It is a question worth asking, given today’s debate about “natural” winemaking practices. The message is confusing leaving consumers baffled. The answer requires a review of 7,000 years of wine-making history. The first fermentation, for example, was more likely the result of serendipity rather than design. Spontaneously, damaged grapes fermented in harvesting pots and mystified farmers tasted wine for the first time.
Those same farmers enjoyed the taste of their creativity, and its effects. They became fascinated by the difference between fermented grape juice and unfermented fruit. They went on to investigate, making empirical observations. They sought to harness natural events and biochemical reactions in repeat “experiments” which could describe early “vintages”, today.
The foundations of science and technology – and biotechnology, in particular – were therefore established and since then, scientific knowledge has grown at an exponential rate. There have been breakthroughs in chemistry and biology, transforming our understanding of the natural world as we know and understand it – or believe that we do.
Yet, throughout history wine has retained a mythic aura, cloaked in mystique. Maybe that is why Louis Pasteur said: “A bottle of wine contains more philosophies than all the books in the world.”
But winemaking is not a matter of chance or magic. Left entirely to nature, the result is variable, unreliable and can be undrinkable. The completely natural result of fermenting grapes is vinegar.
So how is wine made? It is created through a process of fermentation using the right yeast, nourished by the right nutrients. Louis Pasteur was the first to discover this in the late 1800′s. Before his discovery, no one knew that yeast played a role in the production of alcohol: there had been little progress since the time of the ancients. Winemakers knew that fermentation happened spontaneously after fruit was crushed but the results were variable: sometimes the result was wine, sometimes it was vinegar.
Wine is not, therefore, a “natural” product – not in the form we know it. Every decision the winemaker makes (or fails to make) affects style and quality. Wine does not make itself. And never before has there been so much opportunity for the winemaker to direct viticulture and vinification to shape wine according to consumer preferences.
But the pressure is on. There is heated argument as to whether today’s wine is better – due to the contribution of scientific knowledge, technology and research – or whether so-called “natural” wine is better. There is a new-found nostalgia for the wine of yesteryear made with a minimalist approach.
Proponents of “natural” wine reject, for example, “interventionist” practices that prevent oxidation and microbial spoilage. They oppose the use of ingredients to correct balance, or the use of enzymes to aid fermentation. They reject the application of cultured yeasts to avoid the risk of stuck ferments and off-flavors, and they oppose filtering and fining to remove potential impurities. These are the marks of “industrial” products, they say, not “natural” wine.
On the other hand, wine researchers are frustrated by such arguments, waiting to uncork the next-generation of technical innovation. As they have done through history, wine’s innovators are keen to assist in the crafting of unique, stand-out wines that meet ever-shifting consumer expectations while underpinning profitability and sustainability.
The truth is that winemaking is both art and science and always has been. The supposed dichotomy between “natural” and “unnatural” wine is a false one.
Professor Sakkie Pretorius is the Managing Director of the Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI).
This article first appeared in the July 2011 edition of The Adelaide Review.
An experimental batch of Petit Verdot turned out to be a pioneering piece of art for Stellenzicht Winemaker, Guy Webber, who has recently introduced Stellenzicht’s first ‘no added sulphur’ wines – a Petit Verdot 2008 and Chardonnay 2009.
To classify as a low sulphite wine, the free SO2 count should not exceed ten parts per million – which can prove to be quite a challenge, since wine yeasts naturally produce sulphur during fermentation. Guy has been experimenting with low sulphur wines for several vintages and explains that these wines are kept in the bottle for six to nine months before they are released – “just to make sure that they’ve made it.”
The Petit Verdot boasts with a particularly interesting story. The wine spent a year on the skins, which is unheard of in conventional winemaking. “Petit Verdot is known for its intense colour and impressive tannin structure, but this wine has turned out to be surprisingly soft and velvety, “ explains Guy.
