By Frank Cipparone
Winemakers around the world are riding a green wave of interest in natural wine. A passing fancy or here to stay, it’s an extension of the farm-to-table concept spawned in the 1980s by Italy’s Slow Food movement.
What exactly makes a wine natural, and how does that relate to organic and bio- dynamic means of farming and producing? The terms are often used synonymously, which can be confusing. Aren’t natural and organic the same thing? By definition organic means “coming from living matter,” so aren’t all grapes organic? What exactly are producers telling us by putting organic or biodynamic on their labels? Although they may be related and use some of the same methods, there are differences.
The common ground is committing to sustainable agriculture that rejects any techniques that pollute or damage the vines. There’s a limit on if not, in some cases, a firm rejection of technology. Vineyards cannot be treated with chemicals such as insecticides, pesticides and other once commonly used synthetic applications. Grapes must be harvested by hand and fermented without temperature control by native yeasts found on their skins and lurking in the wine cellar. No method of filtering or removing particles from fermenting wine is permitted, giving it, as some winemakers believe, more authenticity and character. It’s no accident you sometimes find sediment in your glass.
Biodynamic viticulture emphasizes some of the same methods, but takes the concept of natural to another level with an eccentric back-to-the-future aura that’s as much a philosophy of the world and our place in it as it is about making wine. Proponents are often looked upon skeptically as flaky New Age misfits who bury manure-filled cow horns in the vineyards and tend to their grapes according to a lunar calendar. In reality, what they are doing harkens back to the simplicity of winemaking thousands of years ago.
The guiding principle is a holistic perception of the vineyard as a single organism
within a larger system where all living things including humans play a role. The goal is to protect nature, to create energy-efficient farming and winemaking.
All work is done by hand, with no machinery. Other plants and herbs like stinging nettles, chamomile and wildflowers grow freely among the vine rows, enriching soil fertilized by birds, horses, mules, farmyard dogs. Some practitioners spray herbal tea on their vines. The core belief of minimal human interference allows the land to develop over time without being forced to produce.
Ales Kristincic, a Slovenian winemaker featured in Sergio Esposito’s “Passion on the Vine,” sums it up: “… you must have faith in your vines, let them develop before taking their fruit. You take care of every element from the smallest particle of earth to the worms to the trees to the air.” If all goes well, when tough times arise during a growing season the vineyard has resources to heal itself.
That takes patience and an understanding of the land, its history and what it gives us. For Kristancic, it means “understanding the language of nature and staying out of its business. Just because we have new inventions why should we use them in place of nature. In every grape we have everything wine needs to develop. We don’t need to add what the grape itself doesn’t decide to give. If the thing that makes a wine unique is its territory, the wine must taste like the earth it comes from.”
Kristancic is adamant that unnatural enhancements corrupt wine and undermine the natural process. He believes that to know biodynamic winemaking is to understand that there are forces at work in the world that are beyond our grasp, unexplainable cosmic mysteries whose effects we see around us.
A belief in otherworldly forces can also be found in Sicily, Italy’s largest source of organic grapes. Robert Camuto delved into it in “Palmento: A Sicilian Wine Odyssey,” a revealing look at the role of wine in the island’s culture and history. One of Mount Etna’s foremost winemakers, Salvo Foti, says that a vineyard left to live on its own
“is much more beautiful, and a beautiful vineyard makes a beautiful wine. For me, the vine is a way that we connect, not just with nature but with everything. Wine is not the end – it is an instrument.” The unspoken end is the cosmos.
Farther south at the COS facility near Vittoria, Titta Cilia and Giusto Occhipinti would agree. Like Foti, they are disdainful of superficial, standardized wine that comes from artificially modified grapes which, according to them, is not true wine but a grapey alcoholic beverage. There are
no stylistic shortcuts to good wine or, as Occhipinti states “any material can’t make a mediocre wine a great one. All the qualities of a wine are in the grape.” Sound familiar?
Whereas Foti toils in abandoned stone palmenti used by generations of peasants, the partners put crushed grapes into large terra cotta amphorae buried underground as was done in Greek times. They remain untouched for six months so “the amphora can stimulate the wine by trapping its cosmic energy.”
Whether you buy into the mystique, there’s something reassuring about wine made by people who are doing what comes naturally.