Old traditions in winemaking have, unfortunately, been replaced by modern manipulations that render many wines alike, no matter their origin – manipulations and additions that sterilise a wine, taking away any sense of place.
I was raised in California, where it was not uncommon to eat organic food back in the 1970s but, ironically, the last place on earth to produce natural wines. In 2003, I moved to Norway and soon began running a popular wine bar. In 2008, I studied at the Gastronomic Institute in Oslo. I tasted, tasted and tasted again, until I understood what wine was saying to me. I soon noticed a pattern. My favourites were the ones produced by small, independent winemakers working traditionally and without chemicals or additives.
In January of 2009, I began to work for a small restaurant where I focused exclusively on natural wines – the first wine program of it’s kind in Norway. It was controversial as hell at first, but by the end of 2013, dozens of restaurants in Norway were trying their hand at natural wines.
What is an organic, biodynamic or natural wine anyway? A brief description of a commercial wine is needed first. A commercial ‘winemaker’ strives to produce a consistent wine each year and for financial gain. The use of pesticides in the vineyards is an acceptable and common practice.
Once these grapes are machine harvested, they are sulphured to kill any bacteria or unwanted yeasts. The ‘winemaker’ selects a yeast to control the fermentation of the grapes, often based on the flavours and aromas it will ultimately give the wine.
Sugar can be added to increase potential alcohol, gum arabic can be added to round out tannins, acetaldehyde for colour stabilization, dimethyl dicarbonate (DMDC) to sterilise and stabilise the wine, and sulphur (the only additive allowed to be listed on the wine label) as a preservative. In the EU, over 100 additional ingredients may be added to your bottle of wine. And they are not allowed to list them on the label.
The photo above demonstrates the visible difference between a natural wine vineyard (right), where no chemical pesticides, fungicides or herbicides are used, and a standard vineyard (left).
A natural winemaker will always harvest by hand. The grapes will be left to ferment with native yeasts (yeasts that are everywhere; on the grapes, airborne and in the winery). Natural winemakers will NEVER add a yeast to begin the fermentation.
Some will add a bit of sulphur, but these wines usually end up in the bottle with about 10% of the allowable sulphur dioxide levels. Natural wine makers do not filter – they take nothing from the wine.
Natural wines complement food very well. You can taste for yourself at Zazie Bistro, Ancora, Portobello or at Karma, serving an innovative vegetarian tasting menu on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings paired exclusively with natural wines.
Ingredient labels are not allowed on wine bottles in the EU, so how do you find a natural wine? My job each month will be to introduce you to winemakers and their wines.
Meet Joseph Di Blasi at:
Naturaliści Wine Shop
ul. Nowa (between Plac Nowy & Józefa)