Saturday, February 09, 2013

Thoughts about "natural" and biodynamic wines on a snowy winter day

PS Winery: are our wines "natural" or biodynamic? 
With all the hype about natural wines and biodynamic wines, I thought I would write a bit of background about our winery, our beliefs and practices and the nature of the 2 marketing beasts listed above.  
1. We farm organically using only sulfur and copper sprays, the latter with a per acre yearly limit and we are scrupulously honest. We do not irrigate. All weed extirpation is done manually or mechanically.  All work in the vineyard is done manually, leaf removal, topping, green harvest, etc.  The grapes are manually harvested and immediately transported to the winery for destemming and crushing.  We are a new winery with just 3 harvests which is not enough time to have a colonized Saccharomyces which will eventually arrive in our tanks, to initiate fermentation.  Natural yeasts from the vineyard are unable to ferment our grapes to dryness with their high sugar levels, the result of 2 hot, drought years.  We hope to eventually allow the indigenous yeasts to ferment our wines, but my friends at the oldest organic winery in the Marche waited 30 years before they attempted a "natural yeast" fermentation.
2.  All "manipulations in the winery are kept to a bare minimum.  We have, for wine stability purposes, added small amounts of the grapes' natural acid, tartaric, to the fermenting wines the last 2 years because of high pH levels due to the hot growing seasons.  While there are over 40 chemicals allowed as additives to organic wines, you won't find any of those things in our wines with the exception of minimal levels of sulfites (which do not cause wine headaches) with levels far below the maximum allowed.  We also use french oak in aging our wines, but I am not going to apologize for trying to make a serious wine with appropriate barrel aging.  Several of our wines see no oak at all and are designed for pleasurable early drinking, although I suspect with our long maceration times with the reds, they will drink well for many years.
3. We bottle many of our wines by hand and without filtering or fining.  Filtering is used for our early release wines and has been shown in scientific studies not to affect the taste of the wine (expert tasters, blind tasting, same wine tried twice with one example filtered and the other not).  Filtering gives some security against yeast and bacterial contamination in the wines and prevents, for the most part, any unwanted 2nd fermentation in the bottle.  Fining with bentonite has been done with our Pecorino to give protein stability to prevent crystal formation in the bottle which can be misunderstood by wine drinkers.  Whether we will eventually bottle completely without minimal fining is up for debate.  
The Cabs and the Petit Verdot are unfined and unfiltered as are our Syrah and Montpulciano wines from 2010.

4.  Despite alcohol levels which scare some of our restaurant clients, we have not tried to lower these levels by adding water, a lesser, low alcohol wine, or by mechanical means.  The levels you read on the bottle are the result of the growing year and the sugars yielded by the grapes.
5. Farming organically is more costly and more labor intensive, but we have decided to respect the land we own and our neighbor's as well.  If you are going to talk about the spirit of "natural" wines, we certainly ascribe to that spirit.

Why are natural wines natural?  Is it marketing hype, a new way to sell your wine or a true desire to make a wine without intervention.  The fact is, it truly can be just about anything you want it to be, which is the problem.  There is no agreed strict definition of "natural wines".  Biodynamic wines in Europe have the same difficulty.  How many winemakers pick based on the moon phase?  None I have ever met, including a great winemaker in Burgundy who told me he talked to his wild boar about not damaging his plants.  How many put cow manure in a bull's horn, bury it for a year and then throw the "magic material" therein over their vines?  Not many.  How many say they are biodynamic because they respect their soil and try to plant cover crops, maybe use some non chemical methods of fungus and insect control etc.?  Most everyone who claims to be biodynamic fit in this latter category. 
Here is wikipedia's definition of "natural wine":  and here is the link for biodynamic:
Knowing how much respect we show for our land, responsible, sustainable farming, and minimal intervention in the winery, we qualify for both the natural and biodynamic monikers.  Are we going to use them?  Probably not. As I tell people honestly, "we farm organically and practice minimal intervention in the winery and when we use anything at all, it is specifically to yield stability of the wine in bottle".  So, indeed we fit the bill for being natural and are as biodynamic as most of those who call themselves so ( we do use barrel aging  by Docg rules, some of our wines MUST spend 2 years in oak).  So, if you see us at organic or "natural" wine fairs, I will be straight with you, having nothing to hide.  I hope you love our wines and when you drink it, I want it to be unspoiled and wonderful, expressing the underlying fruit, hints of the year it was harvested and the care we have put into each of our varieties.  How are you to know which wineries are using these titles for marketing and which are as true as possible to the principles?  Go out and meet the owners and winemakers and with a bit of trust and a bit of skepticism, ask them about those things which are important to you.  We are here to share our wines and our philosophy with all our guests and we have nothing to hide and lots to be proud of.  You can find us in the vineyard!