by Fabio Bartolomei
on Apr 5, 2012
As I’m sure you all know, there’s no such thing as the “Natural Wine Movement”, except in the sociological sense, ie in the same way that there’s a “Risky Sports Movement”, a “Recycling Movement”, a “Real Ale Movement”, etc.
There’s not really a Secret Inner Ruling Council (even though I leaked the agenda from the last meeting here!), no membership cards, no statutes, no articles of association, no head-quarters, no offices, no rules, no nothing.
What there is, is quite a few associations of natural wine producers, mostly in France and Italy. They actually do have rules and criteria for membership, and if a winemaker agrees with them, then he or she can join the association. Here’s a list of the ones that I know about:
- Association des Vins Naturels
- La Renaissance des Apellations
- Productores de Vinos Naturales
- Vini Veri
What there also is, is a whole lot of people who share an interest! People of all sorts, from all over the world, and from all walks of life. These people include:
- Producers (associated or not). There must be a few thousand, producing an average of say 5 to 10,000 bottles a year. Mostly artisans, tiny part-timers with no webpage, selling only locally to friends and neighbours; some small viable businesses, with proper labels, distribution and sales networks; and even some bigger ones bordering on industrial style wineries. And there’s a whole grey area of traditional long-standing producers of fine wines who may or may not be ‘natural’ depending on your deifnition!
- Traders (importers, distributors, wholesalers). Difficult to work out how many there are, as some carry both natural wines, organic wines and conventinal wines in their portfolios.
- Retailers (winestores, restaurants, winebars). Again difficult to work out how many there are for the same reason, though I believe that more and more such places are opening up. Seems to be the only sector growing this days in the midst of a recession!
- Writers, journalists, bloggers. I don’t think many actually focus exclusively on natural wines, though recently over the last year or so, more and more conventional wine writers have started mentioning natural wines – usually negatively and/or focussing on side issues.
- And lastly, consumers, with every kind of day-job under the sun, but who at night come out and indulge in their passion for natural wines. The most inportant category of all, because without consumers, the rest of us would have nothing to do! There must be thousands of them, and increasing in numbers every day.
All these people have one thing in common: we all love to drink, enjoy and talk about natural wines. We all know what kind of wine we’re talking about, don’t we, even though there’s no legal or official definition. Maybe some of us would like to have an official definition, and maybe some of us like it the way it is now, and maybe some of us don’t care one way or the other. I personally don’t! Life is short! Let’s just all get on with it and stop fretting. I mean, seriously, who’s got the time and resources to actively attempt to get some
legislation passed on this? I think talking about this issue over a glass or two of natural wine is about the only effort I’m going to make in that direction! Cheers!
No Pedantic Definitions
It would be far too boring (both for me and for the readers of this post) to draw up my own list of forbidden substances and processes, in yet another personal definition of natural wine! Instead, I’ve decided to abide by Joe Dressner’s 14-Point Manifesto, which you can read here (on Cory Cartwright’s Saignée blog).
It’s anything but boring! In addition I’ve added a 15th Point:
“I have the right to delete, add to or modify any of the above-mentioned 14 Points, based on how I happen to be feeling at any given time. So there!”.
Also, I’ve decided to publish the information on the wines that I produce, with details of what I do and don’t do to each wine. On this blog (and on my future webpage), on printouts, and on the back-labels. That way, the consumers can all decide for themselves of the wine in question is natural or not, or just how natural it is on the scale of naturalness.
Which brings me to the main point of this post.
Below is a draft of the back-label that I’ve been working on. It would be great if you could give me some feedback on it. I’d be especially interested in your thoughts on the inclusion what the wine DOESN’T contain and what HASN’T been done to it. Is this legitimate? Is it disrespectful or denigrating? Is it legal?! Is it a good idea? Does the consumer have the right to know both what’s in a product and also what’s NOT in it? Whatever! Any thoughts would be greatly appreciated.
- – - – - – - – -
I consider this bottle of wine to be natural wine because of the Ingredients.
It contains the following:
Fermented organic grape juice
And it doesn’t contain the following:
Traces of pesticides, insecticides, herbicides and fungicides
Sugar, fruit juice, fruit extracts
Sulphites or other chemicals
I also consider this bottle of wine to be natural wine because of the Processing.
I did these things to it:
Crushed the grapes
Pressed the grapes
Racked the wine from one tank to another
And I didn’t do these things to it:
Heat up the wine
Cool down the wine
Filter the wine
Clarify the wine
Use reverse osmisis
Use spinning cones
Use sterile filtration
Use any other agressive techniques
I believe that all the above information is legitimate and relevant, and that the potential consumers have the right to know about the ingredients and processing of the product they are about to buy.
(Fabio, grapegrower, winemaker and marketer)
by Fabio Bartolomei
on Feb 21, 2012
Last Saturday we pressed the grapes from our clay amphora. This is an experimental lot of about 300 kg of grapes that we crushed and fermented back in September 2011. Ever since we moved ito the current winery in Morata de Tajuña a few years ago, I’d been noticing these two old clay amphorae sitting in a corner of the patio, gehtering dust and leaves. So finally, last August, I mede the effort, and I managed to convince Juan (my partner) and the other Juan (the owner of the winery and of the amphorae) to clean one and to use it to make wine (see this post).
