The world of natural wine can be a confusing mess of buzzwords - allow us to shed light on some of the terms you’ll come across in your search for purer wine.
Organic – A farming approach that requires grape growing to use little to no chemical treatments in the vineyard. In Europe there is a certification that organic farmers can apply for/put on the label – but farmers can work organically without certification, either because they are not interested in the stamp or because there aren’t certifying bodies in certain non-EU countries.
Biodynamic – A farming approach started by Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s, it incorporates organic farming and ‘extends’ it to include a holistic approach to the vineyard, using natural remedies for the vines and working in-sync with the Lunar calendar. There is a certification for this, but many grape growers use select aspects of biodynamics without using them all and therefore don’t have the certification.
Natural – Natural wine is a semi-undefined term that covers the use of added SO2 during the winemaking process. SO2 can be added as an antioxidant and stabiliser throughout many stages of making a wine. Low to no sulphur is considered ‘natural’ by most, including us, but there is some who argue that using any at all is sacrilegious.
Low-intervention (‘lo-fi’) – An all-encompassing term that umbrellas over all of our wines at NAW. Winemakers, often without certification, who are working organically, possibly incorporating some biodynamic work in the vineyard, and possibly using a small amount of SO2 at bottling but making the wine with an anti-chemical mentality.
Orange wine – A broad term meaning a wine made from green (white) grapes, where the juice has been left to macerate with the skins. Thin-skinned grapes that receive a short maceration can be barely golden in colour and not dissimilar to a white wine; thick-skinned grapes that receive a long maceration can be almost brown and have the power and tannin structure more typically associated with a red wine.
Pétillant naturel (pét-nat) – A method of making sparkling wine where there is only one fermentation. The grapes start fermenting in a vessel (typically, but not exclusively, steel) and is bottled before fermentation is finished. The fermentation then finishes within the bottle, releasing CO2 and creating a delicate foam and fizz that is usually subtler than traditional method sparkling wines. These wines are often not disgorged, although they can be.
Col Fondo - Literally meaning “with the bottom”, it is a traditional way of making sparkling wine in Italy. A still wine is made, and then the wine is refermented in the bottle most often with the addition of dried grape musts that still contain indigenous yeats. This is what prosecco was like before the modernisation and industrialisation that came with the invention of the Charmat Method in 1895.
Traditional/champagne method – A method of making sparkling which involves two fermentations, the second of which takes place in the bottle that you then serve from. During the second fermentation, which happens after the bottle has been sealed with a crown cap, CO2 is released creating bubbles in the wine, and the yeasts breakdown through yeast autolysis. The wine then typically ages on the fine lees for many months or years, before these yeast cells are ‘disgorged’ and a cork is place on the bottle. This is how many sparkling wines are made around the world, but has its heritage and origins in Champagne. (see sur lie/lees and autolysis/autolytic).
Macerated/maceration – The process of leaving the grape juice with its skins either before, during or after the fermentation. This is done to extract colour, flavour and tannins from the skins and is used in both red and orange wine making.
Whole bunch press – When whole bunches of grapes are pressed, as opposed to bunches being destemmed before pressing. It can balance ripeness and richness in a wine with elegance and delicacy as it reduces the amount of phenolic compounds in a wine.
Non-vintage (NV) – A wine made from grapes grown in different years. It is typical of many sparkling wines made in the traditional (Champagne) method, but also still wines can be made in this way depending on the winemaker and their preferences.
Vintage – A wine made from grapes all grown in the same year. This is the vast majority of still wines, and a fair proportion of sparkling wines too.
Carbonic maceration – A winemaking technique used for red wine. Whole bunches of grapes are put into a tank sealed without oxygen. The inside of the grapes start to ferment with ambient yeasts and the CO2 that comes as a biproduct of fermentation ‘explodes’ the grapes from the inside and the grapes then ferment ‘normally’ once they have burst. It creates a more fruit driven, juicy style of red wine and is most known in Beaujolais in France.
Tannins – A compound found in grape skins and stems, and therefore only notable in orange and red winemaking. It is the component that can make a wine feel like it is drying out your mouth, but when delicately extracted and balanced well with acidity or fruit flavours in the wine it can enhance the experience with its structure. Also breaks down protein, particularly fatty protein in meat, which is why an ‘obvious’ food and wine pairing is a steak and a powerful red wine (with a good amount of tannin).
Vine age – Vines can grow and survive for decades, if not hundreds of years. The older the vine, the lower its yield of grapes – this concentrates the flavour, acidity and sugar that the plant can produce into fewer grapes/less juice, meaning wines made from grapes grown on old vines are typically more concentrated and intense than those made from young vines.
Sur lie/lees – A winemaking technique where wine is added with the fine lees/lie. These are the dead yeast cells from the fermentation that breakdown after fermentation, in a process called yeast autolysis, and can give flavours and aromas of bread, biscuit and pastry to a wine. It is often used in white wine making and is a hallmark of Champagne. The longer time the wine ages on the lees, the more these flavours will be noticeable in the wine – giving distinct character and complexity.
