My report on the 2011 Natural European Wines (#new11) conference in Zurich

On November 14-15th the first Natural European Wines Conference took place in Zurich. The conference was organised by VinNatur, an Italian Organisation of Natural Wine Producers and Isabelle Legeron MW. Both VinNatur and Isabelle are committed to promoting quality natural wines. VinNatur incorporates natural wine producers in Italy, France and Slovenia, but in essence it is open to all natural wine producers anywhere in the world providing they meet certain quality standards.

Before I continue about the conference I would like to take a minute to explore the concept of “natural wine” here. According to Wikipedia an ideal natural wine is a wine where nothing has been taken away nor added from the grapes/must/wine. Now anyone who knows anything about wine making knows that this “ideal natural wine” is something that does not exist… So what exactly do we mean with a natural wine? As far as I understand it is a wine made from grapes which are organically or biodynamically grown and which are processed in a “natural” way – ie with no added yeast, no must adjustments, minimal or no sulfites and minimal manipulation in the winery. When made well, they can be the most wonderful expression of a terrior. However, as I found out this summer, there are quite a few people out there who believe that they can make “lazy” natural wine (ie wine where very little care has been taken in the vineyard and in the winery) and sell the resulting “faulty” wine at a premium because it is so called “natural”…. This is why I am a great believer in quality checks of the final product and feed back to the producers as advocated by VinNatur.

I had been invited by VinNatur to attend as a wine blogger and I know several journalists and bloggers attended in the same way. So as I knew a lot of “press” had been invited I expected the conference to be a big PR campaign for natural wine. However, once I arrived at the conference I realized very quickly that this was definitely NOT a PR campaign but rather a forum for natural wine growers and wine makers to come together and learn from each other as well as from experts. So in short it meant that for me the #NEW11 conference was one of the most educational and useful conferences I attended in a very long time.

Isabelle Legeron and Angiolino Maule, the President of VinNatur, kicked off the conference by welcoming us, giving us an overview of the programme and and introducing the excellent speakers both in English and in Italian. I would like to make a point here that I was majorly impressed with the overall organisation of the conference and especially with the simultaneous translation services from English to Italian and vice versa.

The focus of the conference was divided between the vineyard and how the soil structure in the vineyards influences the wine, and wine making and the influences of yeasts (indigenous as well as cultivated) and guided tastings and consumer.

Claude and Lydia Bourguignon were the first two speakers. Claude and Lydia are the founders of LAMS (Soil Microbiological Analysis Laboratory). They are world renowned for their “terroir classifiction index” and contract as soil analysts/researchers to vineyards in Europe as well as in the new world.

#NEW11 | Natural European Wines – Claude Bourguignon from Vinnatur

As you can see from the video here above Claude spoke first about history of wine making, how things evolved and how we now have the possibility to make a “technical” wine, a “varietal” wine or a “terroir” wine. So we first explored the notion of “terrior” in general. Terroir is something pretty complex – it encompasses climate, topography, geology and soil. In the wine world the definition often also includes the grape varieties and the plant density. Claude spoke how man over time has made changes to the terroir to make grape growing more lucrative/economical. Some of these changes include a lower density to allow machine access, changes to the soil because of the use of chemicals and irrigation, and sometimes a change of varieties into higher yielding ones and/or commercially more popular varieties. The flip side of these changes is that the resulting wine will not be a true expression of the terroir any more…

Claude then continued to elaborate on soil analysis – he stressed the importance of the soils composition: the physical structure (ie water drainage and aeration), the soil texture and the chemical composition. This last point is quite important as it encompasses the chemical structure on a geological level (rock level), the composition of chemicals in the soil (earth level) and the bio-chemical composition including the fauna, flora and micro composition of the nutritional elements. It is the the combination of all these elements that allows the expression of terroir in wine. So in order to make a “terroir” wine one needs to invest in restoring the natural or indigenous composition of the soil. The only way to do this is to focus on organic or bio-dynamic dry farming. However Claude did warn that if one wants to convert to this way of farming that this is a very gradual process, as it will take time for the soils to heal and restore them selves to their “natural” state.

Lydia introduced us to the“geo-sensory” tasting wine approach. This means that one focuses on the “tactile” experience of the tasting and looks for possible geological elements present in the wine. Lydia explained that the traditional “tastevin” used from the middle ages by the monks to taste was so wide and shallow as this allowed the taster to immerse the tong and fully experience the reflections of the soil and terroir. She continued to explain how the different soil structures can be expressed in a wine. Gravely lose stoney soils will add some kind of granular almost sandy tactile experience to a wine. Limestone soils tend to add a silky and smooth characteristic, and volcanic soils add more of a clean mineral experience. Lydia then invited us to experience this for ourselves by hosting a tactile tasting of 2 Barolo’s by Fernandino Principiano from two distinctive vineyards. I found it amazing how tanins of the wine from the more sandy/gravely vineyard were more granular and showed a sandy consistency in the back palate. The wine from the more clay/marl vineyard was a lot smoother, the tanin had a more velvety characteristic again especially noticeable in the finish. This tactile tasting was the highlight of the conference for me as for the first time I really experienced soil characteristics in a wine!

