Know the difference between natural wines and the conventional varieties

Aleš Kristancic is an eighth-generation winemaker for Movia, a biodynamic estate on the border between Slovenia and Italy. His wines are bottled with no fining or filtration and his flagship wine, Lunar, has no added sulfites.

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

“Organic,” it read. “No sulfites.”

An interesting claim, if true.

First because it begs the question whether it’s completely organic, i.e., made from organically grown grapes and processed in a facility approved as organic.

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.

Probably not true, since 2 percent or less of Americans are truly allergic to sulfites, which occur in grapes and many other fruits and vegetables.

Ever heard of an apricot headache?

More likely, according to recent research, that headache is a reaction to the histamines, also naturally occurring in grapes.

Taking an antihistamine before you drink a red wine may prevent your headache.

Sulfur/sulfites is a microbial and a preservative, helping to prevent oxidation.

Take a bite out of an apple, stick it on the counter and come back in an hour.

It’s brown, it’s oxidized. And probably doesn’t taste quite as good.

Sulfites, which are a natural byproduct of fermentation, help keep wines fresh and shelf-stable, 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 as containing sulfites if it’s more than 10 parts per million.

Small amounts of sulfites are generated by the yeasts used in making wine, but more sulfites usually are added as a preservative and to kill bacteria.

Sometimes a lot of sulfur — the government allows up to 350 ppm sulfites.

One of the complaints about low-sulfite natural wines is their short shelf life and the loss of color and fruity flavors. Hence, natural wines tend to be drunk young.

The difference between conventional wines and natural wines is what happens once the grapes reach the winery, said Paul Grieco, owner of the Hearth restaurant in New York City, during his seminar on natural wines at the 2014 Food & Wine Classic in Aspen.

“Because you are an organic winemaker does not mean you are a ‘natural’ winemaker,” Grieco said. “You think wine is just grapes? Well, it ain’t just grapes.”

Conventional wines may contain chemicals, colorings, yeast, egg whites, diatomaceous earth, flavors, a witch’s brew of things other than grapes.

Natural wines, on the other hand, demand minimal manipulation.

Winemaker Aleš Kristancic from Movia, a biodynamic vineyard and winery on the border between Slovenia and Italy, makes Lunar, a wine aged in oak barrels for eight months without sulfites, stirring or filtering.

“What’s on the label is in the bottle,” Kristancic said.

Pinning down a definition of natural wines is like pinning down a watermelon seed.

Natural as compared to what?

“Here is what I, and it’s just me talking, think a natural wine should be,” said Grieco, who last year was named the second-most influential wine person in New York City. “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 ... finally it’s bottled unfined and unfiltered.”

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

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