What is natural wine and is it really as amazing as its made out to be?
We met up with Jurgen Gouws from Intellego Wines in the Swartland of the Western Cape last week to chat about organic farming, natural wine and biodynamic farming principles in the dappled shade of an old oak tree next to his cellar in the Paardeberg in between Viognier presses.
Natural winemaking begins with the soil
According to Jurgen, it all starts with the soil. “Everything grows in soil, it’s the medium in which you create the raw materials of your wine. When you use chemicals in the soil, it will become compacted and there will be no life in it. This also tires the soil – if you keep farming like that the next generation will be farming a cricket pitch in 50 years’ time. When you follow organic and/or biodynamic practises, however, you do what you can to get life into your soil. Go to one of these vineyards, dig in the ground and you are likely to end up with a handful of earthworms because they stimulate microbial activity in the soil.”
Once the soil is sorted out, natural winemakers then also have to adapt their approach to tending the vines, harvesting the grapes and making the wine itself once the harvest reaches the cellar.
“To make natural wines you have to farm organically or biodynamically. I, myself, am only organic at this stage, but I’m making my way to biodynamic. We don’t use any pesticides or herbicides. We use some copper and sulphur during the growing process if it’s necessary, but only when it can’t be avoided. The whole process in the vineyard is based on manual labour so the grower is able to move away from using chemicals. Once the grapes reach the cellar, natural winemakers follow a process of minimal intervention – guiding rather than manipulating the wine. This includes forgoing commercial yeasts and other additives. You take the grapes and try and coax out it’s natural character without forcing it to be something it’s not.”
The biodynamic guys take it even further. For instance, did you know that there are good days and less favourable days to taste a wine?
“Farmers who plant and harvest according to biodynamic principles are very much in tune with natural cycles, which includes lunar cycles, solar cycles, star constellations and the movement of other planets. It may sound a little loopy, but the point during the lunar cycle at which you taste a wine can actually make a huge difference in how you perceive it. Remember, natural wines have a lot of bacterial action going on, and gravity plays a big role in how these colonies react, which in turn has an impact on how opulent the wine’s bouquet will be at a given point along the lunar cycle. In biodynamic terms, you get ‘fruit’, ‘flower’, ‘root’ and ‘leaf’ days. Fruit and flower days are the best days to taste wine, while root days are better for planting root crops and leaf days are better for transplanting leaf plants,” explains Jurgen.
Aren’t most natural wines faulty?
Let’s be honest – natural wines have a bad reputation to a certain extent. But, as with most things in life, there are many sides to a story. According to Jurgen, the fault for this reputational problem can be laid at the door of a few ‘cowboys’ who don’t provide their wines with enough guidance or do the proper tests to ensure that their vintages will survive the rigours of time on the shelf.
“A faulty wine is a wine in which there are more harmful bacteria than good bacteria and it spoils the wine. This tends to happen when a wine wasn’t given proper guidance during the winemaking process. Life is all about boundaries. It’s cool to push boundaries, but you need to know how far you can push it. Wines that go bad are often neglected during the wine-making process and also crafted in an ‘unhealthy environment’ that isn’t spotlessly clean – so that ‘nature can run its course’. When you play too loose, something is bound to go wrong. It’s like leaving a two-year-old on this step and going, no it’s fine, let him wander around. That kid is going to fall on his face or get in the pool somehow and then you’ll be in big trouble. Boundaries are important.”
Jurgen himself learned this the hard way when he didn’t provide his wines with the proper guidance a few years ago and a whole batch of wine didn’t turn out the way he’d planned.
“Today I know that if you want to make natural wine, you have to run a scrupulously clean cellar and you need to be on top of things the whole time. There isn’t a day that you can sleep in or relax and think that you don’t need to check on your wine – in fact, because you’re not working with the safety net of a bunch of chemicals, you need to be even more vigilant. It can be very tempting to let the wine do its own thing, but you need to know when to step in so that your wine doesn’t end up spoiling on a shelf somewhere in New York because you didn’t want to add a bit of sulphur (which is allowed under natural wine guidelines) to a batch of grapes with a high pH because you were feeling purist. This is why I do field tests. I will make a wine without sulphur and then put some of it in a plastic bottle outside in the summer Swartland heat for four days. Then I taste the wine again and if it went bad, I know to add a bit of sulphur before I bottle.”
Are natural wines better for you?
Jurgen believes that you should take your own body’s word for it when it comes to natural wines.
“Listen,” he says, “a farmer can lie to you, a winemaker can lie to you, but your own body will never lie to you – it can’t. Any person who says a natural wine isn’t gentler on your system can come and take it up with me. It simply contains fewer toxins. This is why I say natural wine starts in the vineyard. You can’t claim to use natural winemaking processes and then try to do so with commercially-farmed grapes that were treated with pesticides and herbicides – that type of wine will still kick you in the teeth when you have too much of it. A truly natural wine that was grown, harvested and prepared according to minimal intervention principles won’t leave you with that chemical-laced hangover of wines that were filtered and treated with chemicals until each mouthful tastes exactly the same.”
Which brings us to the very thing about natural wine that Jurgen loves best – it changes because it’s alive.
“I had tasted natural wines a few times before 2012 and I thought it was all good and well, but I was pretty sceptical about it. I was one of those people who wanted these natural winemakers to prove themselves; if I found something wrong in one of their wines, I would keep hammering away at it. Then, in 2012, I had the opportunity to join a natural winemaker (Tom Lubbe from Matassa) for a harvest season in France. My first night there, he brought out a wine and asked us to taste it blind and tell him what it was. I couldn’t get that damn wine figured out – it kept changing on me. I spent the better part of half an hour tasting and swirling, tasting and swirling. At first, I thought it was a Viognier and then I thought it was a Muscat, but there was no way to pin it down because it kept developing.”
This would be the wine that would set Jurgen on his course to becoming one of South Africa’s most promising natural winemakers.
“It turned out to be a Riesling, and that was the wine that sold me on the whole natural winemaking thing. I always knew that I wanted to make wines that are alive and dynamic – that will taste differently from one minute to the next after I pour it in your glass. When a natural wine is done right it speaks to you, it’s full of personality. It has identity and energy. That is what I want in a wine.”
Jurgen’s gaze turned back to his cellar where his assistant, MC Stander, signalled it was time to fill the press with a new batch of grapes for his skin contact Viognier, THE SLEEPING CO-PILOT. We had come to the end of the time a winemaker has available to give journalists a concise introduction to the principles behind South African natural wines in harvest season …
Leaving his cellar, Jurgen’s words echoed: “The proof is in the tasting and the way you feel the morning after.”
Whether you buy into the notion of bacterial excitement in a wine or not, you’ve got be at least a little intrigued, right?
The best way to make up your mind is to try it for yourself; purchase Intellego Wines online from Cybercellar, taste it person at The Wine Kollective in Riebeek Kasteel, or get in touch with Jurgen to organise a private tasting.
(Maybe just consider not to taste it on a root day.)