ITB 2024 Special Reporting
Talking Naturally: What on Earth is Natural Wine?
By Chris Penwarden ~ The Local Nose
Tuesday, 26th April 2011
In celebration of Earth Day, April 22, I  caught up with Fabio Bartolomei of  Vinos Ambiz, a Spanish producer of  "natural, organic, healthful, sustainable wine" to ask, "what on earth is Natural Wine?": Should it even have capitals?

Fabio, there's a lot of confusion about Natural Wine; what is it?

I think the first important thing to know is that there is (as yet) no legal or official definition of what natural wine is. Unlike the term ‘organic' which IS legally defined and where there are official bodies with rules, definitions, inspectors, labels, logos, etc.

Does a lack of clear definition agitate the non-believer and increase fundamentalism on both sides?

Everyone and their auntie has an opinion, a definition and a trumpet to blow!

Some authors are extreme fundamentalists: on one side, a few natural wine producers/consumers believe religiously that natural wines are ‘better' and that conventional wines are ‘worse', end of chat! On the other side, some conventional producers/consumers refuse to recognize the shortcomings of conventional wine and the benefits of natural wine..

So, if there is no official definition, how would you define natural wine? How do you make wine that is 'natural'?

My own personal criteria for my natural wines are:-         

1.The grapes have to be grown carefully,  organically (or biodynamically), sustainably, respectfully. No industrial chemicals. No mechanical harvesting. The reason for this is to ensure good quality grapes. I believe that this cannot be done by farming industrially and chemically.
2.As little winemaker intervention as possible in the winery. No adjusting acidity, sugar level, alcohol level. No adding enzymes, industrial yeast, tannins, wood chips, etc. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it".        
3.I will add sulphur only if really necessary (especially at bottling)

I do all the above so that my wines ‘express the terroir' of where they come from. My wines are ‘natural' and ‘authentic' because they are unadulterated, unique, original and express as closely as possible the grape variety, the climate, the soil, etc. They're not standardized products that have been ‘made' according to a formula to fit a consumer profile. You may like them or you may not.

Adding sulphur is always a controversial subject, especially in relation to organic and natural wines...

Yes, the sulphur issue is the one that generates the most soundbites. For me it's just another winemaker intervention. Some natural winemakers add SO2 routinely while some refuse to do so under any circumstances! I prefer not to add any, especially if there's no reason to do so. But I have nothing against the rational, sensible use of SO2. It is a ‘natural' substance and very useful one too. It's the ABUSE of it that I object to.

Some say that the best place to try the wines is at source. Does transportation tend to increase spoilage due to lack of sulphur used to stabilise the wine?

Technically it shouldn't make any difference, though of course the transport and storage conditions are of utmost importance. For example if a pallet of wine sits out in the sun for a day or more at a port or transport hub or whatever, then that will affect the wine no matter how much SO2 it contains!!! The importer I work with in the USA understands that, and is very careful with transport (he uses refrigerated trucks overland and refrigerated containers for shipping over the Atlantic). The pallet I sent him last year had absolutely no SO2 added, not even at bottling.

What are you views on the ageing of natural wines - do you think they age well?

Good question! From my own personal experience, based on tasting both my own wines and other natural wines I've tried, I can say that over the years I've been surprised by the aging potential of some natural wines. I used to think that "natural wines don't (or can't) age" but I've come to believe that this is not always the case.

I would also say that natural wines ‘evolve' over time, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse and sometimes neither! For example, my young (unaged) white that I make every year: it's completely, totally and utterly different in January than it is in June, not better nor worse but different. In January it's fruity (both aroma and taste), slightly fizzy (petillant) and a little sweet, whereas by June it's dry, still and Sherry-like!!

As there are no 'rules' for Natural Wines, it involves a lot of faith in a producer.....

Not all natural wines are ‘good' (just like all Australian or French or ‘X' wines are not good), and some may not be to you liking even if they are good quality. So yes, I think a buyer should do a bit of due diligence and check out the producer, and even take a risk by buying a bottle to see if he likes it. I also believe that a producer should make as much information as possible about himself and his wines available to buyers. (I try to do that via my blog, and info sheets).

Natural wines are very different, because they depend on the geographical location, climate etc of where the grapes were grown and wines made. The ‘same' wine can actually vary from one year to the next, even if the winemaker uses the grapes from the same vineyard and does exactly the same thing in the winery! 

Some people maybe surprised and shocked at this variation, because they're used to consuming standard homogenized brands of wine.My advise is to try lots of different natural wines until you find the styles/regions/varieties/tastes that you like.But a word of warning: once you do find the natural wines you like, you'll be hooked and you'll never be able to enjoy conventional mass-produced wines again!!!

So, a lack of clear definition may ironically lead to a greater understanding of what goes into making wine, through increased dialogue between producer and consumer...

Yes, perhaps! With so many conversations, debates, posts, articles, etc going on, the general wine-drinking public should be able to pick up information and learn a bit about the wine-making process. I think the natural-wine drinking public already knows quite a bit about winemaking. I make quite an effort to engage with my customers...I have very close contact with my local customers and I always respond to any question or feedback that I get.....

For more information see: http://vinosambiz.blogspot.com

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