With no official definition for what natural wine is, there are loads of opinions out there. “Natural wine” is a term that gets wobbly pretty quickly, so let’s get after it.

Our focus is on naturally made wines which, for us, includes natural wines, organic wines, biodynamic wines, sustainably grown wines as well as wines that do not carry any of these certifications.  Our wine clubs could be considered natural wine clubs or organic wine clubs; since those two things aren’t the same and there’s plenty of gray area around natural wines, we use the term naturally made.

For Iola, when we say a wine is “naturally made,” we mean it’s been produced using long-proven, time-honored practices with minimal intervention in the vineyard and cellar and all of the wines in our French Red Wine Club and our Italian Red Wine Club are naturally made.  But what do all of those certifications actually mean? Let’s unpack these terms at a high level; starting with natural wine.

What is Natural Wine and what makes it natural? 

As we said in Part I, it’s tough to get very far in any conversation about wine – especially naturally made wines – without first talking about terroir.  Yep, we hear about and talk about terroir A LOT.  But, its for good reason as great wine begins in the vineyard and further, terroir is a key element in naturally made wines.

There are many definitions, opinions, ideas and perspectives about what terroir is.  Terroir of course refers to a sense of place but what is that makes a single “place” distinctive and “unique”?   My preferred definition comes from  Isabelle Legeron, MW, the global leader of the natural wine movement. She describes terroir in her book Natural Wine as a combination of factors – the  plants, animals, soil, geology, climate, weather, topography, etc which are unique to a place – in a given year. Definitions of terroir often leave out the notion of the vintage variations. Vintage variation is inherently part of farming and therefore part of viticulture. Vintage variation can’t help but influence that ever-important sense of place.  Part of what we love about wine is this vintage variation, as our producer Sophie Cachard in Bandol, France says “it’s not coca-cola”.  She is absolutely right.

Legeron also explains that different years present different growing conditions which affect all the life forms in a given place, each of which are inextricably linked to the others through symbiosis, dependence on the food chain or just because they happen to be in the same place at the same time. Legeron importantly notes that “Humans may also play a part in this context, but it is only ever a part. If humans dominate, then the expression of place dwindles…”

“How is wine I drink actually made?”  That depends on what you’re drinking…

Why should we care about how humans play influence terroir? Answering this question takes us not only to the vineyard, but also to the winery and naturally leads to the question “How is the wine I drink actually made?”  It’s easy to think (and believe) that wine is made pretty much by growing some grapes, harvesting them, plopping them into a vat or vessel, then said grapes somehow become wine which ends up in a bottle that we open and drink.  In fact, most wine isn’t made this way.  There is a spectrum of human intervention in both the vineyard and the winery.

How is Natural Wine Made?

Since we’re on a mission to get into natural winemaking here let’s focus there first. The answer to this question isn’t very lengthy.   Staying at a high level, the idea is to do as little as possible to the grapes when they arrive at the winery.  Isabelle Legeron’s definition of natural wine is “nothing added and nothing taken away” (of course the grapes must be at minimum farmed organically).  Natural winemakers count on Mother Nature to provide what’s needed for these grapes to become wine.  The intent really is to keep things as simple as growing some grapes, harvesting them, plopping them into a vat or vessel, and allowing nature to take it’s course so that said grapes somehow become wine which ends up in a bottle that we open and drink.

A natural wine is fermented with indigenous yeast. Where does this indigenous, native yeast come from? Yeast is everywhere, including in wineries and vineyards and on the skin of the grape.  From here the idea is to do as little as possible. Many wine growers tell me that sometimes doing nothing is the hardest thing. They monitor the fermentation but, instead of intervening they let nature take its course. Indigenous yeast fermentation is a great way to start the journey toward producing a living, vibrant wine.  A natural wine may be lightly filtered and may get a low dose of Sulfites at bottling.  But that’s pretty much it.

So, where’s the rub? And why isn’t all wine made this way?

Great questions!  Natural wine gets complicated when we start talking about things like level of sulfites used: how much is too much for a wine to be considered natural? Lots of producers understandably feel like they want to make sure the wine arrives to the consumer sound and intact, rather than spoiled by the journey it makes which can happen to wines with low to no sulfites added.  Filtration is another gray area on the spectrum of natural wines.  Some producers feel that any filtration eliminates a wine from the category of natural wines while some are ok with some light filtration.

So why isn’t all wine naturally made?  To answer that, we’ll look at the options and choices available for the production of conventional wine.

Additives in Wine

Back to the Question “How is wine I drink actually made?” Conventional wines, i.e., high volume production wines which are typically found in liquor stores, grocery stores and supermarkets, add a few steps to the process described above and do it all a lot faster.