From the soils we moved onto the yeasts with Federico Giotto‘s presentation on the importance of natural yeasts in the natural wine making process. Federico has done a lot of research on the fermentation of grape must and the relationship between a must and the yeasts that are naturally present here.

A a general rule we can assume that the transformation of matter is the primary life source of all living things. This transformation is driven by micro-organisms. When we apply this specifically to a vine/grape/must we can say that micro-organisms contribute to every step of the production process – both of the grape formation and growth, and in the transformation from must to wine. Whilst the grape develops, the microbial population (ie yeast) will develop with the grape and under the right conditions this microbial population can drive the transformation from unique must into unique high quality wine. However, some essential conditions are needed for this to happen.
1. Yeast has to be allowed to develop with the grape – the use of pesticides, sulphur and coper may hamper this development…
2. The grapes need to be healthy – the development of the bacteria associated w unhealthy grapes may hamper the development of the microbial population as well.
3. The must needs to be healthy – must adjustments can hamper the natural fermentation…
4. Fermentation management – the fermentation needs to take place in a CLEAN and SANITIZED environment. Winery bacteria can hamper the development as well. Fermentation adjustments (use of sulphur, carbon dioxide and non indigenous yeasts) will do the same.

Federico ended his presentation by stressing that the “quality” of the wine and it’s ability to truly reflect the terroir will depend on the interactions among the different micro-organisms in the must, yeast and winery….

After lunch we started with another guided tasting of a few wines where no sulphur had been added at all. I was amazed at how stable and clean the wines were… We then continued to taste 4 “aged” natural wine to disprove the theory that natural wine does not age. I was especially blown away by the 1997 La Biancara, Recioto di Gambellara a very luscious and beautiful Garganega from Veneto which had aged very graciously indeed!

In the next session Terje Meling of the Norwegian Vinmonopolet spoke about the challenges and opportunities associated with marketing and buying natural wines. Vinmonopolet has been a long term supporter of the natural wine movement and has thus a large selection of natural wines. However there are still many challenges as a lot of the consumers will buy a natural wine once, and then move to the next thing. This means that stock often does not move fast enough resulting in discontinuation. Terje spoke of the option of educating the staff to make them “natural wine ambassadors” however he did not really touch on the subject of how a winery specifically can achieve this. He also did not speak about the fact that a winery needs an importer into Norway before the Monopoly can/will buy their wines and distribute them… Nor did he give any tips on how to find such a distributor…

Maybe I am a bit more cynical here as I have extensively worked with several monopolies (in Scandinavia, Canada and the US) and I know things only become a breeze once you have product in the stores and the wine is actually quite popular and moving at an acceptable pace. Most liquor/wine monopolies also do not readily give wineries access to their staff to organise training sessions which makes it quite difficult to turn the staff in to brand ambassadors… Anyway these facts made this the least interesting talk of the conference for me.

The last session of the day was hosted by Jonathan Nossiter. Jonathan is the director of Mondovino, the 2004 documentary on the impact of globalization on the world’s different wine regions. He spoke about the importance of independence in today’s homogenised world and drew parallels with the independent film industry in the 60′s-70′s. In some ways I believe he was trying to compare the natural wine movement with Godard… From here a discussion evolved on whether or not quality or any other guidelines can be integrated in the movement or whether these would impede on the creative wine making process. As mentioned at the beginning of this post, I do believe quality guidelines are needed as they will facilitate customer buy in. I feel most of the natural wine producers strive to make high quality, elegant and complex wines which are a true expression of their terroir, and as we learned in the morning sessions some precautions are more than advisable in the management of the vineyard as well as the must fermentation process so I do not see why these precautions cannot become guidelines or even rules for the natural wine movement. I believe these guidelines could help the winemaker to get the best and most unique wines out of their terroir.
On a separate note I love creativity, adore even a very unusual expression of a grape variety on a specific terroir like the Sébastien Riffault Akméniné 2009 Sancerre, but I do not believe that brettanomyces is a great expression of that creativity… So any rules or guidelines striving to prevent this can but be a wonderful thing as far as I am concerned :-)

The conference ended with a fabulous tasting which I will write up shortly.

About Caroline

Caroline is a certified Sommelier (by the CMS) and WSET diploma student. In order to specialize in the wines of Champagne she moved to the region and currently works as a wine consultant, wine educator and wine writer. She is a member of the Circle of Wine Writers and writes for several international publications including Palate Press, Snooth, Wine-Searcher, Decanter and Vinogusto; further activities include teaching Champagne related courses at Reims Management School and organizing personalized tasting experiences at http://www.tastingswithatwist.wordpress.com as well as being a regular judge at international wine competitions.
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  • http://arnoldwaldstein.com/ Arnold Waldstein

