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Taking the natural way with wine

By Dave Buchanan

I was breaking down some boxes for recycle when the lettering on one caught my eye.

“Natural wine,” it read. “No sulfites.”

An interesting claim, if true. First because the federal government, which regulates winemaking and labeling, has no official definition of a “natural” wine, although many people would like to make and drink them; and second, because you can't make a wine without sulfites.

You can make a wine without adding sulfites, which is what makers of “natural wines” and organic/biodynamic wines claim to do, but sulfites occur naturally in grapes, so at best what you can have is a low-sulfite wine.
I'm not a winemaker, nor am I a chemist or scientist, but I am a wine drinker and like most wine drinkers I have an interest in what I put in my glass and my body.

I've heard the claims about natural wines and also the complaints about so-called red wine headaches, which many people attribute to sulfites.Natural wines made from organic grapes, with nothing added and no manipulation

Probably not true, unless these people are among the 2 percent or less of Americans with a true allergy to sulfites, which occur not only in grapes (white wines often have more sulfites than red wines) but in many fruits and vegetables. Do you also get an apricot headache?

More likely, according to recent research, a headache is a reaction to the histamines, also naturally occurring, in grapes. Take an antihistamine before you drink a red wine and see if that helps your headache.

Sulfur/sulfites is a preservative, helping to keep fruit fresh and prevent oxidation.

Take a bit out of an apple, stick the apple on the counter and come back in an hour. It's brown, it's oxidized. And probably doesn't taste quite a good.

Sulfites, which are a natural byproduct of fermentation, help keep wines from oxidizing, retaining the fruit and helping the wine age (tannins and acids also aid in aging gracefully, at least for wines).

The government requires winemakers (and other food manufacturers and processors) to label their wines “sulfites added” when sulfites exceed 10 parts per million, which is about the upper level you'll get without adding sulfites.

Small amounts of sulfites are generated by the yeasts used in making wine, but more sulfites usually are added as a preservative -- more in white wine than red, because the reds' tannins help to preserve them.

Sometimes a lot of sulfur is added during winemaking – the government allows up to 350 ppm sulfites.

One of the complaints about “natural” wines, those with fewer than 10 ppm sulfites, is their short shelf life, which sulfites extend, and the rapid disappearance of the fruity flavors of the wine.

Natural wines, becuase of that short life on the shelf or in the cellar, tend to be drunk young, very young, often within a day or so of opening.

The difference between organic wines and natural wines is what happens once the grapes reach the winery.

“Because you are an organic winemaker does not mean you are a 'natural' winemaker,” Paul Grieco said last month during his seminar on natural wines at the 2014 Food & Wine Classic in Aspen. “Being a natural winemaker means what happens when we get into the winery. You think wine is just grapes? Well, it ain't just grapes.”

It may also chemicals, colorings, yeast, egg whites, diatomaceous earth, flavors, a witch's brew of thing other than grapes.

Organic wines have to be made from organically (or biodynamically) raised and processed grapes.

Natural wines tend to be made from organic or bio grapes but not always, and again, it's what happens in the winery (where the sulfite, the yeasts for fermentation and other chemicals may be added, at any of various stages of conventional winemaking) that decides if a wine is “natural” or not.

“Here is what I, and it's just me talking, think a 'natural' wine should be,” said Grieco, owner of the Hearth Restaurant and Terroir chain of wine bars in New York and who last year was named the second-most influential wine person in New York City, behind Eric Asimov, wine columnist for the New York Times. “The fruit in the vineyard should be at least organic, the harvest must be manual to give you pristine fruit, only indigenous yeast – that occurring on the grapes or in the winery – can be used, no cultured yeast at all, no fancy equipment is used in the winery, no flash pasteurization, no reverse osmosis or all the other (stuff) that's going on.

“And nothing is added, maybe (allow a threshold of) up to 30 parts per million sulfur, and finally it's bottled unfined and unfiltered.”

It's not impossible, but it isn't easy.


 

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