Sulphur acts as an anti-oxidant in wine, a role that is also fulfilled by tannins. The Petit Verdot was fermented in old 500L barrels that have been transformed into mini rototanks at Stellenzicht. “These barrels are ideal vessels to ferment and mature small batches of wine. We have more than 20 at the moment and also use them for Shiraz.”
The Chardonnay literally went from tank to bottle to avoid exposure to oxygen and was not cold stabilised. Guy adds that the bottling process was done with particular caution, to avoid oxygen exposure or microbial contamination.
This has indeed been worthwhile, with the Chardonnay developing a remarkably complex flavour spectrum of melons, pineapples and citrus, while the palate is surprisingly rich and buttery.
The newest addition to the low sulphur range is most likely to be a Pinotage, which has already been bottled and is now spending time in the bottle to monitor its development. This would be the first commercial low sulphur Pinotage in the world.
Jamie Goode is a trained scientist who today in his blog wrestles with the tension between faith and science implied by “natural” wine. I am also a trained scientist, plus I am deep into my 24th vintage as a winemaker. You might be surprised how infrequently the term “natural” comes up in discussions among professionals. We talk about what works, and what doesn’t. We respect each others’ choices, because the proof of what works is always there right in front of us — in the bottle.
“Natural” only really seems to cause cognitive dissonance among some wine buyers, media types and consumers. I think it is a marketing thing with some people, and a cultish obsession with others. I don’t experience this dissonance. My winegrowing philosophy is “don’t do anything you don’t have to.” Consequently my approach has become more minimalist with each vintage.
I can get away with using less technology because of my scientific training, which has empowered me to take a rational approach to pursuing only what is necessary. Also, our vineyard is small enough (24 acres) that we can farm nearly vine-by-vine, and our production is low enough (2,500 cases max) that I have my own eyes and hands on every drop of wine we make.
Winemaking technology is required to scale up production from these low levels. Technology substitutes for eyes and hands on everything, allows us to make more with the same labor — which is how economists define increased productivity. The tradeoff for increasing productivity through the application of technologies is a loss of the “natural” artisanal character of wines.
Earlier this year, in a post about the role of yeast in artisanal wine production, I noted that Jamie observed a continuum between “natural” and “industrial” winemaking. I believe this view is correct, and that definitions of “natural” wine are purely semantic, and therefore artificial. So how’s that for boxing the compass, folks? “Natural” wine is an artificial construct.
There is a movement in winemaking that strives to make “natural wines”. These wines, sometimes called “real wines”, are wines that contain nothing but grape juice. In its purest form no additives whatsoever are added to the juice and the wine often does not contain any SO2. This leads to a wine that is as pure as nature could have intended it, and sometimes quite far from what often is considered ideal.
The wine will have no protection against oxidation, and could sometimes turn brown within hours of opening. The acid might be way too low, which might let other components such as tannin, alcohol and fullness suffer. But the purpose of creating a wine where nothing was added, and the elixir of life being as natural could make it, is achieved. In the fashion world there also seems to be a movement away from perfection, with more normal sized women, with more natural dimensions and figures making a comeback.
“Winemakers” of this natural wine would sometimes let you know that it is even more difficult making natural wine, than normal wine. Fermentations are followed under the microscope, and the timing of picking is very critical. Organic winemakers have been using similar techniques, with mixed success. The Holy Grail seems to be a balance between natural techniques and modern winemaking.
Chris Anderson wrote an article (and lately a book) in Wired magazine in 2004, on the phenomenon known as the “long tail”. Chris postulates that in a market where there is an extreme amount of choice, about 20% of sales will be made out of a very small amount of products, while the other 80% of the total buying power is spread over a huge amount of products. This long tail can be extremely profitable, because it means that there is a market for a very large amount of small products. In a video store about 20% of the rentals will be made out of a very small amount of titles, while the presence of a large assortment of other titles will take care of the rest.
Making natural wine will be somebody’s ticket to success in the long tail.