How are natural wines made? What’s up with the sulfites in them

According to a winemaker, consumers of diverse backgrounds are driving the natural wine movement. They demand “transparency” and “truth” about the winemaking process. The authenticity of the finished product is important.

How are natural wines produced, and what is “natural” about them?

Read more: What drives our wine choice – taste or the price tag?

Natural winemaking

In natural wine production, the goal is to have the least amount of human intervention possible in the journey between the vineyard and the wine.

The grapes must be manually harvested from a vineyard that is managed either according to organic principles or biodynamic principles, such as those outlined here.

After the grapes have been crushed, indigenous yeasts – also called “wild yeasts” – on the grape skins begin the fermentation process. In some styles of wine, the grape stalks can be added to the fermentation.

The practices are sometimes used to produce conventional wines as well.

In conventional winemaking, however, there are a variety of additives and processing aids that can be used.

Natural winemaking is different because no additions are added.

After the grapes have been crushed, indigenous yeasts – also called “wild” yeasts – on the grape skin begin the fermentation process. Shutterstock

Additives and processing aids

This is clearly demonstrated in the image. As one moves through conventional, organic, biodynamic, and natural winemaking, the list of additives and processes decreases.

After the fermentation, natural wines are left in a sealed container to allow the dead yeast cells and waste grapes to settle. The wine is then decanted back into the clean vessel for bottling.

Some winemakers use a simple cloth filtration method to remove larger particles. High-tech techniques of filtration, such as cross-flow filtration or membrane filtration, are prohibited.

Unfiltered wine will result in a cloudy bottle.

This would be a marketing disaster for a wine made conventionally. For natural wines, this is the norm.

The tricky issue of sulfites

Many wines contain sulfites. This compound can cause an allergic reaction in some people. They are used in winemaking to limit bacterial growth and reduce oxidation.

Sulfites (also known as sulfur dioxide) are used in natural wine. This is a controversial practice. Many people refuse to use sulfites because they consider them an additive. A small amount of what is already there as a fermentation by-product can be beneficial.

Isabelle Legeron, a wine expert and the first woman to be awarded the title Master of Wine in France, is a great supporter of natural wines.

She founded the Raw Wine Community in 2012 to support winemakers who make wines with low intervention. Legeron’s monthly wine recommendations include those that have no added sulfites, as well as those with sulfites of up to 70mg/liter. This is higher than the common upper limit of 30mg/liter.

In conventional winemaking, a variety of additives and processing aids can be used. Natural winemaking does not include any additions. Shutterstock

Natural wines have become mainstream in France. After many years of debate in France, natural wine is now officially recognized under the name ” Vie Methode Nature,” which has been accepted by all government agencies.

12-point commitment charter is required for winemakers to receive the Vin Methode Natur endorsement.

A sticker can even be applied to the bottle to indicate that the wine has been infused with sulfur dioxide.

The profile of taste

The taste and appearance of natural wines are different. The production methods of these wines have improved since my initial experience. Many remain cloudy as they are not filtered. However, the structure of the palate can reveal the depth and length that I seek when selecting wine.

Decanter, a wine media outlet, reviewed 122 natural wines in 2017. The reviews were generally positive and affirmed the importance of natural wines in an expanding market.

Petillant-Naturel, or Pet Nat as it is also known, are my favorite sparkling wines. Ancestral methods are used to make sparkling wines. Fermentation begins in an open tank, and then it is transferred into bottles to finish.

It is refreshing and cloudy but not as sparkling as champagne (about half). The yeast in the wine is native to the grape, and there is no secondary fermentation.

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