5 Common Misconceptions about "Natural" Wine in Italy

Let’s start with 1. “Natural” wine in Italy is a new idea. It’s not. Wine has been made in Italy for about 3,000 years and until about fifty years ago, it was all “natural”. Vineyards were free of industrial chemicals (pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, etc.), fermentation occurred because of indigenous yeasts on the grapes and in the cellar, and vinification occurred without additives or industrial processes like micro-oxygenation to soften tannins or reverse osmosis to decrease the level of alcohol.

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2. Wine that has been certified “organic” wine is “natural”. Not necessarily because the 2012 European Union legislation outlining organic standards refers only to the vineyard, not the cellar. This graphic from the Institut Français du Vin shows the cellar practices allowed in wine: conventional, certified organic, certified biodynamic (Demeter) and “natural” wine (for which there is no certification). Natural winemaking consists only of spontaneous fermentation and the addition of tiny dose of sulfites only at bottling. (The difference between certified biodynamic and “natural” is the allowance of various forms of filtration.)

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It’s also worth noting that many “natural” winegrowers in Italy, particularly those with historical roots don’t bother with certification because it’s expensive, their standards exceed those needed for certification, and their wine sells on its merits as being great wine, not because its marketed as organic or biodynamic or natural. Some of Italy’s most iconic and expensive wines (like Rinaldi Barolo) are “natural” but not labeled or written about as such.

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3. “Natural” wine will, by definition, have defects (oxidized, fizzy, vinegary, overly acidic, etc.). Not true. First, it’s important to understand how “defect” is defined: a real defect or simply outside the norms for “industrial” wine.

Then, come to grips with the unavoidable fact that making defect free wine without manipulation in the cellar requires super healthy, high quality fruit. For this reason, most “natural” winegrowers go beyond organic standards in the vineyard to using some form of traditional or biodynamic farming that re-vitalizes the soil and creates holistic health in the vineyard.

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One of the most common practices is allowing spontaneous growth among the vines or planting other crops like fava beans.
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Another large contributor to healthy grapes and vines is biodiversity in and around the vineyards.
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4. “Natural” wine spoils easily and cannot age. This is one of the craziest misconceptions since wine has been aging for millennia, long before the advent of industrial processes and additives. While it is true that “natural” wine can be made in such a way that it should be drunk when it is very young, that is also true for many “conventional” wines. Contrary to the misconception, some “natural” wine ages actually has more aging capacity, depending on the variety and the way the wine is made.
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The misconception has largely derived from the fact that up and coming “natural” wine bars and restaurants serve wines that are easy drinking wines not meant to age. In reality, “natural” winegrowers make a range of wines from those that are meant to be drunk young and those that are meant for longer aging.

5. Lower quality “natural wine” is classified IGT or Vino Di Tavola instead of DOCG and DOC. Paradoxically, some of Italy’s historic and most interesting winegrowers are leaving the DOCG or DOC by declassifying their wine. The DOCG or DOC standards were initially created in the 60s and 70s to recognize and guarantee the quality of wine connected to a particular place and tradition. Ironically, “natural” winegrowers have had to leave the DOC or DOCG to maintain their standards.
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Stefano Bellotti declassified his DOCG Gavi to Vino di Tavola, for example, after the DOCG authorities fined him thousands of euros for having too many peach trees in this vineyard. Or Elisabetta Foradori decided to classify all of her wine to IGT to avoid bureaucratic headaches in making her native variety wines with natural methods in clay amphorae.
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In sum, the hype around “natural” wine has helped Italian winegrowers who never wavered from historic “natural” methods by bringing attention to the prevalence of “industrial” methods, but it has also created misconceptions. The best way to find wine that is delicious and truly made only from grapes (with at most, a little sulfite thrown in at bottling) is to begin your own voyage of discovery.

No certification can replace knowing the winegrower or knowing of the winegrower and what he/she does in the vineyard and in the cellar. To create that kind of access, I started writing this blog. If you are interested in meeting the winegrowers in Italy, see the travel pages or write Eleanor.

April, 2016

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Comments

  1. Reply

    Eleanor- Such an important piece! Thank you for your continual efforts to clarify the issue of what constitutes natural wine production. For me (a small importer of artisanal Italian wines), it usually comes down to a question of scale. A vineyard (and cantina operation) that expands beyond the capacity of an extended family unit (usually more than 40 hectares or 100 acres) of vines quickly moves into the realm of industrial wines where the trade-offs begin (like replacing hand labor and mechanical cultivation with chemicals, employing migrant labor to tend your vines, or voodoo chemistry in the cellar). Your final point is the most important, that just like all food we take into our bodies, nothing replaces knowing the wine grower and what he/she does in the vineyard and wine cellar.

    1. Reply

      Hi Robert, I’m glad the piece resonated with you. I found myself clarifying the issue so often that it finally seemed time to write an article. I agree that scale is often an indicator of artisan practices, but not always. Unfortunately, many small scale producers (3,000-50,000 bottles a year) use “industrial” methods in the cellar (especially additives like selected yeasts, clarifying and fining agents, sugar, tannins, etc.). On the other hand, some of the most outstanding artisan, natural producers are at the 100-150,000 bottle scale (Foradori, Occhipinti, and La Stoppa, for example), but I haven’t found any over about 150,000 bottles.

  2. Reply

    My grandma in the holiday home she bought in the 30s in the Valsugana grew enough wine to go halves with the contadino who actually did the work and still have enough to last the year. My mother remembered grandma opening the bottles and flicking the small amount of olive oil in the neck of the bottle over the railing of the veranda. Such were the methods to protect the wine from oxygen!
    I’m a huge fan of Foradori; I think Teroldego hugely undiscovered and underrated in the UK.

    1. Reply

      Love it!!! As you know, I’m a Foradori fan as well. Did you know that Teroldego derives from a version of “Tyrol D’Oro” (Gold from Tyrol)? It was the favorite of the nineteenth century Emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Franceso Giuseppe. I wonder if we should actually keep it a secret because once the word really gets out, it will be even harder to find!!!

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