So in Spetember, when we harvested the Malvar grapes from our new vineyard in Villarejo, we filled up the amphora with manually crushed grapes, sealed it, and basically left it alone. We didn’t add any substances at all (no SO2) and we just punched down the cap every so often until the skins didn’t float any more. Anyway, that’s 5 months of skin contact.
During this time, the skins, pips, lees, etc all sank to the bottom and the top became liquid – a golden transparent liquid.. Every so often we would open up the ‘lid’ (a plastic sheet tied down tightly) and we would taste the wine to see how it was developing.
Phase 1, as is the case with any of our operations, was cleaning and setting up. In this case it was quite simple as all we needed was a basket press, a stainless steel tank and pneumatic lid, and some assorted bits and pieces.
Phase 2 was scooping out the liquid part from the top of the amphora. We used buckets and poured it straight into a separate airtight container, not into the press. We want to keep this wine separate from the wine we press off the grapes, to see if they are different in any way. With hindsight, we realized that we could have moved this wine by gravity, just using a simple plastic hose or tube, but we didn’t think that there would be so much of it. We expected only a few bottles worth, but we ended up with about 50 liters. A little lesson learned there for the future!
Phase 3 was scooping out the grapey-winey semi-solid mush and puting it into the basket press. This we did with buckets until the level got too low for us to reach down into.
Phase 4 was tipping the ampora over so we could continue to scoop out and fill the press. We had to be really careful as we didn’t want to have an accident and break the amphora, so we secured it to the wall with a wire, after tipping it over to about 45º. But no good – we still couldn’t reach all the way down to the bottom, so we just laid it down horizontally. Mission accomplished! And with the added bonus that the quantity on the amphora was just right to fill the basket press, so we could press the lot in only one session.
Phase 5. The last phase is always cleaning the equipment used and tidying up. A great bore to be sure, but really necessary!
Some thoughts and some tasting notes
We were all surprised at the quality of both the liquid wine at the top and of the soupy gunge at the bottom. There were absolutley no off-tastes or off-aromas. During the tastings over the last 5 months, the dominant tastes and aromas were those of clay and earth! And we weren’t really too happy about that. But on Saturday, for the first time, we tasted the wine physically far away from the amphora (we went outside into the patio), and the clay and earth tastes and aromas were almost gone! They certainly weren’t dominant. Instead we could taste ‘normal wine’ with notes of citrus, quite tannic and mineral and bitter, but with some sweetness there too. We think that this wine has got some way to go still, and that it will age well. In fact, we’re thinking of looking for a used oak barrel, that was used for white wine, and ageing it in there for a while. In a week or so, depending on tastings, and ambient temperatures, and level of clarification, we’ll rack off the big lees, let it settle down again, and see how it develops. Maybe we’ll keet the two lots separate or maybe mix them back together again.
I wonder how they did it in the old days before stainless steel and when clay amphorae were common, especially the big fat ones that ccould hold thousands of liters. How on earth did the move the grapes/must/wine/pomace?
Mid-morning as we were pressing the grapes, we received a surprise visit from a group of people who are going to open a stall in the Municipal Market (in the Lavapiés District of Madrid), selling organic wine, not only in bottles but also loose, by the liter, in recyclable, reusable containers, in some arrangement with their customers. I think that’s a great initiative, as these municipal markets are kind of languishing these days – I suppose due to competition from supermarkets, shopping malls and an aging population in the city centre.
They told me that the Ayuntamiento (City Council) has relaxed its Byzantine requirements for obtaining a license, but that even so it was still a Kafkaesque nightmare! They haven’t actually got their license yet, but they’ve started sourcing their local organic wines already – hence their surprise visit. After us, they were off to see another organic wine producer Andrés Morate in Belmonte del Tajo. Anyway, I hope they like the samples we gave them and that they succeed in obtaining their license and that they order some wine from us.
by Fabio Bartolomei
on Feb 16, 2012
We’ve gotten off to a good start with the pruning this year. We started right after New Year and have finished the small upper plot of the Carabaña vineyard – about 250 vines (all white Airén variety). It took so long to do because apart from the actual pruning, we also hoed up the earth around each vine to remove the grass and plants and to aerate the soil a bit.
We don’t plough up the vineyard between the rows like all our neighbours do – instead we let all the grasses, plants, flowers and thistles grow, and we just cut them back once or twice a year when they get too high. We also leave the canes from the pruning and chop them up into little pieces; and all this organic matter returns to the soil, improving its structure and fertility.
This way of doing things has its advantages and disadvantages. The main disadvantage, I think, is the competition for water and nutrients from the grasses and plants. But, on the other hand, grass and plants have relatively small short roots, while vines have very long deep ones, as well as surface roots, and they seem to manage fine; also the vines we have, Airén and Tempranillo, are well suited to the climate and don’t need a lot of water.
The main reason for leaving all the grasses and plants is to provide a habitat for insects that all predate on each other, so no one species ever becomes a problem and attacks the vines or grapes. We’ve never used any pesticides in all the years (9) that we’ve been cultivating the vineyard.
by Fabio Bartolomei
on Oct 26, 2011
I’ve been thinking about this whole “natural wine thing” for a good few years now and have been following posts and articles and commenting on people’s wine blogs, and I’ve even written a few posts myself. A lot of ideas and concepts have been percolating around in my subconscious during all this time and every so often I’ve received direct conscious stimulus, via reading, via my own commenting and via real-life conversations. And recently the whole big formless thought-mass in my brain seems to have coalesced a bit and so I wrote this post. I hope it’s the last one I write for a long time, because I’m a wine producer, not a wine writer! But anyway, I had to get it all out!
