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Natural wines: an introduction
What does the label of a natural wine tell you?
The proliferation of synthetic chemicals and corrective techniques for vine cultivation and winemaking in the post-Second World War period paved the way for the industrialisation and standardisation of wines. In contrast to this development, which contradicts the notion of Appellations of Origin, many winegrowers have affirmed their commitment to the natural and authentic expression of their terroir, thus putting themselves on the fringes of an AOC system that generates labels that are too often devalued.
Since the 1930s, the French wine industry has been structured by a system based on the notion of terroir and the concept of Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC), which has become Appellation d'Origine Protégée (AOP) under European legislation. For each wine to obtain its appellation, it must comply with precise specifications and be "approved" following a tasting under the supervision of the INAO. The AOC of a wine has long been a mark of authenticity and quality. But the post-Second World War era saw the industry propose an arsenal of synthetic chemical products and corrective techniques for vine cultivation (herbicides and various pesticides) and wine-making (chaptalisation, acidification, exogenous yeasts and bacteria, inputs such as sulphur, in particular). This led to a standardisation of wines - under the guise of "typicity" - contrary to the very idea of origin, i.e. the specific signature of each terroir.
In this context, from the 1980s and 1990s onwards, a number of winegrowers refused the abusive help of chemistry and technology and adhered to a vision of winemaking that respected the living world. Often judged not to conform to the standard model, they have been excluded from (or have voluntarily left) the system of appellations, a system that, for some, has lost its original meaning. While the label of an approved wine bears the mention of its appellation, a non-approved wine is commercialised as a Vin de Table or Vin de France with no mention of origin, a category that was once of little value but where some of a vineyard's most authentic wines, now find refuge. Therefore, in order to identify a natural wine without a mention of origin and not to miss it, one must either rely on the reputation of the winemaker or on the explanations of a sommelier or wine merchant.
How to taste a glass of natural wine?
A natural wine is a living wine free of any product intended to modify its nature. "Living" and free, which implies variations in taste depending on certain parameters that must be understood to better appreciate the qualities and uniqueness of each wine.
By definition, a natural wine is a "living" wine free of any product intended to modify its nature, i.e. to modify its own profile resulting from the soil, the year's climate and the grape varieties. The absence of restrictive additives guarantees the living character of the wine, and the absence of added sulphur (a small amount of sulphur is produced naturally by the yeasts during fermentation) allows the free expression of the grape and the terroir, as well as good digestibility of the wine.
The living character of natural wines can lead to variations in taste depending on certain parameters. First and foremost, the parameters governed by nature, especially those that depend on the lunar cycle, which has a great influence on natural phenomena: during the "lunar node" (the moment - twice a lunar month - when the Moon's orbit crosses the Earth's plane of rotation around the Sun) the wine is often retracted, introverted, and in the succession of "root", "leaf", "flower", "fruit" days (depending on the position of the Moon in relation to the constellations) the wine reveals one or other of its facets, more or less favourably.
Finally, even more than others, natural wine requires a suitable glass (INAO type) - i.e. open enough to allow appropriate aeration of "reductive" vintages, and closed enough to retain the aromas.
What about the taste?
Reduction, oxidation, alcohol, acidity, fruit, minerality: multiple parameters form the complex personality of a wine and compose, according to the options of each winemaker, a gustatory balance specific to each vintage.
In natural wine, the desire to avoid adding sulphur - an antioxidant and antiseptic - or to reduce it to a strict minimum implies precautions to avoid uncontrolled oxidation (the effect of too much oxygen), and therefore to favour a reductive tendency (the effect of a lack of oxygen), especially when the wine is young. Consequently, it is best to aerate the wine when tasting so that it reveals all its qualities, either by shaking it in the glass or by decanting the contents of the bottle.
Respect for the living is respect for terroir with its various characteristics (nature of the soil and subsoil, aspect, climatic and sanitary conditions of the vintage) conveyed by the grape varieties and interpreted by the winemaker.
The notions of "fruit", of "body" - the marriage of tannins, alcohol and acidity - and of "minerality" - the signature of the soil - come together to form the physiognomy of the wine, and the choices of the winemaker (date of the harvest, winemaking options, élevage, bottling) build its personality.
The synthesis of these various elements forms the aromatic expression of the wine (the "nose" of the wine), its power (alcoholic richness), its structure (density of the juice, grain of the tannins, strength of the acidity) and its texture (unctuousness, tension, minerality), all in a gustatory balance specific to each cuvée.
From yesterday to today, natural wine
While in the decades following the Second World War viticulture entered a productivist and industrial era, the reaction developed with other demands: organic agriculture, biodynamics, and, more radical in the refusal of inputs and abusive interventionism, the idea of "natural" wine.
For thousands of years, viticulture and vinification have evolved empirically on the basis of observation and experimentation, and even chance, with practices varying according to local context. It was only in the 19th century that the existence and function of yeasts in alcoholic fermentation was discovered by Pasteur, and only in the 20th century that the impact of bacteria on the natural acidity of the must was understood (malolactic fermentation), thus allowing the control of "chaptalisation" (addition of sugar to the must to increase the alcoholic richness) and acidification.
