Natural Wine in BC?
by Rhys Pender MW
One of the trends to hit the wine world, or at least its enthralled fringes, in recent years is the provocative subject of “natural” wine. The term itself belies definition as what it means and is largely in the eyes of the beholder; purists demand nothing at all be added or taken away while others have a less dogmatic view. In any case, the concept is linked with not messing around with the wine and guiding, rather than forcing, a wine down its chosen path. Before we enter a heated natural wine debate, and that is not what this article is intended to be about, we should skip to the topic: how this trend has spread beyond the tradition-steeped regions of the old world and is now taking place in our own British Columbian backyard.
BC wine, like that of so many new world countries, has grown up surrounded by whizz kid winemakers with the gleaming technology to steer a wine down whichever style road they may choose. Again, like all new world countries, BC has come to the point of realization where fancy winemaking tricks can only take you so far. Yes, very good wines can and are made with a heady dose of technology and intervention but they are more technically good than they are exciting, evocative, interesting and inspiring. A heavy hand of winemaking rarely results in something that is seamless, elegant and has that elusive complexity and sense of place. To gain the level of intricacy necessary to make the leap to really interesting wines, it is all about the quality of the grapes and letting them show their true merits through gentle guiding rather than trying to force a square peg into a round hole.
Natural wine takes this logic even further, eschewing even things like yeast, nutrients, fining and filtration and in the most extreme cases of natural wine devotion, any addition of sulfur. For some, even that is not enough and only eliminating technology altogether is natural enough. Wine is now being made in many countries, including here in BC, by essentially just dumping grapes into clay amphora and letting them ferment and age, skins and all, until they have cleaned themselves up and are deemed ready to stick in the bottle. Winemaking as the Greeks or Romans might have known it.
Obviously not all natural wine is good or even interesting. Things can go badly and some wines are either faulty, or intriguing but a bit of an acquired taste, much like Fino Sherry, Vin Santo, Vin Jaune and some of the oxidized fortified wines. What does it come down to? Good grapes. Good, clean, quality grapes are the best bet to end up with a successful, natural wine. Organic and biodynamic grapegrowing seems to be more common and it is not surprising to see many winemakers already playing around with wild yeasts, lees and other “hands off” techniques to try to make something a little more complex. The techniques of natural winemaking, which are often just leaving the wine be, creates flavours that are interesting and they usually seem well integrated into the wine because they come naturally.
Some of you might be thinking that natural winemaking is some kind of bonkers, idealistic craziness, but there is some science behind it too. Doing nothing to a wine often means little goes wrong, providing the grapes were sound in the first place. On the other hand, over-winemaking to try to steer a wine against its will often creates a series of reactions that need to be treated. The result can be a long path of one adjustment after another, an ongoing series of winemaker created imbalances and corrections.
In spite of the new world image of winemaking in BC there are a number of wineries adopting natural techniques. It is exciting to see Canadian winemakers playing around with natural winemaking and it will only benefit the industry in seeing what is possible and what nuances of flavour can result. BC is the ideal place to do it as we have plenty of natural acidity, nature’s protection against many evils, and dry weather and sunshine, the best way to get clean, healthy grapes. Nobody expects to convince the current breed of sweet red wine drinker that skin fermented white wine is what they should be drinking every night, but these small batch wines sure add an interesting element to what BC is offering.
Darryl Brooker, winemaker of CedarCreek Estate Winery was inspired to make a natural wine by drinking some Italian reds saying that he “fell in love with the texture and silkiness of the wines.” These wines were made in amphora, giving Brooker enough encouragement to order an unlined 500-litre amphora (they are often lined with beeswax but he wanted to keep things as natural as possible). Into the amphora went the best cabernet sauvignon that CedarCreek grows. The science behind it? “I basically wanted to see if the tannin could be softened/changed by the amphora. It is very permeable to oxygen, so I had a hunch it would,” says Brooker. The grapes went in, the lid went on and they waited. No yeast, no sulfur, nothing. The wine was not touched for 8 months until it had completed primary and malolactic fermentation. “The original plan was to put it in a neutral barrel for about 1 year and then see the wine. But we were so impressed with it that we decided to bottle it as it was, straight from the amphora after settling in stainless steel for a few weeks. The wine was bottled unfiltered without any additives at any stage, including no sulfur at any point.” The wine tastes fresh, intense and juicy with great, soft tannins. The plan is to hold it in bottle for a year to see how it evolves.
David Enns, winemaker and co-owner of Laughing Stock, was also playing around with an amphora in 2013. The VRM is a viognier, roussanne and marsanne blend that spent 4 weeks aging on skins and fermenting wild with sulfur only added later on. It is rich, concentrated with some tannic grip from the skin contact and has plenty of flavour intensity. Dwight Sick, winemaker at Stag’s Hollow in Okanagan Falls, has been interested in natural wines for a while. “I have always been fascinated with oxidative winemaking but have never had the courage to attempt it. This was my maiden voyage into this style.” Sick took the 2013 vintage viognier and marsanne from a Penticton vineyard, destemmed it and put the whole berries into a tank with no enzymes or sulfur. It started fermenting on its own after 48 hours and then spent 14 days on the skins before being lightly pressed. As of October, a year later, it is still sitting on its lees, having received only a little sulfur in the summer and is scheduled for bottling in December.
Okanagan Crush Pad, Valley pioneers of things such as concrete eggs and constantly pushing towards more and more natural winemaking, also have a couple of amphorae fermenting away, one pinot noir and one pinot gris. Both are on their skins and expected to stay there for about six months. These follow on from a 2013 sauvignon blanc/chardonnay blend that spent 7.5 months on the skins and was bottled unfiltered. While the technology might be old, it has many great properties. Winemakers Mike Bartier and Matt Dumayne talk scientifically about benefits such as thin walls to keep fermentations cool, the slow oxidation through the porous material, the great environment for yeast in the wild ferment and many more complex reactions including things like convective currents, cap compression and protein and cold stabilization, things that sound more futuristic than rustic and ancient.
With wines becoming dumbed down to meet the tastes of a generation of pop-swilling consumers with added sugar, tannins, acid and various concoctions, it is only logical there will be a push in the complete other direction. Reverse osmosis, spinning cones, micro-oxygenation, oak products, enzymes, flavour, and bacteria? Not necessary. While nobody expects lines of stainless steel tanks to be replaced by exotic clay versions, at least some of this experimentation will find its way into the larger production wines and as a result make something more interesting and characterful. And after all, to backlash against so many overly made, cookie cutter wines, going natural is only natural.
Rhys Pender MW