edition worldwide.

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What’s the difference between natural, biodynamic and organic wine?

“The most important thing to remember is that winemaking is a two-stage process: there’s the growing of grapes and then the making of wine,” says Legeron. “Organic and biodynamic wines are more concerned with the farming than with the cellar but both define the parameters of grape-growing. Organic is primarily concerned with finding solutions to problems that eschew the use of synthetic chemical products or pesticides. Biodynamics goes a step further as it is a holistic approach. It aims to build the resilience of the plant and its environment so that the problems don’t arise in the first place. (Organics and biodynamics done properly are actually pretty much the same thing - they are both about nurturing the living). In terms of the vineyard, natural wines can come from both biodynamic and organic grapes, which is why some natural wines are also technically organic or biodynamic wines.

Where things can get complicated is in the cellar. There are no easy answers as organic and biodynamic winemaking regulations are different in different countries - in some places, for example, you can add yeast to start the fermentation process, in others you can’t. As a rule of thumb though, organic is stricter than conventional wine (in terms of additives and processing aids that are permitted); biodynamic tends to be stricter still and natural is the strictest of all, as for a wine to be truly natural it has to be nothing added, nothing removed.”

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“Makers of low-intervention wine tend to force things less - they let aromas develop naturally over time”

How does natural wine taste compared to conventional wine?

“Some can seem barely different at all while others can be quite challenging, This is especially true for white wines, particularly if you are a drinker of crisp Sauvignon Blanc, for example," explains Legeron. "A natural equivalent would be much riper and fuller in texture and would show honeyed, acacia-type aromas rather than tart gooseberry. This is in large part down to the growing and winemaking choices and because of the absence of sulphites.

“Also, makers of low-intervention wine tend to force things less - they let aromas develop naturally over time - so you tend to find wines that are a lot less oaked, and often a lot lower in alcohol. And since natural wines are usually unfiltered and unfined, the resulting wine can sometimes be cloudy, which certainly is no bad thing, just think about how we’ve got used to cloudy apple juice being a sign of quality!"

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“Forget everything you know about wine and relearn it with natural wine”

So, what's in conventional wine that's bad for you?

“Dozens of winemaking additives, processing aids and manipulations are permitted by law. Anti-foaming agents (which are added to wine vats so that the liquid can be pumped faster), for example, are regularly used and in some countries even the use of hydrogen peroxide is legal!" says Legeron.

"Even things like sulphites that are added in substantial quantities to most commercially-produced wines today are really not great for your health. What’s more, the products have very little traceability and aren’t regulated so in the end even the final quality of the additives used can be dubious.”

When did wine become unnatural?

Wine has been made for around 8,000 years and most people assume very quaintly very little has changed. Up until 100 or even 50 years ago that might have been the case, but it certainly isn’t now.

“We have shaped the way wine tastes in the last 40 years with temperature control, aromatic yeast and sulphites and a bunch of other stuff so that 90% of what you taste today is a product that has been worked up for a modern palette,” explains Legeron. “Forget everything you know about wine and relearn it with natural wine.”

Essentially when you drink wine without sulphites you digest the alcohol almost as a food, so the impact is a lot less on your body

And then there’s the environmental cost of making wine. How do natural wines help their environment?

Vines don’t need water to survive, like olive trees and wheat they can be dry farmed. But often they’re not.

“It is frankly outrageous that some producers in drought-ravaged California, for example, pump gallons of water out of the ground to irrigate newly planted vineyards in places where the water table is dropping. And for what? For the sake of the bottom line since given time and patience vines adapt," says Legeron.

"Vines can absolutely thrive with dry-farming. As one producer told me, 'They’re like the cockroaches of the plant world and isn’t that wonderful? Natural wine can only be born of the living as you need a healthy, biodiverse microflora in the vineyard to help produce healthy grapes and a healthy fermentation, so clean, pesticide-free farming and natural wine are obligatory bedfellows.”

Is it true that organic or natural wine can leave less of a hangover?

“Yes that’s true,” says Legeron. “It’s to do with the mixing of the alcohol and sulphites in your body and the way your body deals with sulphites. Essentially when you drink it without sulphites you digest the alcohol almost as a food, so the impact is a lot less on your body."

What’s the Raw Wine Fair?

The Raw Wine Fair is at The Store Studios on The Strand on 12 and 13 March. Legeron has built up the fair up over the last six years, and it now operates in Berlin and New York as well as London.

“We’re the only fair in the world to champion full disclosure," explains Legeron. “Which means that all producers attending have to declare exactly how their wines have been made. A summary is included in the fair guide which we give out on the day, while the full listing is available on the website. Admittedly, given our strict Charter of Quality all the wines featured are far, far more low-intervention than any conventional bottles you might drink anyway, but full disclosure is important and we also include listings in the guide of the most natural in order to really help drinkers get under the skin of this extraordinary world”.

What’s a good wine to start with?

“I think it’s reassuring to start with a region you know – Burgundy for example,” explains Legeron. “When I don’t know anything, I look at the people, very often the wine has a resonance with the people who make it. Look for the people who smile and are welcoming. You can only make raw wine for the right reason, it’s too hard otherwise.”