Oak barrels – A vessel used both for fermentation and maturing wine in the cellar before bottling. New oak (or barrels that have only been used once or twice) will impart flavours into the wine – the most common and noticeable flavours are vanilla, toast, cloves, coconut and cedar. Old barrels are often used by ‘lo-fi’ wine making because they have the desired micro-oxidation quality of wood (compared to an inert vessel like stainless steel) without imparting flavour from the wood.
Stainless steel tanks – An inert vessel used both for fermentation and ageing before bottling. Steel is inert and therefore these tanks impart no flavour or character to the wine. They are often used in the making of white wines, particularly more fresh or aromatic styles.
Concrete vats/tanks – A neutral/inert vessel used for fermentation, maceration, or ageing. It does not impact flavours (like oak) but is semi-porous meaning it allows a slight micro-oxidation on the wine to allow longer term maturity than would be suitable in steel.
Cement tanks - As with concrete, this is a neutral/inert vessel used for fermentation, maceration, or ageing. It does not impact flavours (like oak) but is semi-porous meaning it allows a slight micro-oxidation on the wine to allow longer term maturity than would be suitable in steel.
Foudre – A type of oak barrel that is typically over 100 hectolitres and can be up to 300 hectolitres. The larger the wooden vessel that a wine is aged in, the less surface area is in contact with the wine – thus reducing the amount of impact the wood has on the flavour of the wine, either in direction or through it’s micro-oxidation quality.
Micro-oxidation – Some vessels used for ageing a wine are porous, and therefore tiny amounts of oxygen seep through and interact with the wine. These can give flavour characteristics of nuts, hay, caramel, chocolate or coffee – depending on the style or wine.
Minerality – This is the translation of the soil into the wine. Many of the best soils for grape growing lack the nutrients you might expect necessary – they are instead made up of rocks, chalk, slate, volcanic rock, shells or some other solid substance that does not ‘benefit’ the vine. However, when a vine gets too many nutrients, it focusses its energy on leaf growing – whereas if there are a lot of minerals but weak soil, the vine will focus on grape growing. Minerality in a wine often comes across as a freshness, an ‘energy’ or vibrancy that balances richer aspects of the wine.
VA (Volatile Acidity) – An acid compound found in some wines. In small amounts it can give an energy to a wine and heighten its freshness; however, used incorrectly it can overpower a wine with its vinegar/nail polish remover aromas.
Négociant – A winemaker who buys grapes from a farmer and then makes the wine. Many winemakers have both their own land and buy grapes, and some are only making wine from bought grapes. Of course, many also only make wine from their own grapes.
Sous voile – ‘Under veil’, meaning under a veil of yeast. This protects the wine from large amounts of oxygen, although it is often a thin layer which still allows oxygen to pass through. It gives wine a nuttiness, umami and seaweed notes.
Ouillé – ‘Filled up’, meaning barrels are topped up during the ageing process to compensate for wine that has evaporated. This process stops a wine getting oxidation during the maturation process.
Indigenous yeasts – There are yeasts naturally found on grape skins, as well as in the air. A winemaker can choose to ferment their wine without adding any cultivated yeasts – only using the indigenous yeasts. This can create more complexity in a wine, but also produce more unpredictable results. Most low-intervention winemakers ferment their wines in this way.
Spontaneous fermentation – Fermentation that occurs without any human ‘encouragement’ – e.g. the adding of cultivated yeasts, sugar, temperature etc. Most low-intervention winemakers ferment their wines in this way.
Sulphur/SO2 – Both a natural and an added component in winemaking. No added sulphur is one of the hallmarks of ‘natural wine’ – although, since the term is not strictly defined, many producers who are making wine considered as natural are adding a small amount of SO2 during bottling.
Autolysis/autolytic – Yeast autolysis is the process where yeast cells break down into fine lees (see sur lie/lees); autolytic is the associated flavours that this process brings like bread and biscuit.
Dosage – During traditional method sparkling wine making, after the wine is disgorged the winemaker will add the liqueur d’expédition or dosage. This is typically a mix of wine and sugar, and it is the sugar that is thought of when discussing dosage. This is a way to make traditional method sparkling wines sweet. There is a growing trend from brut natur or non-dosage wines being made.
Punch down – During the maceration and/or fermentation for red and orange wines, the skins will float to the top of the vessel and form a cap. This can be ‘punched down’ into the juice, allowing greater extraction of colour, tannins and flavour from the skins.
Qvevri – An ancient Georgian clay vessel used for fermentation and ageing. With usage dating back to the 6th millennia BC, these are truly the most historic of winemaking vessels. Often buried in the ground in order to maintain a cool temperature during Georgia’s ferociously hot summers, Qvevri are now being used by low intervention winemakers around the world.
Disgorgement – During traditional (Champagne) method sparkling wine making, after the second fermentation and the autolysis the sediment needs to be expelled or ‘disgorged’ from the bottle. This is done by gradually turning the bottle when they are laying at a 45 degree angle with the neck facing down, eventually the sediment will all gather in the neck of the bottle. This is then frozen and then bottle opened. The pressure from the sparkling wine beneath the frozen neck pushes out the frozen sediment and the bottle can be resealed after dosage.