Basically, my big preoccupation has been, and still is: “Why is this natural wine thing making such big waves?”, “Why are so many wine people getting involved in the debate?”, “Why is there any debate in the first place?”, “Why are people taking such extreme radical positions at both ends of the spectrum? And in all the spaces in between too?”
The World of Wine is Different?
This acrimonious debate (between natural wine proponents and natural wine detractors) doesn’t happen in the world of beer. There’s been a “Real Ale” movement around for years and years, and ALL beer drinkers seem to be very happy living together and drinking their beers together. There are no real ale enthusiasts who go around saying that conventional beer is adulterated industrial rubbish; neither are there any conventional beer-drinkers/writers who say that real ale is ‘faulty’ and/or a marketing ploy, while grudgingly admitting that there a few good real ales out there.
It doesn’t happen in the world of food either. There’s a market for say, hand-fed, free-range turkeys, and another one for factory-farmed supermarket turkeys. Same applies to cheeses, hams, eggs, pâtés… you name it! And all these consumers and writers seem to be quite happy to get on with it without attacking the other side.
So, what is it with wine that makes both sides so aggressive and hostile to each other? I have no definitive answer here, just some ideas that I’d like to share, and I would love to hear your thoughts on this whole issue. Here are some of my ideas about why the world of wine is different:
1. The fact that wine is an alcoholic beverage sets it apart, I think, from any other food item. The fact that alcohol alters your state of consciousness must in the end make you more enthusiastic or passionate about the product! Wine (alcohol) can make you feel … well, any emotion you can define, depending on your predisposition and circumstances and events at the moment of drinking: on the positive side, happy, mellow, optimistic, irrationally exuberant, passionate, etc … and on the negative side, sad, depressed, violent, ill, etc. The important point being that it makes you feel ‘different’ from your normal state. This is something that a food item, no matter how exotic or well-cooked can never ever make you feel. (Well, maybe chocolate! But chocolate-lovers also just eat and enjoy their favourite quality chocolate – they don’t have debates about industrial chocolate).
2. But what about beer then? Why is there not such a wide range of passions inspired by beer, which is also an alcoholic beverage? Beats me! Thoughts, anyone?
3. Wine also has certain ‘romantic’ sub-conscious cultural connotations attached to it, in the sense that many people dream about owning a vineyard (like they do about winning the lottery), but no-one dreams about owning a turkey-farm, or even a brewery! There seems to exist in all human beings’ minds this Jungian isotope of a bucolic winemaker, in his dusty cobwebbed cellar, lovingly and carefully hand-crafting his wine! This also must contribute to inflaming passions about natural wine, even though this bucolic picture is as far removed from reality as it’s possible to go.
But the above factors are not enough really, to actually cause all the acrimonious debate we’ve been seeing lately. Enabling and contributing factors, maybe yes, but there’s something missing. Well, a chance conversation a few weeks ago, made another piece of the puzzle fall into place for me. I was talking to a person involved in both the wine AND the beer world, and this is what he said. The beer world is dominated by a very small number of very large multi-national companies who between them have over 90% of the world market and the rest is made up by tiny local artisan type outfits that have little to no impact or influence on anything. In addition, the world beer market is a lot bigger than the world wine market. In contrast to this, the wine world is atomized. There are a few big global wine players but there’s no comparison with the big beer boys. Then there are literally thousands, if not tens of thousands of large-sized wineries, middle-sized wineries and even more small-sized wineries, and countless numbers of tiny, unclassified, unregistered micro-wineries. And all these players have a voice, and influence and are actually listened to.
(Just let me say, before developing this idea further, that I haven’t actually done any research or due diligence to confirm the numbers and the structure of the beer and wine worlds. It just seems intuitively right, from (my) common knowledge, and I haven’t got the time to do it. Can anyone confirm or refute this scenario?)
So, to continue, the only conclusion I could come to (utterly incredible as it seems) was that certain conventional wine-makers are running scared! They must be seeing a real threat in the whole natural/organic/biodynamic wine movement. I realize that this is an incredible thing to say, and I’ve been shocked myself for weeks, but I can’t come up with any other explanation. This doesn’t happen in the beer world because the handful of multinationals are so big and so totally dominate the market that they have nothing to worry about.
Conventional wineries running scared?
Some reasons why I think some conventional wineries are running scared:
1. A lot of ‘conventional’ wineries (large, middle and small) are going bankrupt; they can’t sell their wine, and they can’t even under-sell it. Because their wine is boring, globalized, and indistinguishable from any other of the tens of thousands of similar brands from all over the world. No way can they compete with a natural/organic/biodynamic wine in the same price bracket! Or I am wrong?
2. The Environmental and Health Issue. Consumers are becoming ever more aware of the issue of additives in food products and the use of chemicals in agriculture, and are slowly but surely shifting their purchasing decisions in the ‘green’ direction. Some conventional wineries – the ones with savvy and resources – have been moving in that direction for years. But others just can’t, or don’t want to do it, for whatever reason. They’re between a rock and a hard place.
3. The Labelling Issue. Related to the above, consumers are starting to question why wine is exempted from the requirement to list all the ingredients on the packaging of a food product. Natural/organic/biodynamic winemakers tend to be quite open and vociferous about this issue, and that’s another point in their favour vis-à-vis the consumer.
