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Natural wine is buzzing BIODIVERSITY in the vineyard AND NO ADDITIONS in the cellar

Producing wine without any additions, more and more winemakers swear by it. Top restaurants are switching to natural wine, natural wine bars are opening and biodynamic certifier Demeter sees a strong growth in wineries willing to get certified. "It is more than a way of producing, it is a way of life," says winemaker Ruben Parera.

By Maite Porras de Kwant and Birk Heijkants

A workday on the small vineyard, Finca Parera, starts with an extraordinary breakfast surrounded by olive and cherry trees. Bees are flying around the many flowers. After an hour of working on the land the oldest man on the farm, Jordi Parera, calls for breakfast.

The trunk of the white van serves as a seat for three people. The others are sitting on old used plastic crates, eating chorizo sandwiches with a Catalan tomato spread. To remind themselves of what they are creating, winemaker Ruben Parera pulls out a bottle of red wine: “Faust is our great great grandfather, founder of Finca Parera. We dedicated this wine to him, Faust 1.2 for the year 2012.” Ruben takes a sip out of the bottle and passes it on.

“Toma!”

“Take some!”

Finca Parera, is a winery, founded in 1892 in the Penedès, Catalonia. Since 1999 Jordi Parera changed direction and became organic. Jordi’s son, Ruben graduated from winemaking university in Tarragona with his classmate Jordi – same name as Ruben’s father, but nicknamed Guaski. Ruben and Guaski took over the finca and after a while they tried a natural wine together and said to each other that wine doesn’t need the sulphites to be tasteful. That’s when they wanted to become biodynamic and natural. It took four years since 2009 to make the transition.

“I used to love conventional wine,” says Guaski after dinner, while snacking from the cherries we picked some hours before, “it was the only thing we learned about at university.” But when he tried a natural wine after his studies he didn’t want anything else anymore. The natural wines are smellier, more acidic and closer to the taste of grape than conventional wines, “which are boring”, adds Guaski.

Natural wine is based on trust

Natural wine is wine which is made with as little as possible intervention by the winemaker. In the field that means no chemical fertilizers or pesticides are used. In the cellar the wine isn’t filtered, no yeast and enzymes are added and almost no sulphur is added. There are no official rules or certification on natural wine, so you have to trust the winemaker and importer on what they’re doing, as Italian winemaker Daniele Ribelà said to us at a big natural wine fair in Berlin: “You have to look me in the eyes and trust me on how I am making wine.”

After the second world war the production of wine became very industrial and increased exponential. There was more wine produced than experts ever imagined possible. Pesticides and sulphites were regulated more and wine needed to be homogeneous.

In the 80's the natural wine movement started in the Beaujolais, France, which had become the region of blown-up wine production. That's when the radical three friends Jules Chauvet, Jacques Neoport and Marcel Lapierre fought against the chemicals and strictures of the area. They created wine from only the grapes, like their ancestors did. The three friends inspired their friends who inspired their friends, a movement was born.

To certify or not to certify

Organic and biodynamic are certifications used to define the viticulture, often overlapping with natural wine. Organic being controlled by governments and biodynamic being an independent organization, called Demeter, on controlling production of, in this case, wine. Where organic is only concerned with pesticides and the number of sulphites, goes biodynamic a step further.

The wonders of biodynamics

Biodynamic is a method of agriculture invented by the philosopher Rudolf Steiner, the man who founded the Waldorf schools. It is mostly about biodiversity on the field but the methods also include lunar and planetary rhythms on when to do certain things. To do that the farmers use the foundings of Maria Thun, who discovered the moon’s influence on planting vegetables and made a planting calendar out of it. Her son based a wine drinking calendar on his mother’s foundings. Big British supermarkets Tesco and Marks & Spencer are using the calendar for their wine tastings.

Source: Demeter

Expert in biodynamics Josep Tarrida at vineyard Raventós i Blanc uses Thun’s techniques and also goes a step further: “We bury the horns of a goat filled with their own manure. A goat is close to the ground and their horns serve as an antenna to the cosmos.” Don’t worry if you don’t get it, it took Josep two years of courses to understand these practices. Do you believe in these practices, we ask Lionel Lopez, the man who manages the visitors and guides the tours: “In some of them, but more important is that everyone who works in the field believes it. Because they have to work with the methods.”

