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Five wines you never knew were ‘natural’

Over the following pages are a handful of wines that are delicious, varied, and do without any manipulative cellar techniques – but don’t class themselves as “natural”.

You can’t get much more natural than crushing grapes with the human foot, a technique practised in this picture from around 1490, but also in the Douro today… Picture source:

Undoutedly one the major phenomena of this decade has been the natural wine movement, led by commentators such as Alice Feiring – author of Naked Wine – and RAW’s Isabelle Legeron MW, who also penned Natural Wine last year, not forgetting Doug Wregg, natural wine champion and founder of The Real Wine Fair, first held in May 2011.

While such personalities have brought certain wines into the media spotlight, such as those from Frank Cornelissen or Marcel Lapierre, there are plenty of producers who are dedicated to making something as naturally as possible, but don’t necessarily gain recognition for the honesty of their approach.

And we at db feel it’s time they were applauded for making delicious wines that are just as unadulterated as some of those “natural” producers who have been making the headlines.

But before we consider such names, it should be said what “natural” means in the world of wine. Although not subject to regulation, or a universal definition, natural wines are those that use grapes grown without chemical inputs, such as synthetic pesticides or fertilisers, and employ only the simplest cellar techniques.

That means as little manipulation of the wine as possible, along with low levels of additives. While the natural preservative sulphur dioxide is allowed, its use should be minimal.

So, over the following pages are some wines that fit these criteria, but haven’t been marketed as “natural”. Indeed, they pre-date the movement. Of course we would welcome any further suggestions.

5. Red wine: Ridge Vineyards

Picture source:

At number five is California’s Ridge Vineyards. While famous worldwide for the quality of its Cabernet sold under the Monte Bello brand, the producer is less well known for its natural winemaking approach.

However, for Paul Draper, the man responsible for producing all Ridge wines since 1969 , “great wines are made with very straightforward techniques”.

In an interview with db almost two years ago, he expressed his opposition to interventionist measures in the cellar, and has even opted for voluntary ingredient labelling (pictured below) to promote his simple approach, which has always seen him eschew commercial yeasts or modern winemaking tools such as micro-oxygenation.

Furthermore almost all blocks for Ridge wines are now certified organic. “We have never used pesticides,” he says, “and the only reason we were not fully organic is that on a few areas of the steep slopes it has been very difficult to control grasses and weeds between terraces without herbicides.”

Another contender for a “natural” red which isn’t primarily promoted for its simple and traditional cellar techniques is Bonny Doon from Randall Grahm, who, since 2009, has placed detailed information on all winemaking inputs, as well as the quantity of total and free Sulphur Dioxide in his wines in parts per million.

Outside the North American state, one shouldn’t forget the Lebanon’s Château Musar, a beacon of red winemaking tradition worldwide.

Ridge Vineyard’s guide to ingredient labelling

4. Pink wine – Viña Tondonia Rosé Gran Reserva 2000

Vina Tondonia can answer the call for something natural, refreshing and pink

For those that thought you couldn’t buy “natural” pink wines, try Tondonia’s rosé from Rioja’s López de Heredia, which also debunks the idea that rosé must be consumed young, it has only just released its 2000 vintage.

This producer is certainly renowned for its traditional winemaking techniques, and both its white or red could feature in this list. Nevertheless, López de Heredia does not overtly position itself as “natural” – in any case, it predates the movement by around 120 years.

Like all of Tondonia’s wines, the rosé is bottled with only small amounts of sulphur dioxide and gains stability from oxidative handling during extended ageing in barrels – for the pink wine specifically, it sees over four years in oak with racking twice a year. It is also bottled unfiltered. 

3. White wine – Tio Pepe En Rama

Although one could opt for either the white from Tondonia or indeed Musar if one wanted an unfortified “natural” white, another refreshing option comes from Jerez, and with only a touch of brandy.

Indeed, the presence of grape spirit to fortify this fino to around 15% is a crucial addition giving stability to a wine with very low levels of sulphur dioxide.

And for those looking for an extreme example of a cold drink made with traditional handling, there’s the En Rama version of Tio Pepe.

Essentially translating as Tio Pepe in its most raw state, the En Rama limited edition fino sherry is bottled straight from the barrel without normal wine clarification and stabilisation processes such as fining or filtration – and no sulphur dioxide is added.

“I describe it as untamed Tio Pepe,” says head winemaker Antonio Flores.

The sherry is launched annually around April and due to the natural character of the drink, comes with a recommended drinking window of three months from the bottling date.

Such has been the success of Tio Pepe’s yearly En Rama bottling, which was launched in 2009 through The Wine Society, further producers have since unveiled their own “untamed” sherries.

Others include Bodegas Lustau – who brought out in early 2013 an en rama selection featuring a manzanilla from Sanlucar de Barrameda, a fino from El Puerto de Santa Maria and a second fino from Jerez – or Hildalgo, who launched an unfiltered version of its La Gitana Manzanilla in October 2011.

2. Sparkling: Champagne Drappier

Going “natural” doesn’t mean downgrading. So if your ideal aperitif isn’t fino, but Champagne, then there’s one name you should look out for: Drappier.

Due to winemaker Michel Drappier’s own sulphur intolerance – and not his attempt to associate with the natural wine movement – this Champagne house is the first and only producer to commercialise a fizz with no-added sulphur whatsoever.

But that’s not all. Drappier’s sulphur-free non-vintage Champagne also comes with no added sugar, and it is release non-filtered.

Indeed, every aspect of the operation is as pure as possible, with Drappier growing grapes from his own estate in the Aube organically, as well as isolating native yeasts from these vineyards to ferment his wines.

Meanwhile, his top of the range Champagne called Grand Sendrée is aged in the appellation’s only egg-shaped oak container – a €30,000 Taransaud tool called the Ovum.

However, it’s a little known fact that Champagne – while still far from natural in vineyard practises – is surprisingly free from additives in the cellar.

Due to better bottling techniques, and the presence of carbon dioxide gas, Champagne is released with relatively low-levels of sulphur dioxide.

For example, even a major global Champagne brand such as Veuve Clicquot has a total sulphur dioxide level below 40 mg/l, significantly lower than the legal maximum of 210 mg/l for white wines sold in the EU.

1. Vintage Port: Fonseca

Finally, while this may come as a surprise, if you really want to be “natural” in your drinking habits, imbibe Port – particularly the best on offer: vintage.

Although the product owes its sweetness and stability to the addition of brandy – doubtless an interventionist cellar technique – the fortifying spirit kills any bacteria that could spoil the wine, not only meaning that Port is extremely long-lived, but also bottled without any added sulphur dioxide whatsoever.

Furthermore, if you choose a vintage variant, particularly from Taylor’s or Fonseca, then you can be guaranteed that the grapes used to make the Port have been trodden by human feet in open granite lagares – a winemaking technique that stretches back to Roman times.

As for vineyard approaches, due to the hot dry climate of the Douro, inputs are minimal, while steep slopes and stone terraces dictate hand-harvesting.

And if you want certification of this chemical-free viticulture, although not a vintage Port, there’s Fonseco’s organic Terra Prima ruby, which not only uses organically-grown grapes, but also an organic brandy to fortify the wine.

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