4. The Quality Issue. I’m not talking about mere compliance with legal, health & safety, and technical requirements, and then printing a ‘quality seal’ on the label. I’m talking about the real intrinsic quality of the grapes and of the purity of the finished product. Conventional (industrial-chemical) wine may well taste nice and comply with all the current tasting criteria, but that’s not enough. More and more consumers know that its full of unnecessary chemicals and substances, that may even have health implications even though they are legal and deemed ‘safe’. There’s no comparison between the clean, pure, pristine aromas and tastes of a well-made natural wine, and those of a ‘well-made’ industrial one.
A Twitter conversation some time ago, about ‘quality’ wine, made me realize that there’s actually a lot more natural wine and natural wine-makers out there than people realize – and they’ve been around for a long, long time! The thing is, they don’t promote themselves as such. I’m referring to top-of-the-range quality wine producers (‘conventional’ ones), who have been quietly practicing organic/sustainable/biodynamic agriculture in their vineyards, but without publicizing the fact; and who have been respecting the must/wine in the winery and haven’t been over-manipulating or intervening excessively; who in fact have been producing natural wines without telling anyone about it! And some of them have been doing it for a long, long time – long before the ‘green’ movement started back in the 1970’s. I think that this fact is very interesting and significant. And they’re not the ones that are going bankrupt!
Basically, conventional industrial-chemical wineries have got a lot to be worried about. In the middle of a world recession, the only sector that seems to be actually growing is the organic/ natural/ biodynamic/ green sector, including wine, so they are seen as direct competition. Hence the aggressive reaction to the natural wine phenomenon. They’re defending their turf – by attacking!
Typical Criticisms of Natural Wine
I’ve noticed over the years that the ‘criticisms’ of natural wine come in several different flavours:
1. The “Semantic” Attack
Many posts start off (or even focus exclusively) on how natural wines are not in fact natural at all, based on the dictionary definition of the word ‘natural’; ie the authors seem to imply that a wine would only be natural if the must spontaneously dripped out of the grapes, fell onto a leaf or into a hole, and fermented there all by itself. Then a human would come by, gather it up and say “Hey, natural wine, anyone?”
Well, I think that everybody (proponents and detractors alike) already know that it’s not natural to plant vines in rows, to prune them specifically to promote fruit production as opposed to foliage, and to use machines and constructs to make wine. Anything that humans do, using even the most basic tools is not natural by that definition.
The question I ask myself is why this focus on semantics when it’s so obvious that ‘natural’ is just a word, adopted spontaneously by a critical mass of people, and given another meaning. Here’s my theory:
The unspoken, unwritten connotations of calling certain wines ‘natural’ implies that other wines are ‘un-natural’ – and that’s not nice at all for the producers and sellers of those ‘other’ wines! (same applies with words like ‘authentic’, ‘real’, ‘sustainable’, etc). I used to be kind of understanding and a bit embarrassed about this issue, and actually took the side of the conventional wine-makers, but I have to say that I’ve come round, and now I think that it’s perfectly fine to call certain wines ‘natural’, because basically it’s TRUE.
The unnecessary additives and excessive processing totally de-naturalize those other wines. The number and range of these additives and aggressive processes that can be applied to wine-making is truly mind-boggling; the final product is so far removed from the grapes and the land that the figure of ‘wine-maker’ is no longer even relevant – we’re now talking about process engineers and chemists – chemical soup-makers adding ingredients and cooking up soup-wines to order, in accordance with commercial and industrial criteria of convenience.
So why the semantic attack? I think that the reason that critics focus so much on semantics is that deep down they also know that it’s true. And it hurts. It’s perfectly obvious, by any definition, that the wines they’re making or promoting are totally un-natural. They’re attacking because attack is the best form of defence, even if it’s a totally irrelevant and trivial attack.
Basically, this semantic criticism is just a distraction from the real, more interesting issues related to natural wine. Those semantic related posts should really be posted on a linguistics page, where etymologists and wordsmiths can discuss the different meanings of the word ‘natural’ in the English language.
2. The “Marketing Ploy” Attack
Many posts critical of natural wine say that this natural wine thing is just a passing fad, a marketing ploy, just the latest cool thing to talk about, write about and drink. Well, on the one hand, I think that this is true, because there really is an extraordinary amount of debate going on, and there are things happening in the real world too (like new natural wine bars opening up, restaurants including natural wines in their wine lists, etc). Well, yes! That’s how we humans operate! Things go in and out of fashion, and now it’s natural wine’s turn to be in the limelight for a while, until the next big thing comes along. But on the other hand, I think there’s more to it than that. Much more. I think that this ‘fad’ is part of a much wider, further-reaching and longer-term phenomenon: I’m talking about the slowly and gradually increasing awareness by the general public of the environmental and health issues related to industrial and chemical food production (including wine), which started back in the 60’s or 70’s, if not before. Natural wine is just another facet of the same ‘organic’, ‘biodynamic’, ‘sustainable’, ‘green’ movement. The zeitgeist has been getting greener for decades and is getting greener and greener as time goes by.
Food scandals and health and environmental tragedies happen regularly every year or so. (I won’t bore you with a list, but just quickly remember, for example: Mad Cow Disease, Swine Fever, poisoned Perrier water, dioxin chickens, wine with methanol, the Hungarian toxic sludge disaster, etc, not to mention certain chemicals suddenly being banned which were previously deemed to be ‘safe’). Just type “food scandal” at Google and see for yourself.
