On the Grapevine: Nicholas Corke writes for Velvet
More and more people ask me about natural wines. Usually this means they are looking for sulphur-free wines, often and mistakenly thinking this would be the case with organic, biodynamic or natural wines. But what do all these terms mean? And, just as importantly, what is likely to end up in your glass?
In my last article, I touched upon sustainability and biodynamic wines, having discovered some in the Venetian Hills region of Italy. I wanted to explore this area of growing consumer interest: when one delves more deeply into the subject, the harder it is to decipher, not least because wine labels rarely tell you too much about the way a wine is made or what ingredients it contains.
Perhaps the most common denominator on a label is that the wine contains sulphites, but never the level of them. Many years ago, we tried to buy a red wine from Australia, not realising it contained 250 milligrams per litre of sulphur which was higher than the EU allowed and therefore, nice though the wine was, it wasn’t allowed to be imported. Now we would look more closely at these things.
It is commonplace for wines to have around 100 mg/l. Sulphur is a natural byproduct of the winemaking process so, while all wine will contain some sulphur, where the winemaker doesn’t add any sulphur at any stage - from the picking of the grapes through to the finished article - a wine can be described as being sulphur-free. However, because sulphur is a preservative, it is unusual to find no added sulphur at all.
Natural wines undertake to minimize the use of any additives and would certainly avoid the use of chemicals. Some say that it is the sulphur in wine which causes the hangover rather than the alcohol per se, so it is well worth seeking out sulphur-free wines.
When I’m asked about natural wines, it is also often a reflection on intolerances to wine, which is where organic or vegan wines may be relevant.
The growing demand for vegan products is better supported with food items, where labelling is more controlled. With wine, however, it is not always so clear.
The production of wine is generally vegan-friendly in that grapes are converted into alcohol, mostly with the assistance of added yeast, but sometimes just with the natural wild yeasts found on the grape skins. Where the problem can arise is how and by what method the winemaker will decide to clarify the wine, fining agents being widely used. Many of these are either animal, fish or egg-derived, so it is only if the winemaker uses no finings, letting the tiny cloudy particles settle unaided, or if they choose bentonite, a form of clay, which is in fact widely the option taken, that the wine can be truly described as vegan. However, it is not always stated on the label, so you may need to check with the seller if you are searching for a vegan wine.
The red wines from the Venetian Hills producer previously mentioned are all made without the use of any added sulphur and are about as natural (and delicious) a wine you can find – but little on the label tells you this important information!
Thos Peatling Fine Wines, based in Bury St Edmunds, is an independent wine merchant specializing in importing wines direct from the producer, including Australia and Burgundy.