“Hay gente que dicen este tío está loco”

“There are people who say this guy is crazy”

The basics of biodynamics are biodiversity. Dandelions and fava beans near the vines helps to replenish nutrition in the ground. The roots of thistles and mustard plants loosen the soil. Because of not using chemical pesticides the ladybugs come back into the vineyard and eat insects that would affect the vines. Bees are pollinators but are also bothered by chemical pesticides. On the field horses are used instead of machines because they, unlike machines, never step in the same footsteps as before.

Drawings by Anna-Pippa Heijkants

No wine is wasted

The natural winemaker doesn’t use sulphites while making his wine. Do they have to throw away more wine then a natural winemaker? “Even in conventional wineries mistakes in wine are very common,” says Ruben Parera, “because wine is alive, and live always is in transform.” There are things in conventional wineries that natural winemakers never suffer from: “If it’s warmer the chemical yeast won’t ferment and sometimes they put water in the wines and the flavour disappears.”

Arjen Miedema, importer of natural wine at Vleck Utrecht, says that wine doesn’t need sulphites, it is paradoxical: “Natural wines are living organisms, which can defend themselves from bad bacterias from the outside. Adding sulphites lowers the risk of wine turning bad, that’s why big producers use it.”

“Every natural winery has a small tank of wine which they don’t know what to do with,” tells Guaski, “it isn’t good enough to bottle or to blend but still not that bad.” Since november last year natural wine bar Salvatge opened in Barcelona. Ruben Parera makes a good deal with wineries to buy these wines and put them into Bag-in-boxes, he drives them to Salvatge and connects it to taps.

Guaski: “People can drink a rare, funky wine for almost no money. A glass is only two to four euros. And every time the wine is sold out there’s a new one coming up.” The taps are located on a copper wall, in chalk some information about the wine and the price is written down in a messy handwriting. The hostess asks us enthusiastic if we are familiar with natural wine and pours us two funky wines from the tap.

While doing our tour in the cellar at Raventós i Blanc an old man explained the vinegar smell: “We’re doing a test of making vinegar. In the future we may sell it.” Lionel Lopez added: “It’s a good way to stop wine waste.” Also the guys from Finca Parera made vinegar to prevent wine waste. “But till now only for personal use,” tells Guaski, “we have poured the wine in barrels in 2001 and haven't touched it since. That’s why you only need a few drops on your salad.”

“The establishment is losing power”

Tough talk: conventional vs natural

The divide between conventional and natural winemakers gets bigger and bigger. “The establishment is losing power,” says Pepe Raventos, CEO of Raventós i Blanc. What do you mean with the establishment? “Everything, the conventional winemakers, the conventional journalists, reviewers, importers, conventional restaurants, everything.”

“That is a very tough thing to say,” Onno Kleyn responds on Pepe Raventós' quote. Kleyn is wine critic of the Volkskrant, a big newspaper in the Netherlands, who mainly reviews conventional wine. Kleyn isn’t afraid of losing power: “I am in the position that I can tell what my opinion is. And if I would be afraid of losing power, I would do something else and change my focus area to natural wine.” For him natural wine tastes unpleasant: “For me it feels like I am drinking Rivella or buttermilk because of the spontaneous fermentation. It dominates the characteristic taste of grapes."

Though Kleyn thinks he could get used to the taste of natural wine: “Except for sweetness, which is innate, one needs to get used to every taste. I simply didn’t do that with the taste of natural wine. I think it’s unfortunate because I really love the tastes I already know.” According to Kleyn there is more diversity in the smells of conventional wine then in natural wine.

“People will consider me oldschool,” he continues, “but natural wine will always be a small percentage of the total. Though organic and natural wine is very important.” Why? “Because it makes the conventional winemakers understand they have to think about sulphites and working in the vineyard, about a different approach. The natural winemakers are some sort of preachers. That’s important, but I don’t have to like their results.”

Information is key

Johan Dal, leader of Slow Food Copenhagen, an organization to prevent the disappearance of local food and traditions, is critical about how wine is consumed: “If people were more concerned or more provided with information about for example sustainability in the growth of wine, I think many of them would not drink wine the way they do.” He wonders if it should be this normal and easy to just drink wine every day, without knowing how it’s produced.

"And remember: Finca Parera is your new home in Catalonia," says Ruben when we leave his vineyard.

Created By
Birk Heijkants and Maite Porras de Kwant
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Photos by Maite Porras de Kwant and Birk Heijkants

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