I think the industrial-chemical wine producers and promoters know that slowly the tide is turning, that the zeitgeist is greening, and that their numbers are up! In fact, for many of them, touched by the recession, it’s endkampf already – they’re going bankrupt and they can’t sell their wine. Real data from reliable official sources back me up here – see the exponentially increasing graphs of organic land under cultivation and of new companies producing and/or selling organic products (United Nations FAO, EU Agriculture Directorate, Spanish Ministry of Agriculture, for example).
Basically, this criticism is also just a distraction, with no real content related to natural wine worth discussing here. Such criticisms should really be posted in a marketing or sociology page.
3. The “Mystic, Star-Gazing, Tree-Hugging Winemaker” Attack
Posts critical of natural wines sometimes contain personal references to individual natural winemakers who either said or did something weird, or who in fact really are a bit eccentric. These references are intended to de-legitimize the winemaker by implying that he or she is not a true professional and is more concerned with ‘weird’ stuff like astrology, tree-hugging, cow horns, etc than with the serious business of making wine. Any serious wine critic would just taste the wine in question and professionally criticize it. Again, I’d say this is just another example of distraction, mud-slinging, and finger-pointing.
4. The “Unscrupulous Winemaker” Attack
Another criticism is the insinuation that unscrupulous natural winemakers are selling faulty wine to an unsuspecting public. As far as ‘unscrupulous’ is concerned, firstly I don’t think that natural wine-makers are a species apart and not susceptible to normal human failings. Common sense would suggest that there obviously must be some natural winemakers who are in fact unscrupulous. But it would be a pointless task, in my opinion, to try and find out the exact percentage! And secondly, I’d say “Look who’s talking!” Just think of the number and magnitude and frequency of conventional wine scandals, perpetrated by unscrupulous conventional wine people! Again I won’t bore you with a list, but just quickly remember only last year when unscrupulous French wine producers sold 18 million bottles of fake Pinot Noir to the USA!!! It’s really quite extraordinary for conventional wine people to accuse natural wine people of being unscrupulous! I suppose they must be thinking (again!) along the lines of “Attack is the best form of defence” or pointing the finger at someone else distracts attention from your own misdeeds. Again, just type “wine scandal” at Google and see for yourself.
Basically, this criticism is yet another distraction.
5. The “Lump All Natural Wines Together” Attack
Many posts criticizing natural wines lump them all together and make sweeping statements like “Natural wines are “X” (insert adjective). This is illogical to say the least, as natural wines come in all possible ranges of styles, depending on the region, climate, grape variety, winemaker, etc. There are just as many, if not more styles and variations of natural wines as there are of conventional ones. It’s just as ridiculous to say something like “Conventional wines are “X” (insert adjective). Enough said!
6. The “Faulty Wine” Attack
I’ve been saving this one for the last!
Many posts critical of natural wines state openly that natural wines are somehow faulty or have serious defects, and that they sometimes have minor ones, like cloudiness or ‘funkiness’. (The authors can never resist an attempt at humour and/or creative writing here, when talking about funkiness!). Firstly, I’d like to deal with a minor point, and then move on to the important, interesting and relevant topic of ‘wine faults’:
The Numbers Game. Critics seem to imply that all or most (or just many) natural wines are inherently faulty, but common sense suggests that this simply can’t be the case. Natural wines have been around a long time, so if they really were all faulty then the consumers would have stopped buying them and the winemakers would have stopped making them! What are the real numbers? People who have been to natural wine fairs and tasted a lot of different natural wines would be in an excellent position to opine! Unfortunately, I myself haven’t tasted widely enough, but for what it’s worth, of the limited number of natural wines that I have tasted, I considered none to be faulty.
Now for the “fault” issue. This is where I think an interesting, sensible and engaging debate could be had between natural wine proponents and sceptics. Because this is what it’s really all about! It’s about judging a wine on its own merits. It’s about tasting. The proof is in the bottle, after all, so let’s have no more nonsense about semantics, marketing ploys, mysticism or any other peripheral distraction. The fault issue is in fact, in my opinion, the ONLY area where a legitimate, sensible, useful and interesting criticism of natural wines can be made.
So where do I stand on this issue? Firstly, I believe that many critics and tasters often find “faults” where none exist. How can I say such a thing? Because I suspect that many wine tasters and critics have become too accustomed to the standard, international, globalized, Parkerized style of wine that is considered to be ‘good’ lately, and their range of tolerance, or acceptability, is very narrow and restricted for all the measureable characteristics of a wine considered relevant nowadays. If any characteristic (acidity, fruitiness, sweetness, body, alcohol, volatile acidity, etc) falls outwith their restricted band of acceptability, they’re too quick to call the wine faulty. They can’t see the wood for the trees, or they don’t realize just how restricted and conditioned they’ve become by globally imposed homogenized commercial marketing based tasting criteria.
Secondly, before globalization and planetary-scale exporting, there was a massive range of local wine styles, each of which had its own merits and de-merits. But now all wines, no matter where they come from, or what grape variety they are made from, have to be judged to one global, international standard (ie, Parker’s personal liking for big, alcoholic, oaky fruit-bombs). Why? That’s just one style of wine among many. But why should any wine whose traditional style was anything other than big, alcoholic, oaky and fruit-driven even be compared to such a wine, let alone judged by those criteria?
