Here are 10 things that winemakers must keep in mind to produce excellent natural wines…
1 Change your mentality. Move from an interventionist mentality to a non-interventionist one. Instead of relying on modern winemaking tools, find solutions in the vineyard to obtain a balanced grape composition. But you will need the conviction that you can make excellent wines that can last for many years in a natural way.
2 Understand the area’s characteristics, so you can manage them. Only by knowing the positive and negative characteristics of the area can the right winemaking choices be made. Good quality results can only be obtained if the area is suited. It is crucial that the vine is suitable for the type of soil and the climatic conditions, otherwise it is better to give up the idea of producing natural wines.
3 Maximum hygiene – from the transport of grapes to the bottling process. This is generally valid for all wines but it is fundamental for natural wines that are not protected against the development of bad yeasts and abnormal bacteria. The cleaning of the containers for grapes and the equipment used must be maniacal because contaminations can occur. They are the main cause of defects in wines.
4 Delicate processing of the grapes during the crushing and pressing phases. Set up the pumps and presses so that they do not mistreat the grapes. This avoids extracting compounds with an astringent, bitter and vegetal character. Also, the pressing must be soft – avoid high pressures and crumbling that compromise the quality.
'It is very important to use a well-made pied de cuve'5 Use a ‘pied de cuve’. In the absence of low doses of antiseptics, fermentation should be started as quickly as possible. This is why it is very important to use a well-made pied de cuve and in adequate quantity. It is made by vinifying a small amount of grapes a few days in advance. This then becomes a substantial biomass of yeasts to inoculate the main batch. By choosing grapes with a low pH, bacteria is prevented from taking over and subsequently hindering the alcoholic fermentation. By inoculating the main batch with a high number of yeast cells, the competition with the bacteria is won and the completion of the alcoholic fermentation is guaranteed without slowing down and without deviations.
6 Careful conduction of alcoholic fermentation. For the vinification of red grapes and for musts from white grapes that haven’t been pressed immediately, it is not normally necessary to add nutrients. They are naturally present in the grapes! Keep in mind that in the absence of residues of pesticides and sulphur dioxide, the minimum levels of readily assimilable nitrogen are much lower than that reported in the technical literature for conventional wines. Some temperature control can help avoid defects in wines due to secondary metabolites produced by yeasts stressed by high temperatures. Temperature control could be as basic as picking cool grapes, fermenting in a cool cellar (perhaps with air-conditioners running), or by using vats equipped with a cooling jacket.
7 Management of oxygen. Managing oxygen is a natural tool that consists simply of keeping musts and wines away from the oxygen in the air, but introducing it during fermentation to encourage the multiplication and development of yeasts and avoid the unpleasant smells caused by reduction. Micro quantities are also beneficial for red wines during ageing, as it allows the stabilisation of colour and the precious evolution of tannins and aromas. It should be noted that contrary to what one might think, natural wines without sulphur dioxide have a greater need for oxygen than wines with added sulphur dioxide.
8 Management and control of bacteria. Bacteria, as we know, can be either useful or very harmful. It is not easy to manage bacteria without the use of sulphur dioxide or other bactericides. It takes a lot of attention during the various stages of vinification and maturation of wines to keep them at bay. Unfortunately, there are not many bacteria management interventions available to natural winemakers. In addition to the health of the grapes and perfect hygienic conditions, the keys are the timing of racking and always keeping containers full. You can also use low temperatures, as yeasts have difficulty developing under 10°C.
9 Choose the appropriate vessel and time for ageing. What's the most suitable type of container for the maturation of your wines - stainless steel, cement, or wooden barrels? Whatever it is, follow the evolution of the wines with great care. Topping-up, racking, hygiene, and the management of oxygen and temperatures must be done meticulously.
Red wines seem the most suitable for ageing but it is not always true. In reality, natural white and red wines, even without sulphur and sterile bottling, can be kept in the bottle for a long time and even improve over time.
For white wines, during the maturation period, the risk of oxidation is higher and some extra care is needed. Keeping the wine on fine lees is a great help as these dead yeast cells have strong antioxidant properties. When they go into lysis, precious protein fractions are released as natural clarifiers. They also absorb anomalous odours, yield polysaccharides that round up the taste and give the wines a pleasant nose.
10 Punctuality, precision and timing in all phases. Though these elements are important for all wines, they are essential for natural wines in order to achieve a good quality and to avoid evident defects.
Often during harvest, the work is so frenetic that sometimes in the cellar one tends to neglect or postpone some necessary operations. Sometimes we underestimate the effects of precise, timely and attentive care in the different phases and this inevitably is a source of unpleasant surprises. For example, neglecting something as simple as a racking or forgetting to fill the containers can cause the appearance of oxidation or hydrogen sulphide or the development of bacteria and alterations that irreparably compromise the quality and integrity of the wine.
I believe that, for a winemaker, the punctual and precise execution of all the winery operations is the most important element necessary to obtain wines that are the expression of the territory, correct, pleasant and of excellent quality.