The VinNatur group works to encourage the production of natural wines without chemicals that can affect humans. For publication in the week starting 5 February 2018.
Across Europe about 115 million hectares are assigned to agriculture. Only 3 per cent of this land is devoted to making wine, but 18 per cent of the chemicals used in agriculture are involved in the winemaking process.
VinNatur was established in 2006 to counteract what president Angiolino Maule believes is the poisoning of our environment through excessive use of chemicals. The association advocates for making natural wine, the name given to a product “derived from a healthy agriculture which rejects the use of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers,” Maule said.
In conventional viticulture it is possible to use up to 180 active pesticides and another 140 chemicals in the cellar and during wine making. It is not necessary to declare any of these chemicals on the label. Sulphur dioxide is the only permitted chemical, in tiny amounts.
Over the years VinNatur has gradually increased membership from 65 wineries in 2006 to almost 200 today. The headquarters are in Italy, with members in France, Spain, Portugal, Austria, Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Slovenia. All producers seeking to join VinNatur agree to have their wines analysed to check for as many as 88 residual pesticides. The aim of the tests is to ensure authenticity of wines and coherence with VinNatur’s principles.
The association gives special attention to natural soil balance, cleanliness and temperature control in the winery, and intelligent use of oxygen. These were the “weapons for making natural wine,” Maule said, with cleanliness “the number one secret”.
VinNatur works with three universities in Italy to find ways to eradicate copper and sulphur, traditionally used for treating vine diseases, and replacing them with natural extracts that help vines build resistance.
Members tend to be small, independent producers from vineyards with low yields per vine. They harvest by hand and pay “special attention to grape integrity”. Grapes are organic which means no insecticides or herbicides are allowed. Members are not permitted to add sugar or acids to modify grape juice, and they also agree to avoid techniques such as micro-oxygenation or reverse osmosis treatment, clarification and micro-filtration.
Sulphites are only allowed when weather conditions deteriorate.
The natural approach also extends to the cellar. Only natural yeasts are permitted. “We want to respect the raw materials,” Maule said. The association aims to reduce and, if possible, eliminate the use of sulphur dioxide. The side effects on human health were well known worldwide, he said. This is possible thanks to a constant improvement of spontaneous fermentation, along with selection of the most suitable yeasts, which are already available in nature and which give a distinctive value to wine a far as personality and uniqueness.
The association carries out regular checks on the wines of all producers to guarantee the highest possible health standards and label accuracy for consumers.
Members are allowed to employ spontaneous fermentation using only native yeasts – that is, only the yeasts found on the grape skins and in wine-making environments. The only permitted additive is sulphur dioxide and wines can only contain no more than 50 mg/litre. “Our aim is to constantly reduce the amount of sulphur dioxide and finally get rid of it,” Maule said.
A tasting of eight natural wines at the Zampieri wine bar in Via Alberto Mario in Verona showed the quality and intense flavours of this style of wines. Maule’s 2016 Sassaia (the word means rocky land), made from 100 per cent Garganaga, was a delight. We later tasted the 2011 vintage of the same wine (95 per cent Garganaga with the rest Trebbiano) and it was still zesty, tasty and alive, suggesting that Maule’s natural wines have the capacity to age gracefully.