Thirdly, I believe that the universal presence of sulphites (up to the legal limits) has also blurred critics’ and tasters’ ability to perceive the true tastes and aromas of wine. When these levels of sulphites are lacking (industrial-chemical wines can contain up to 10 times more sulphites than a natural wine), many previously masked tastes and aromas show through that a conventional critic cannot identify or recognize and immediately calls a fault. I think there’s immense scope for a mutually interesting and useful debate on this point, which I haven’t seen happening so far. For example, why are certain aromas and tastes considered ‘good’ or ‘positive’ today and others considered ‘bad’ or ‘negative’ and classified as ‘faults’. The most extreme example that springs to mind is the bubbles in champagne being considered a ‘fault’ back in the 18th century.
Fourthly, in the case of oxidized (or oxidative, if you like) natural wines, conventional critics simply don’t understand that far from being faulty, these wines were in fact made that way on purpose! They are a genre of wine in their own right. Consumers actually like them, buy them, drink them and enjoy them! Like blue, mouldy cheese, for example. A conventional cheese-lover would recoil in shock and horror on being presented with such a cheese for the first time, and would immediately assume that it was ‘faulty’. After all, the look, smell and taste of mould is nothing like those of your standard, globalized white cheese, is it?
Fifthly, another thing that conventional critics don’t seem to realize is that cloudiness is not a fault either, but a deliberate feature! Some natural wine consumers actually like cloudiness (sometimes) and natural winemakers actually desist from filtering and/or clarifying on purpose! Why? Because some winemakers and some wine-lovers believe that when you filter and/or clarify wine you also take out the ‘good stuff’ (ie aromas and flavours) along with the supposed ‘bad stuff’. Cloudiness is really just a ‘commercial fault’ because market studies have shown that the average consumer prefers a transparent clear wine to a cloudy one. But what’s that got to do with good wine or good wine-making? Nada! It’s got everything to do with good marketing.
So, where does all the above leave me? Well, as far as the debate is concerned, I’m willing to engage with any critic who focuses on the merits and demerits of a natural wine, in a professional or amateur capacity; I would love to talk about possible faults and characteristics and perception and ranges of acceptability and beyond; but I’ve no more time for semantics or other distractions, even though they’re interesting topics in their own right.
And what kind of wines will I be making? ‘Natural’ or not natural? Well, I’m not going to get bogged down writing my own definition of natural wine and getting into pointless arguments, both with natural wine sceptics AND proponents. For me, this question is best resolved by full disclosure by the winemakers, of what they add and of what they take out, and of what they do and don’t do to the must/wine in the winery. Then consumers can decide for themselves whether the wine in question meets their personal criteria for being ‘natural’. It’ll be a different story, though, if/when legislation is passed officially defining natural wine! So, that’s what I intend to do: provide all the relevant winemaking information on the label and on my webpage.
I’ll be making wines that are top quality – according to my own definition above (and of course also complying with any legal requirements). I believe that the quality of the grapes is fundamental to the quality of the wine. So I’ll be both growing my own, and also buying in from known and trusted growers. I won’t be adding any chemicals, and I won’t be taking anything out. I won’t be subjecting the must or wine to any unnecessary processing.
I guess that makes my wines pretty natural, but I also won’t be dogmatic. If I have to use sulphites, I will. If I have to choose between intervening in some way or risk losing the wine, then I’ll intervene. This may make the wine in question a bit less ‘natural’ in the eyes of some, but I can live with that. My intention is of course not to intervene, but sometimes “mistakes are made”, as they say, due to inexperience, carelessness, or whatever. But even in these worst case scenarios of unavoidable intervention, my wines will still be of a higher quality than an equivalent industrial-chemical one, and will still easily comply with any current organic legislation.
I’ll be growing grapes in a way that is actively beneficial for the environment, and supporting other growers who work in the same way. I won’t be purchasing chemicals, and polluting the soil and groundwaters, and killing wildlife. On the contrary, I’ll be creating biodiversity and improving the fertility and structure of the soil.
I’ll be making wines that express all the above! I’ll be making wines that taste good, but not at any cost; like I said, I won’t support the chemical industry that is partly responsible for the world’s pollution and health problems. Ultimately, this is a very personal decision, because I could easily produce chemical wines if I wanted to – in fact it would probably be easier and cheaper for me! But I’ve decided. Life is short! I want to do something that is not only immensely gratifying to me personally in the present, but is also socially useful and positive, and contributes to leaving the world in a better state than I found it in, for the benefit of our children and future generations. As opposed to the industrial-chemical approach which basically consists of abusing the environment, and treating it as if it were a free dumping ground for their effluents, to be cleaned up later, by others, in the interests of short-term production at any cost.
This is what I’ve decided. The proof is in the bottle. All the rest is just words.
by Fabio Bartolomei
on Sep 21, 2011
Last Saturday (17th) and Sunday (18th) we harvested all grapes from our new vineyard in Villarejo de Salvanés (Spain). Incredibly, and in contrast to all expectations, we managed to pick all the grapes and we don’t have to go back another day to finish off. We had calculated at least 4 days of picking, but we did it in only 2 days. Two reasons for this, I think:
Firstly, we had an amazing turnout of volunteers to help us pick: friends, friends of friends, and consumers who buy our wines, etc. On Sunday there were 16 of us!
