A myth can be defined as a popular viewing of a natural process. If grapes are consequently left to ferment without any additives to form wine, it can be seen as a myth. Contrary to such viewpoint, natural wines are regulated in South Africa to have an alcohol content of 4.5 to 16.5% A/V, without referring to any process or additives. The use of the term “natural” therefore has no limitations and can easily be used as a marketing gimmick.
The viewpoints of some Californian winemakers and a sommelier regarding natural winemaking lead to some interesting aspects. In general it is stated that the naturalness of wine increases with decreasing inputs by the winemaker. If the different processes during winemaking are analysed to evaluate whether they are really necessary, some of them, like for example sulphur additions, yeast additions, enzyme additions, finings, filtration, stabilisation and rackings can be eliminated. This does not necessarily imply better or inferior wine. The grape character must however, be retained and not be overpowered by excessive wood or other additives. Such wines can be seen as more pure.
The expectation of supporters of “natural” wine is the expression of the grape cultivar and the site where it is cultivated. Although it can be expected that the same cultivar will exhibit different characteristics on different sites, the difference must not be so much that the unique recognisable cultivar characteristics are not exhibited. The role of the winemaker is thus limited to the managing of the winemaking process, without disguising the origin and cultivar.
In order to realise the abovementioned expectations, the following actions are implemented:
The vineyard must preferably have already moved from the growth phase into the ripening phase. Basal leaves must already have started discolouring and seeds are ripe and brown. The acidity of the grapes, but not necessarily their total acid concentration, and pH are seen as the most important chemical indicators to decide when the grapes are harvested. The sugar concentration of the grapes is not critical and harvesting can be over a wide spectrum. No additives are added when the grapes are received. The grapes are stamped by feet or pressed, without destalking or crushing it. If the grapes are spoiled, a low dosage of sulphur dioxide, depending on the pH can be considered, but sound grapes should rather be used. Fermentation control is actually not applied and the alcoholic fermentation can last for months. Varying temperatures during fermentation are seen as associated with specific vintages and possibly contribute to the vintage characteristics. Practices like cold soaking during red winemaking are seen as artificial. If fermentation problems occur, pure culture inoculation can be used to resolve these problems. Post-fermentation procedures are also limited, because yeast lees contact can protect the wine. Rackings are only applied according to personal judgement. A low sulphur dioxide dosage is usually added prior to bottling.
From a scientific enological viewpoint, various wine problems can occur with abovementioned approach. To commence with low pH grapes, is therefore rather important. Supporters of the concept however, view moderate volatile acid concentrations and Brettanomyces character as part of the surprise results of such wines and do not make such wines with specific specifications in mind, but rather in expectation of the eventual wine (Cutler, 2016).
Winemakers can therefore be divided into two groups. The majority are those who make sustainable wine scientifically according to specific prescriptions and complying to measureable characteristics. These wines form the greatest part of the international wine market. Contrary is the group who only selects the grapes and nature makes the wine. The latter is therefore rather a philosophy of life than winemaking. This will obviously deliver unpredictable, interesting wines to consumers, who rather look for excitement than standard global wine portfolios. This however, does not imply that only such wines are “natural”.
Wine must be an expression of the cultivar and the environment.
Cutler, L., 2016. Industry roundtable: Natural winemaking. Wine Business Monthly, May 2016: 26 – 33.