    Thank you Caroline.
    I was invited to this event as well and wanted very much to attend. I’m a fan of Isabelle and as you know, a supporter of natural wines both as an approach to wine making and as a category for the consumer.
    I really appreciate the care which you reported on the presentation on terroir and yeasts. I am now more sensitive to these ideas. I’m a sponge for learning and enjoy the new information.
    Three areas of feedback:
    -I find it odd that in most every event I attend or follow in Europe for the wine trade the concept of marketing and distribution is euro focused. Wine is a hyper local product, appreciated for that sense of local in a global market. I would suggest that they are doing themselves a disservice by focusing on the brick and mortar issues of education around the term ‘natural’ and started to think more about a global market.
    -I appreciate quality as much as you as you know, but I think the belief that the industry through labeling and certification will somehow enforce a quality standard is optimistic. And as well, that the existence of poor natural wine is somehow an infection that will destroy the market’s perception. There is junk industrial wine everywhere. I don’t get this.
    -The fuss about the name and category of natural is astounding to me. Certainly there are many details that need to be communicated. Certainly there are subjective quality issues of taste. And certainly there is more information that is helpful. But in a connected world, we need filters, both human and categorical to find that what interests us. What shall we use? Why is natural not a good one? I receive weekly tips from friends around the world on good natural wines to try. The Tower of Babel syndrome that people decry about the label seem overplayed.
    Really enjoyed this piece. Thank you so much.
    BTW–I see no way to sign up to receive notification that you have responded to this comment so you will have to let me know when you do ;)

    • http://www.missinwine.com Caroline

      Hey Arnold,
      Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts with us!!

      Firstly I really hope you can make it to the next edition of the Natural European Wines Conference – I really hope they do a follow up as this edition was a great success!!
      I am also glad you enjoyed reading about the soils and the yeasts as I really enjoyed these presentations!!

      I also do value your feed back :-) I think the first point is maybe something that needs to be thrown out in the open in a natural wine community or even the natural wine movement. As a marketer and business person I totally get what you are saying but I feel this is a very sensitive issue… This afternoon I read an article by Tom Wark which was called Natural Wine – the Ugly Underbelly which in a way proves how sensitive this issue of “natural” really is in a global way. As in a way it is true that there is a lot of bagging and denigrating of the quality of non-natural wines used in some of the marketing of the natural wines… Which brings me to your second point, the quality issue… Having had a very bad experience over the summer when I experienced first hand how a natural wine producer took the definition of natural a little to literal. He took no care in the vineyard, even though the company was organically certified there was THAT much sulphur on some of the vines that I actually got an allergic reaction. The fruit was definitely not healthy with lots of grey rot, the winery was filthy, bucket loads of dry ice were used to stabilize the must a bit, and even more Bentonite was used to try and fix problems before fermentation even started. Needless to say that some of the wines do show this “interpretation” of natural wine and were very obviously faulty… However this particular producer uses every opportunity to put down his colleagues who just make regular wine exactly on quality… That is why I feel that it would be good to have quality standards in natural wine. – seems we have them for every other product we buy any way :-)
      I agree with you on the third point. I love wine – actually I love good wine, and I love terroir wine even more – which means that I am naturally drawn to natural wine as well. I enjoy getting recommendations from friends on which wines to drink yet I have to admit that I drink a lot of regular wine as well, in the same way as I tend to look for organic produce (fruit/veg/meat and fish) but I eat regular food as well… I do not enjoy faulty regular wine any more than I enjoy faulty natural wine – I just am not a fan of rot (unless it is noble :-) ) nor bacteria like brettanomyces…
      I will share my tasting notes of the wines I tried on the second day later this week – there really were some gems, especially the Slovenian Carso wines!!
      Thanks again for your comments!!

  • Susan Hedblad

    Hello Caroline, I’m waiting to see the video registration of the conference and now, you’ve really whetted my appetite. I’m looking at things from more a marketing perspective here in Italy, so the discussion interests me as well.

    I understand the concern of many natural wine producers here in Italy. Twenty years ago, the wine here was mostly modest, and could not compete internationally. There was an ensuing race to make more elaborate wines, better, but which had little to do with tradition or terroir.

    Now there is the “artisan wine” trend linked to terroir, autochthonous vines and local tradition. Industrial wine makers have responded by creating and marketing fresher, lighter, less oaked wines. The small, truly artisan wines and the natural wines are competing in this market. Both of these categories are concerned with defending their market share and reputation, thus the quest for certifications and quality standards. Price obviously factors in here!

    I see, more than ever, that there is more accountability, because consumers want to know more about what they’re drinking, and they are using their networks on a path of discovery. There is an opportunity for winemakers to connect and inform, local to global. From experience, small wine producers have a very difficult time cultivating these connections. I’d be interested in your thoughts : )

    Should certifications and connected organizations play a role in this? Currently in Italy, some of the limits on the use of chemicals in the production of certified, organic wines are much higher than what is normally used by serious wine makers. Do you have some information on this? On the other hand, I too, have witnessed unsanitary conditions in a “natural” winery.

    I don’t have an answer, but I think certifications are easily manipulated and disputed within the wine world, and at times, boring and confusing for non-expert wine lovers. Some kind of regulation is most likely necessary, but shouldn’t play an important role in marketing natural wines.

    Can’t wait to read the rest! Thanks.

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