Secondly, I think that the vineyard is actually less than a hectare, which is the size we had just assumed it was, for some reason or other!. I’ll have to check it out on SigPac as soon as I can. This is a free online application by the Spanish Ministry of Agriculture. It’s a bit like Google Maps, but focussed on agriculture, ie it shows the type of crops planted, the boundaries of each individual plot, easy-to-use tools for measuring distances and aeras, etc.
No rabbits here in this vineyard thankfully, like in Carabaña (see this post from last week), where they ate a significant percentage of our grapes!. I think this is because this vineyard in Villarejo is completely surrounded by other vineyards and olive groves, whereas in Carabaña, the vineyard is surrounded by grassland and low hills, which seems to be more rabbit-friendly territory.
Some of the grapes we harvested were affected by oidium or mildew, which appeared suddenly over the last two weeks. This was our fault entirely because earlier this year (in Spring – early Summer) we decided not to spray any sulphur powder, because the vines and grapes looked so healthy and vigorous. I think maybe a preventive powdering will be required next year.
Also, we’re going to have to think really hard about the pruning this Winter. All the vines (which are old – about 60 years at least, judging by the size of the trunks) have been shaped in a rather strange way that we hadn’t seen before. Instead of the usual main vertical trunk, with three or four horizontal ‘arms’, these vines consist of just the trunk with the shoots coming directly off the top all round. When the shoots are fully grown, they grow out and down, and they create a sort of upside down bowl, with the grape bunches on the inside, with not much exposure to wind or sunshine. (An image is worth 1000 words here, but unfortunately I don’t have one!). We’ll have to prune in such a way as to give the bunches maximum exposure to sun and wind.
We decided not to stop for lunch as we usually do at 2-ish, but instead to finish picking the whole vineyard. That way we could go for lunch late (even by Spanish standards!) and relax and enjoy for the rest of the day.
All my worrying of the previous days was for nothing! The rational part of my brain knows this! Every single harvest we’ve done over the last 8 years (and that makes at least 32 harvests!) has always worked out well in the end, no matter what the inevitable complications that have always arisen, so why should the next one be any different? Go figure! When is HumanBrain 2.0 coming out, that’s what I want to know!
I have to say that I was even a bit short and aggressive to my partner Juan, about some triviality or other (like which rows people were working on or something), which with hindsight now is totally embarrassing and ridiculous. But thankfully I think he understands that during vendimia people say all sorts of things that are out of character and that can be completely and safely ignored for the duration! Anyway, I think I’m on the road to recovery. My brain is functioning better every day, and I’m growing a beard to try to hide the cold-sores that have erupted on my face due to the stress and not eating properly! I’m already smoking less and eating more fruit! I know that the grapes are safe and and the fermentations are all under control
Anyway, at about 5 o’clock we took the grapes to the bodega in Morata de Tajuña and put them inside (at a temperature 25ºC), stacked up on pallets, ready for processing the next day. In the end we only took in about 2,000 kg. That night we took them outside into the patio, as nighttime temperatures have been dropping a lot here in Madrid lately (minimums of about 12ºC). It’s still nice’n’ hot during the day though, ie I’m still wearing sandals, shorts and a T-shirt.
Having arrived safety at the bodega in Morata de Tajuña, about 20 km from Villarejo, we lit a barbecue, and ate and drank (our wine from 2010!) and made merry!!! There was no shortage of beer either, because there’s nothing like a cold bottle of beer after a long hot day picking grapes!! It has to be said!
And lastly, a Spanish saying, which was tweeted to me the other day by @Vdelaserna:
“Al cura de Villarejo de Salvanés
le cuelgan los cojones hasta los piés”
by Fabio Bartolomei
on Sep 14, 2011
On Saturday 10th and Sunday 11th September we finished harvesting the Airén in Carabaña (Spain).
The Good News
The good news is that the grapes were very healthy and shown no signs at all of any type of infection (eg, mildew or oidium). They were also perfectly ripe (for the type of wine we’ll be making with them), with a probable alcohol level of 12% and good acidity.
The weather on Saturday was exactly the same as it has been for the last few weeks here in Madrid, ie hot and cloudless, probably about 40ºC max during the day. On Sunday, it was pretty similar but with a bit of light cloud cover, and even occasional breezes (which were very much appreciated!)
More good news was that we had a very good turnout of volunteers, especially parents and children. (We rely on friends and family and neighbours for the harvesting, and to a lesser extent for the pruning, as we can’t afford to pay professional pickers!). So we managed to finish the Carabaña vineyard and can now concentrate our new vineyard in Villarejo.
The Bad News
The bad news is that the rabbits this year have eaten a significant proportion of our grapes! Usually they’ve been content to nibble a few bunches from the vines on the edges of the vineyard, and we’ve been happy with that too. But this year, there must have been a population explosion in rabbit-world for some reason or another! Basically, ALL the grapes from the edge vines were eaten, the proportion getting less towards the centre of the vineyard furthest from the edges.
This year we only have about 600 liters of must, which will give about 800 bottles of wine, when we usually get from 1000 to 2000 bottles
We’ll have to do something about that next year. Any suggestions welcome! So far people have suggested the following:
• A fence (for too expensive and time consuming for us. It has to be high AND buried)
• Shiny CDs hanging from the vines
Crushing and Pressing
Again, as we did with the Tempranillo, we had a manual crushing machine and plastic buckets for those who wanted to stomp the grapes barefoot.
