by Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)
There’s been a lot of press lately on the subject of “natural” wines. I really don’t like the term for a couple of reasons. First, it’s not very well defined. There are a number of interventions (or manipulations) that a winemaker can make, and whether any particular intervention is “natural” or not is often a matter of opinion. But my main criticism of “natural wines”, though, is that it’s basically a put-down of non-“natural wines”. Wines that are made with more rather than less manipulation are not for that reason inferior. There are many wines that are made with little manipulation, and are bad, and others made with considerable manipulation, and are good.
That said, my basic rule of thumb is that unless a contemplated manipulation will greatly improve the wine (not marginally improve it), don’t do it. There are many times that I’ve done a bench trial and felt that some intervention would improve the wine, but later been disappointed when I concluded I would have been better off leaving well enough alone.
That said, there are a number of things that winemakers do to their wines that would qualify as interventions. It is only by understanding what those interventions are, and what they do to the wine, that someone can form any sort of informed opinion about whether wines should be “natural” or something else.
So let’s start with the grapes as they come to the crusher. (Since I don’t make white wines, I’ll limit this discussion to reds, though some of what I say about reds applies to whites as well.) There are three things that can be done at that point to the must. First, you can add some sort of tannin, usually oak powder. Oak powder results in a wine that has much more color and body. This to me is a no-brainer. I use oak powder routinely. If I made a very light wine (e.g., Pinot Noir), I might pass on the oak powder to preserve a paler color, but I don’t make Pinot Noir.
The second thing you can add is SO2 (sulfur dioxide). This addition will kill off microbes that come in from the vineyard with the grapes. Since I don’t want a “natural” fermentation, I add SO2 routinely. However, this point really turns on whether you want a fermentation with or without using commercial yeasts. I always use commercial yeasts because of the risk that allowing the yeasts in the environment to ferment the grapes may result in some unpleasant results. Commercial yeasts give a more predictable result, and more control over the winemaking process. That said, if a winemaker chooses to go the “natural” route, I can hardly fault him.
The third thing you can add at the crusher, or shortly thereafter, is tartaric acid. This is the acid that occurs naturally in the grapes. If the amount of tartaric in grapes is low, the wine will be flabby and overly soft. In California, this is a common problem, and should be rectified by the addition of tartaric acid.
Once the fermentation is done, a winemaker has the option of treating the wine with micro-oxygenation. This process involves the injection of tiny oxygen bubbles into the wine at a controlled rate. Micro-oxygenation stabilizes color and softens tannins. I use it on big, tannic wines, such as Petite Sirah. I don’t use it on lighter bodied wines, such as Montepulciano. Since this process doesn’t involve adding any chemicals to the wine, you can argue whether its use compromises a wine’s being “natural”.
More on this subject next Monday.