Working backwards from Isabelle Legeron’s definition of nothing added nothing taken away, you might be wondering what sort of things might be added in the cellar even before fermentation begins?  Additives in the cellar include sulfur dioxide (sulfites) which can be added at various times in the winemaking process from adding to just harvested grapes to adding to juice to adding again before bottling.  A certified organic red wine in the EU can add up to 150mg of SO2.  A conventional red wine in the the USA can add up to 350mg SO2.  We look for producers in France and Italy committed to using as little S02 as possible; often less than 90mg and several don’t add any.

Water, acid and sugar can be added prior to fermentation to adjust the must if the winemaker isn’t pleased with what Mother Nature provided in a given year.  Most places do not allow the addition of water, California is an exception and does allow the addition of water. Wine appellations in Europe and the USA have specific rules about the addition of both sugar and acid.  There are appellations where these additions are not allowed as well as appellations where these additions are only allowed under certain circumstances.

At this stage a winemaker could elect to clarify the must prior to fermentation to remove any solid matter which some believe could cause off flavors in the final wine if not removed.   Large production wineries use centrifuges to quickly separate solids.  Doing everything fast is of critical importance for the production of high-volume wines found on supermarket shelves because time is money.  The more time spent making a wine the more it will need to cost.  The centrifuge can be used both before and after fermentation to quickly remove solids.  Some winemakers find centrifuges to be a rough and harsh tool which damages the wine.  A producer who believes in  -or is required by their wine appellation rules – holding their wines for several months will have to charge more for their wines than a high volume producer who can get it out the door in a few months.

Just as sugar, acid and water can be added they can also be removed along with many other elements naturally present in wine.  In her book Natural Wine, Isabelle Legeron describes the high tech tools such as the reverse osmosis machine “which is capable of separating out wine components and removing them if desired. You can for instance,  zap out water (if it has rained too much), or alcohol, remove the taint of bushfire smoke, eliminate yeast strains that producer “unfavorable” flavors”.  Legeron also describes cryoextraction which is used to freeze the grapes solidifying water content so it’s left behind at pressing, juice can be micro oxygenated or sterile filtered.   All of this to say that there are lots of “processing aids” available to the modern winemaker.

Besides these processing aids and the addition of acid and sugar there are loads of other additives allowed in wine in the USA, Australia, Japan, and the EU.  Some of these include wood powders and staves to simulate oak flavor, powdered tannin for, well, tannin, enhanced cultured yeasts to add flavors to the wine that were not naturally there, gelatin, phosphates, hydrogen peroxide, anti foaming agents, as well as animal derivatives like albumen from eggs, casein from milk, isinglass (an extract made from the swim bladders of fish) and trypsin (extracted from the pancreas of pigs and cows).

Mega Purple?

Mega Purple is a real additive used A LOT.  Eater says it best, “This isn’t a metal tribute band — it’s a grape juice concentrate that, added in small amounts, will deepen a wine’s color, which wineries believe consumers associate with quality. Mega Purple also adds a touch of sweetness. If you’re the average drinker, you’ve most likely consumed it without knowing. Technically, the process is only combining one grape product with another, but this is one additive no one likes to admit using.”  Some people find that avoiding Mega Purple makes for a headache free day after.  (Just a random anecdotal perspective I’ve heard)

What about Organic Wines?

EU Organic wines must follow the strict requirements for organic winegrowing in the EU. They must provide analysis and documentation and may even receive surprise visits from inspectors.  Organic wines are grown with the use of organic products in the vineyard.  Most producers are using minimal treatments.  However, because they aren’t using high powered herbicides, fungicides and pesticide that can be sprayed every once in awhile they have to treat their vines more frequently which adds up to time and as we know, time is money.  Additionally, organic treatments simply cost more than chemicals do.  Isabelle Legeron says on a Levi Dalton’s podcast I’ll Drink To That, “ When you farm organically it has to come from the heart because otherwise you’ll never go through with it.”  I think this sums it beautifully.  For me, wine is something that comes from the heart so it’s no surprise that Iola Wines is committed to sourcing organic and biodynamic wines made by top vigneronnes in France and Italy.  So, whether you’re looking for an Organic Wine Club or a Natural Wine Club make sure to look closely at the options before you choose.  Organic Wine Clubs are easier to pin down as there is a clearcut definition as to what qualifies as organic wine in the EU and in the USA, but Natural Wine Clubs are more complicated because of the lack of definition of the term natural wine and many wine clubs don’t hesitate to take advantage of this to promote their club as a Natural Wine Club when it may not be.  At Iola Wines one of our values is integrity; we’ll never tell you a wine is natural or organic when it clearly is not.