Why Not All Wines are Natural or Low Intervention

Why Not All Wines are Natural or Low Intervention

You might ask, isn’t all wine natural wine? The answer is no. The wines US consumers typically buy and drink are allowed to have additives. There are 60+ approved additives winemakers around the world can use (yeast, oak flavoring, sugar, acids, egg whites and sulfites are some of the most common).

Simply put, natural winemaking needs to have clearly defined rules as to how the grapes are grown, picked and how they are crafted into wine.  Unfortunately, there are no regulated or even consistently defined specifications that are required/mandatory before winemakers can call their wines "natural". 

While natural winemaking has emerged as a popular approach to how wine grapes are grown and crafted into wine through fermentation, aging and bottling, there are many variables and decisions the winemaker must make. Depending on their expertise and, of course, the whims of Mother Nature, natural winemaking methods can result in huge variability in the quality, shelf-life, and characteristics of the wine.

There are many small (and large) winemakers who experiment much like the craft beer industry has innovated and evolved the diversity of beer experiences. In many respects, Natural Winemaking across the globe is a revolution in how wines are made, with natural methods deployed in different degrees and with diverse results.  

Georgian Natural Winemaking Techniques Are Tried and True

Natural winemaking has been the Georgian tradition for 8000 years. Georgian natural winemaking is centered on the methods Georgians invented thousands of years ago when there was no concept of additives, preservatives, fertilizers, modified yeasts and commonly recognized characteristics of specific varietals producing wine in specific places (terroirs).  It may seem to be a simple equation; the only ingredients in Georgian natural wines are the grapes and their skins. The grapes and their skins are fermented (skin contact fermentation and spontaneous fertilization) in Qvevri, large clay vessels buried in the ground. This results in healthier wines with none of the additives. 

The challenge is that natural winemaking is not simple and is NOT just making wine absent of any additives, preservatives, domesticated yeasts, fining or modern farming.  The common wine industry additives and preservatives have an important purpose in making quality wines; they allow for stabilization, shelf-life (preservation), and to homogenize the flavors of wines to the common characteristics that define specific varietals.  It's how Chardonnay or Pinot Noir, for example, have very common, recognizable (and preferable by consumers) characteristics (oaked, buttery, smooth, clear, and ability to age (and improve over time)).  In the absence of these methods to stabilize wine, the real complex and difficult process of natural winemaking is differentiated 

In modern Georgian winemaking some experimentation is taking place. Georgian winemakers  are exploring and innovating the ancient Georgian methods  in order to diversify indigenous varieties (there are 525 indigenous varietals in Georgia) into terroir based wines to further their uniqueness and support the crafting of high quality wines with distinctive, high quality taste profiles.  But these wines are not going to taste like your expected wines made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, or any of the western wine region's commonly known varietals.  They are simply different and are naturally adapted to the native climate and terroirs of Georgia.  

Natural Winemaking Starts in The Vineyard.

Sustainable farming, dry farming, hand harvesting, bio-dynamic vineyard management, NO chemicals, organic, regenerative soil management. These are the key tenants for natural winemaking in the vineyard. It takes more work to adhere to natural vine and grape growing, but our Georgian vineyard and winery partners are committed to maintaining (while still innovating) the ancient techniques passed down through centuries.

Natural Wines Require constant, labor intensive monitoring and decision-making by the winemaker, based on century-old recipes and methods specifically pertinent to each region's grape varieties and terroir.

Books have been written on the intricacies of Georgian natural winemaking, but in a nutshell, below are examples of how complex and unique these methods are, and how they differ from what we term "Low Intervention" winemaking that many natural winemakers follow:

  • Vineyard Management:  Natural, bio-dynamic vineyards abide by strict adherence to only naturally occurring water sources of the region (dry farming), fertilization (compost and animal (sheep/goat winter grazing), regenerative farming, bio-dynamic pest control (NO chemicals). Low Intervention (or Conventional) vineyards may use some irrigation, natural fertilizers and minimal natural pesticides.
  • Harvesting: The grapes for Natural wines are hand harvested, crushed and sorted for fermentation by hand. Why you may ask do they need to be hand harvested?  The answer is because the grapes have to be chosen and separated, with specific portions of stems, seeds and skins to provide the correct balance for the winemaker to manage the fermentation and aging processes.  This is where the complexity of natural winemaking starts and requires tremendous labor, decision-making and process control that must compensate for the inability to use non-natural techniques to stabilize, preserve and balance the wines.  
  • Fermentation: Slight differences in Low Intervention fermentation may include limited added yeasts to augment fermentation (versus Natural being purely the yeasts that exist naturally on the skins), fermentation in stainless steel (versus Georgian Natural wines are almost always fermented in Qvevri), may be without skin contact (whereas Georgian Naturals NEED skin contact because the skins are where the Natural wines get their yeasts (native yeasts of the vineyard), tannins and natural sulfies (for preservation and character), and phenols (See Phenolic Compounds as Markers of Wine Quality and Authenticity - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7760515/ .
  • Aging: Low intervention aging may be also done in stainless steel or oak more frequently than purely natural wine aging which is most often done in Qvevri, which introduces a whole new set of dimensions on the winemaking.  Different regions of Georgia have different native grape varieties and different Qvevri standards that have evolved to each region's (there are 10 wine regions in the small country of Georgia) grape varieties and the respective region's winemaking standards and traditional methods.  Qvevri composition, the different clays used, often native to the region, how they are hand-crafted, size, placement (in the ground) and characteristics for fermentation and aging are all variables that the winemaker must consider in their facilities (marani) and winemaking.  
  • Bottling and storage: Low intervention wines may filter and use very limited fining at bottling, with potential for some limited additional sulfites added for preservation (but generally much more limited than standard winemaking).  As a wine buyer and consumer, especially ones who are looking for low sulfite levels, naturally occuring (Free Sulfites) should be sufficient to provide sufficient preservation of the wine and added sulfites (the difference between Total Sulfites and Free Sulfites) should be minimal.  It should be noted though that Natural winemakers can and do add sulfites, usually at bottling, but generally the standards for Georgian Natural wines are between 20 and 50/mg/liter Total Sulfites whereas conventional wines are often well over 100/mg/liter.  

The Aim Is To Let The Grapes, The Terroir and The Wine Sing!

Whether you are making a Natural or Low Intervention wine the thinking is much the same. Less interference from humans results in the wine being reflective of the land, the soil, a parcel of vines and the growing season. Culminating in unique and expressive wines that sing the song of Mother Nature.