At the same time, vine diseases (oidium, mildew) in Europe, and in particular the destruction caused by phylloxera, forced the reconstitution of vineyards on new bases. Grape varieties were grafted onto resistant American rootstocks, specific grape varieties were proscribed, from the 1960s by "clonal" selection, vines were planted in rows, making mechanical cultivation possible for the first time.
The decades following the Second World War saw the development of herbicides and other pesticides, as well as fertilisers (mineral and organic), which compensated for the resulting impoverishment of the soil: the changes in viticulture practices - increasingly monoculture - meant that it entered a productivist and industrial era.
From the second half of the 20th century onwards, winegrowing, which was becoming less and less "natural", acquired the ability to manage the health of the vines through phytosanitary treatments and to intervene in the winemaking process through the use of selected yeasts and bacteria from industry and the addition of various oenological inputs, including the systematic dosage of sulphur.
The majority of wines produced in this way, with the advice of oenologists, are generally free of serious faults, but are also devoid of terroir character and personality. In reaction to this standardisation and loss of naturalness in "conventional" viticulture, the precepts of organic or biodynamic cultivation have conquered a growing number of winegrowers who aim not to destroy the proper functioning of the soil, the vine and biodiversity: to preserve the micro-organisms, earthworms, fauna and flora that ensure the natural life of the soil and the nourishment of the vine, and to remain true to an authentic terroir character.
However, in addition to the requirements of organic/biodynamic farming and the relatively restrictive rules concerning fermentation, some winegrowers have added stricter requirements in terms of winemaking, forbidding themselves in the cellar as well as in the vineyard of any addition of inputs, apart from a small dose of sulphur: a radical trend that has given rise to the natural wine movement.
The organic, biodynamic and natural movement(s)
In France, organic and biodynamic agriculture were structured into movements from the start of their development in the 1970s, with precise specifications and labels. The more exacting natural wine movement has set itself specifications that exclude all chemical products (except possibly a very small dose of sulphur).
It is on the basis of a refusal of synthetic chemical products in favour of a natural balance between the soil, the plant and the environment that the organic farming movement has developed. It was organised as a private association Nature & Progrès, with specifications, a logo and certification (1973), and then in 1985 the Ministry of Agriculture created the AB label, issued and controlled by independent certification bodies (Ecocert, Agrocert, Qualité France, etc.). For the whole of Europe's wine industry, the European Commission gave organic farming an Organic Agriculture label in 2010, and then drew up legislation for organic wine in 2012, which many consider to be far too lax and not really in line with the true organic ethic.
Biodynamics is one of the facets of the "philosophy" of the Austrian thinker Rudolf Steiner, for whom the natural sciences and the approach to the world of the spirit are one and the same. Faced with the degeneration of the soil and the degradation of agricultural products, his lectures to farmers in 1924 developed a conception of the earth as a living entity and of agriculture as a stimulation of the forces that act on nature.
His followers implemented his ideas, in particular through cultivation practices that took into account the influence of the moon and the planets and through preparations based on plant, mineral and animal matter, decoctions and various herbal teas intended to stimulate the life of the soil and the plant and to favour their balance and self-defence.
Under the name of the international collective mark Demeter, the association and label of French biodynamists grouped within the Mouvement de l'agriculture biodynamique (MABD) were created in 1979, while the Syndicat international des vignerons en culture biodynamique (SIVCB), founded in 1996, created its Biodyvin label. Although similar in content, the Demeter and Biodyvin specifications are much stricter than the European organic wine regulations. Despite the requirements of the organic and biodynamic labels, their specifications allow a certain number of inputs. Thus, for example, concerning the addition of sulphur (SO2), - compared to the doses authorised for conventional wines (150 mg/l for dry reds, 200 mg/l for dry whites and rosés) - the European organic label authorises 100 mg/l for dry reds and 150 mg/l for dry whites and rosés, the Demeter and Nature & Progrès labels authorise 70 mg/l for dry reds and 90 mg/l for dry whites and rosés, and the Biodyvin label authorises 80 mg/l for dry reds and 105 mg/l for dry whites and rosés.
The notion of "natural" wine developed from the 1980s onwards on the basis of organic and biodynamic principles, but also of a refusal of inputs deemed to be abusive, except possibly a very small dose of sulphur (10 mg/l of total SO2 at bottling): a "natural" philosophy from the vine to the bottle, which presided over the creation in 2005 of the Association des vins naturels (AVN). In 2012, the association Vins S.A.I.N.S. ("wines without any input or sulphite(s) added") went further by banning all additions.
It should be noted that many winemakers working in the spirit of organic, biodynamic or natural wine do not consider it useful to seek a label, preferring to adhere to an ethic rather than submit to questionable regulations.