In the one corner, weighing in at about 1500 to 2000 producers globally, we have the organic wine movement, going head to head with the new kid on the block, the natural wine producers, of which France alone accounts for about 400 producers. So who do you back in this fight? And let us not forget the greatest contender…the conventional wine producers.
Natural wines are made with minimal technological and chemical intervention in the growing of the grapes and the making of the wine. In contrast, organic wines are defined as wines that were produced from organically grown grapes, but may be subjected to chemical and physical manipulation in the winemaking process. The argument that natural wine producers have, is that wines from conventional producers become uniform. This means that they lack specific regional or varietal character after the winemaker and all his processes and chemicals are done with them. So why are the organic producers so upset about the new natural wine movement?
Organic producers have spent the last 20 years building up the organic brand, putting effort and money into creating quality products, only to have their reputation, in their opinion, possibly tarnished by wines now labelled as ‘natural’. And how many consumers will know the exact difference between these two competitors? Natural wines usually have unusual flavour profiles and are prone to flaws and faults, including oxidation and spoilage. In addition, very little information is available on the ageing potential of these wines. To add to this, organic wine production is subject to country-specific regulation, whereas no such system exists for natural wine…not yet anyway.
So the natural wine philosophy is: ‘nothing added or taken away from the grapes, must or wine’.
Is this the future of winemaking? Is this just a passing fad? Does it have a future? Or is it a real contender?
Cue Eye of The Tiger music…
Elda Lerm is a technical consultant for Oenobrands
“I am a winemaker. Not a shepherd or a steward.” Sine Qua Non founder Manfred Krankel spoke those words during the third day of Wine Spectator‘s New World Wine Experience, and I started clapping. Then I realized I was the only person clapping in a room packed with 800 people and sheepishly stopped. I shouldn’t have.
The Wine Experience is Wine Spectator‘s annual gathering of the best winemakers in the world for three days of tasting, talking and having fun. The whole weekend provides a chance to discover some great terroirs—you can taste wines from more than 200 wineries, often from regions you’ve never tried—and chat with the people behind the wines. The winemaker or owner is often the one pouring. It’s a chance to learn from some of the best.
But I often feel like people who work in wine (or write about it) like to pretend that winemakers don’t actually matter.
It’s the time of year after the southern hemisphere harvest when the unfortunate with stuck fermentations seek advice. There are various causes of stuck fermentations with “natural” fermentations being one of the more common ones. Working for a commercial wine yeast producer I am often viewed as not being supportive of this practice. This is not entirely true. I have tasted some exquisite wines produced via spontaneous fermentations. The times that I am critical of the practice it is merely because I am familiar with the risks involved with it. At the end of each harvest I have to help various winemakers to re-inoculate their stuck “naturally fermented” wines with commercial yeast. So over time I have come up with a few guidelines as to how to somewhat make your natural ferments more “secure.” Unfortunately success can never be guaranteed.
Karien’s advice on more secure natural ferments:
1. Do not attempt natural fermentation when the initial grape sugar is above 24°Brix. This works for some people – they are the exception to the rule. Most naturally occurring wine yeasts are not very alcohol tolerant.
2. Add some complex yeast nutrients containing inorganic nitrogen (DAP) at the start of fermentation as to increase biomass formation. One of the main differences between inoculating with commercial yeast and letting nature takes it course is the size of the yeast population starting the fermentation. You need a critical mass to finish a fermentation.
3. Do not stress the yeast by fermenting at extreme fermentation temperatures, i.e. below 17°C or above 25°C. Your specific mix might not be cold tolerant or very alcohol tolerant – the higher the fermentation temperature, the higher the alcohol toxicity.
4. Add yeast cell walls to adsorb medium chain fatty acids produced by stressing yeasts, thereby making the environment less toxic.
5. If you ferment only some tanks natural and others using commercial yeasts, make sure that the commercial yeasts you use are very strong/alcohol tolerant fermenters. That way you can add that lees (once it has completed fermentation) to the natural tanks in case you develop sluggish fermentations.
This advice is not based on my experience of conducting natural ferments, seeing that I have never done any. It is based on my technical knowledge of what yeasts can and cannot do. Use it, don’t use it. Oh, that reminds me, we once did a yeast trial in our lab (at the yeast factory) and the control – with no added yeast – fermented as fast as the experiments. Yeah….so much for that theory…
This is a favourite claim of the so-called “natural” or “non-interventionist” winemaking movement. One of the reasons why they claim it is better to do natural fermentation instead of using commercial yeasts is that commercial yeasts with their “predictable aromatic profiles” can make, say Sauvignon blancs from Europe, taste like New Zealand Sauvignon blancs. Or worse even, it can make Chenin blanc and Ugni blanc taste like Sauvignon blanc. I have personally been in a tasting with a group of oenologists representing most of the wine countries in the world where the Germans presented a Muller-Thurgau. Everyone, including the French (much to their despair) thought it was a Sauvignon blanc. I have also once given a South African Colombard to a group of French winemakers to taste and they also believed it to be a Sauvignon blanc.
So how does this happen and is it “wrong?” The “naturalists” feel it is wrong. Winery sales figures show it is “right.” Consumers like these aromas. Wines around the world can taste similar because we make wine mostly from one specie – Vitis vinifera. Then we also use yeast which originates from mainly one specie – Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Each grape variety is not equipped with a unique set of flavour active compounds. Only the combination is unique. This combination will differ between grape varieties as well as within the same grape variety in different vineyard blocks and vintages. The main aromatic compounds found in grapes are monoterpenes, C13 – norisoprenoid derivatives, pyrazines, thiols and certain amino acids that can be converted to aromatic higher alcohols and esters. The latter two groups are non-aromatic in grapes and converted by the fermenting yeast to a flavour active form. In some cases pyrazines found in Sauvignon blanc are seen as a positive. When present in reds such as Cabernet and Merlot it is seen as a negative.
Thiols smell like guava, passion fruit, grapefruit, black currant and gooseberry. Sauvignon blanc happens to have the highest thiol precursor concentration in the grapes. Wine yeasts convert these precursors to their flavour active forms and differ in their efficacy to do so. Many other white grape varieties contain these thiols but in lower concentrations. So unless you use yeasts that are very good in expressing these aromas and combine it with certain winemaking practices, these aromas will go unnoticed – as they did for many years. However, winemakers around the world are upping their game – competition is tough. They are using modern technologies and as a result they are tapping into these flavour profiles of their grapes that they did not know exist. As a result they can sell their wine in a bottle and not a box. Is this wrong?
Yes yes stone me, I work for a wine ingredients company and I have a commercial interested in winemakers using yeast. However, my clients who’s Chenins, Colombards, Ugni blancs, Muller-Thurgaus and Verdelhos that have “Sauvignon-like” aromas are certainly not complaining about their sales. If you have very good quality grapes then you have many other flavour active compounds that can “sell” your wine for you and you don’t necessarily have to make such an effort to express the thiols. When you have less than top quality grapes, then optimising what you have is a good idea and if that means optimising thiol expression then so be it.
Just for the record – contrary to popular belief I do support natural / un-inoculated fermentations when conditions are right for it. See my earlier blogpost: Natural vs. inoculated fermentations.