Natural Wine

Yesterday we had occasion to visit Titulus wine bar for a class called ‘Vins Naturels’. The owner Baptiste Lardeux introduced us to the world of natural wines and outlined all of the differences between conventional wine production and that of natural wine.

We arrived at the wine bar, which is in Brussels’ European Quarter at 9:30 on Monday morning. Amongst all the suits and ties heading to their meetings, there I was, en route to a wine bar to taste natural champagnes and wines. Something of a surreal moment! Baptiste was fascinating to listen to, it’s clear that he’s the kind of person who has found their vocation in life and is working at something he loves.

The labeling of natural wines is a bit of a grey area, we discovered. The term isn’t protected or regulated yet so a winemaker can’t have a certification to prove that the wine they make falls into the ‘natural’ category. Essentially what it comes down to is the level of sulfites added to the wine.

Baptiste spoke about the many factors that can influence the cultivation of grapes and therefore the production of a wine. Such factors include the soil the grapes grow on, the climate as well as the weather during any given year, not to mention the knowledge of the winemaker. Of course the experience of the winemaker greatly contributes to the final result.

He spoke about the legislation that exists surrounding what’s allowed and what’s forbidden when it comes to wine labeling. It turns out that 49 different ingredients can be added to wine without having to state it on the label. Wine is the only product that doesn’t have to list additives or ingredients on the label. I found that shocking. I’ve often wondered why there’s so little information on wine bottles concerning what’s inside.

Baptiste discussed the use of pesticides in wine production and (if I understood correctly) he said there isn’t much control on the use of pesticides in wine production. Even more surprising was the fact that, while organic wine has to use organically-grown grapes, once the grapes enter the production line anything can be added. As far as I gather, this means that organic wine is not such a superior product to a conventional non-organic wine. Organic doesn’t always mean good, it’s important to remember!

Regarding natural wine, it cannot be made without using organically-grown grapes. Baptiste compared pesticides to antibiotics, saying that they kill the good bacteria.

If organic wine is not as pure as natural wine, there is an even purer form of wine Baptiste referred to as biodynamic, which takes organic farming to a more spiritual level. A philosopher called Steiner is behind the idea. It’s linked to the moon and there’s a calendar to follow. Producers use nothing but plants (not even pesticide alternatives, as are used in natural wine). Makers of biodynamic wine use only what’s in the ecosystem around them.

While excessive added sulfites is definitely a bad thing when it comes to wine, sulfites are the only efficient conserving agent for wine. They have always existed. The first legislation on sulfites, back in 1487, permitted 19mg/litre of wine. Baptiste explained that a wine without sulfites doesn’t exist, they’re naturally occurring. At the end of a fermentation you generally get 10mg of sulfites.

Sulfites are used for three reasons; preservation, an anti-bacterial and thirdly, an antioxidant. Baptiste confirmed a strong suspicion I had about sulfites, they give you a hangover. He was careful of course not to condone drinking copious amounts of alcohol but he shared his own experience which was more positive the less sulfites were involved!

For conventional wines, there exist limits on the quantity of sulfites that can be added to various types of wine. For example 400mg/litre can be added to a sweet wine. When it comes to organic wines, slightly less sulfites may be added, yet still a lot. There is no legislation for natural wines but as a ballpark figure, it would generally fall around 30mg/litre for natural red wines. Natural sparkling wines have no added sulfites.

Baptiste went into far more technical detail about the production of natural wine and then we got to taste seven French wines, beginning with a champagne. Apparently sparkling wines open the palette, so on a Monday morning, there we sat in a closed wine bar swishing superb champagne around our mouths! I’ve had far worse Monday mornings, to say the least.

There are several bars and restaurants in Brussels serving natural (and even biodynamic) wines. You can go into a health shop here and find natural wines for sale, for less than a tenner. However, as Baptiste explained to us, calling a wine ‘natural’ on the label isn’t regulated yet. I’m concerned that as the demand increases for natural wines, the industry will really suffer if there isn’t proper regulation. On natural wines, they all have to state that they contain sulfites, which is somewhat misleading as they contain nowhere near as many added sulfites as conventional wines. They’re a far superior product, but if you’re not a very well-informed consumer, how are you to know the difference?

Bettina & Max’s, Barcelona

The first time I tasted natural wine was on my friend Bettina’s rooftop terrace in Barcelona a few years ago. I’d never even heard of natural wine at the time and was amazed when Bettina and Max explained the process of how it’s made. Her boyfriend’s mum produces her own natural wine in a tiny island off Sicily called Pantelleria. She doesn’t sell it, just produces enough for her family each year. It tastes phenomenal! I’m all for less sulfites and less hangover. Seek out some natural wine if you’re a fan of wine and try it!

Here’s my pal Bettina collecting organic grapes for their homemade wine Pantelleria.

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