First, I’m very pleased about the following:
- that we’ve finished harvesting Carabaña in only 2 weekends
- that so many people turned out to help, and that they all had a great time, especially the children
- that the quality of the grapes was so high. The wine will be awesome (assuming we don’t do anything wrong over the next few months!!!)
But secondly, I’m now a bit worried about harvesting the new vineyard at Villarejo. The grapes are very ripe at this very moment (about 12% probable alcohol, according to the quick n dirty sampling and analysis I did yesterday) so we really ought to harvest them all this weekend. And there’s a lot of grapes there, about 4,000 kg, and we never know how many people will be coming to harvest. My head is full of doubts and worries and minor details (Where are all the scissors? Are there enough cases? Where can we get a van for transporting the grapes to the bodega? What to do for lunch? Who should I call? How to stop these monkeys chattering in my brain so I can think straight? ….) I’ve lost my appetite and am smoking like a chimney! At least I’m still writing posts and uploading photos to FB and Twitter!
by Fabio Bartolomei
on Sep 7, 2011
All done! Grapes picked and crushed already! I have to check my notes from past years to be sure, but I get the impression that the harvest is earlier and earlier every year!
We picked the grapes on Saturday 27th August, and, unusually, it was a very relaxed, no-stress, no-rush, family and children oriented day. Altogether there were 7 parents, 7 young children and only 2 singles!!!
We started rather late, at about 10 o’clock. Which is not bad actually, considering that we had to wake the kids up early while they’re on holiday with no school, get them dressed, give them breakfast, and get all their stuff together, etc, etc!!! One mother and children hadn’t even arrived at 14:00 (when the above photo was taken) and when we were finishing off and getting ready to go to lunch!!!
We picked about 400 kg max, which is the lowest quantity we’ve ever picked from that vineyard over the last 8 years. I don’t know why so little this year. Maybe the climate? It was a rather cool summer this year. I shall have to ask around. Maybe also we need to bring in some fertilizer? In the past we’ve always brought in a truck-load of organic manure every 2 years, and we should have done it this year, but we didn’t (due to circumstances!).
The quality on the other hand, was excellent. Not a single sign of mildew or oidium or anything else.
In fact, this year we didn’t even apply sulphur to the vines at any time. Some years we spray sulphur powder on the vines if there’s a risk of an outbreak of oidium/mildew/etc, but this year it wasn’t necessary.
It was all over by 15:00, and after taking the grapes to the bodega (in Morata de Tajuña) we all went to a bar with a ‘terraza’ for coffee, beer, ice-cream, etc, and stayed there till the evening. It was the quickest, easiest harvest I’ve ever done, in fact it didn’t seem like work at all!!!
The last thing I did before heading back to Madrid, was to take the grapes outside, so they could cool down during the night.
We crushed the grapes today Sunday 28th August. Again, it didn’t seem like work at all as there was such a small quantity. We were done in a few hours.
We crushed most of the grapes using this machine (below): a manual crusher-destemmer. You tip a box of grapes into the open top and turn the wheel (left). The grapes fall between 2 rollers that are spaced at less the width of a grape (eg, about 0.5 cm), are crushed and fall down into the waiting ‘capazo’. The stems are ejected at the end opposite the wheel.
But we also crushed some underfoot (see pic below). I’ve heard that people pay good money to go and stomp on grapes! Hmmmm!
Lastly, as they say in Spain (well, at least in Morata de Tajuña) “You can’t make wine without beer!”
And really lastly, in the end there was about 400 l of must (including skins and pips) which should be more than enough for a 225 l barrel of crianza, including some liters for top-ups. The density of the must was 1097 which should give 13.5% alcohol, more or less.
by Fabio Bartolomei
on Sep 6, 2011
This morning I was in the vineyard in Carabaña (Madrid, Spain) taking samples of the Tempranillo; and as we suspected we’re going to harvest tomorrow, as the probable level of alcohol will be about 13,5º.
I did a systematic sampling as opposed to a quick n dirty one! ie, I walked up and down every row and picked eithe 1, 2, 3 or 4 berries from each vine, (from different sides of the vine, from different parts of the cluster, etc) so as to get an accurate and representative sample. Quick n dirty smaples are OK during the summer to give you a rough idea, but as harvest time approaches, the more accurate, the better.
Ideally, it’s best to go early in the morning to take the samples, because that way it’s nice n cool and it’s a pleasant task to stroll through the vineyard, listening to the birdies and picking berries! Also the temperature of the juice will be lower and so will give an accurate reading, without having to do any calculations to compensate for temperature differences (most instruments are calibrated to 20ºC). Unfortunately, I couldn’t get out till about 12 noon, and it was a bit too hot for confort!
It’s also a good idea to wear socks and shoes, as opposed to sandals! I usually keep socks and shoes (and other clothes and tools) in the back of the car, but this was my first trip out to the vineyard after my holidays, and so I’d completely forgotten to load up all the usual stuff.
So all in all I didn’t enjoy the (90-minute) experience a lot!
This vine (above) is near the edge of the vineyard, and all the clusters have been eaten by some animal – I suspect rabbits! Note the bottom branch – even the leaves have been eaten off it!!!
Some of the grapes on this vine have been eaten also, but by a different animal. See how the individual berries have been eaten but the stem is still there.
At this point, my mobile reached its limit and wouldn’t let me take any more photos
I really must get myself a more modern internet-friendly device, so that I can post stuff straight to the internet from the vineyard or bodega, instead of having to come home and downloading into my PC!