Wineology: Making sense of natural wines

Check out Okanagan sommelier Shanyn Ward’s wine column

What defines a natural wine? It is a hard question to answer because there isn’t technically a definition for natural in the wine world.

So here is my opinion:

Natural starts with farming. There are hundreds of inputs you can use in a vineyard. From sprays to counter pests and disease, to machinery that mow, till and work the earth. I believe naturally farmed vineyards will use minimal sprays- yes it is okay to spray sulphur to protect against mildew which turn our grapes in to a moldy mess. But allowing nature to thrive is not a bad thing.

There is a philosophy called Integrated Pest Management, where use of beneficial insects and cover crops (such as clover and mustard) can discourage infestation of harmful insects or weeds. Have you ever seen beautiful rows of yellow mustard growing in a vineyard? Mustard actually helps deter nematodes from burrowing in the soil, captures nitrogen and attracts bees. Just like our preference to eat organic food, grapes can definitely be grown in the same way.

In the winery “natural” seems to have many different definitions. I had the opportunity to present 14 “naturally” made wines to a group of winemakers from the valley last week. One commented that it was a rollercoaster of a tasting because some of the wines were so interesting and well made and others seemed to be very faulty and just plain weird.

This is the struggle with natural wines. There are some key decisions to make in the winery when deciding how to produce naturally. One would like to think that no manufactured yeasts would be used and instead naturally occurring yeasts would be responsible for fermentation. However, natural fermentations are often described as being funky in their aromas or having a flavour profile that is not as enjoyable. They often do not have that freshness and fruit-forward balance that consumers seem to appreciate.

And then there is a conversation of whether wines should be aged in barrel or concrete, both of which are porous and allow oxygen exchange. Temperature control is considered by some winemakers to be unnatural. But the winemaker who allows fermentation to happen naturally could be waiting much longer than one who uses heating or cooling.

The next topic could be talked about in great length and I may just write a separate article on it soon. Filtering the wine.

Most natural wine makers will not do this. It is believed it strips wines of flavors and natural components. When a customer picks up a bottle, however, and sees sediment in the bottom of it they automatically assume there is something wrong with it.

And finally sulphur. Do you add a little at the time of bottling? SO2 protects wine from oxidizing. With it there is comfort that a wine will withstand some aging, but without it we never really know.

So here is the thing about ‘Natural” wines: They are always going to be more of an expression of winemaking style and decisions made in the winery. I would dare say they will be much less expressive about terrior or regionality. They will always be strangely different in a wonderful way. They will be consistently inconsistent. They may age well or they may not.

Wines will always contain sulphites; even if they are natural (it is a part of the wine making process). You may really love them or you may hate them. Until we can create a clear understanding on what natural means in the winemaking world – it is all about experimentation. So take the plunge and risk buying a bottle, you just may be pleasantly surprised.

Related: Wineology: Let’s talk organic wine

What I am loving this week:

2017 Sebastian Laurent Zweigelt

The 2017 Sebastian Laurent Zweigelt is made from 100 per cent Zweigelt from the Similkameen Valley. The grapes were picked early, alongside other grapes that would be used for rose production. Older oak was used in the aging process of this wine, which results in this wine being very fresh with flavours of red cherry, blueberry and currant.

I like to serve this wine slightly chilled. It is a perfect red wine for summer, as it is not too heavy and can be drunk on its own patio side.

Cheers!

shanynward@gmail.com

To check out past Wineology columns, click here.

 

Shanyn Ward is a WSET (Wine and Spirit Education Trust) Diploma graduate and wine buyer for Cask & Barrel Liquor Store. (Photo: Carmen Weld)

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