Our guest writer today is Rachel Everett, Co-Founder at L’altreVi Limited and all-round oenophile. L’altre Vi is an Oxfordshire-based mother and son wine import business, with a love for Catalan wine.
When Rachel isn’t delivering delicious wines, she can be found messing about in weedy organic vineyards – like in the image below.
“Organic wine”, “natural wine”, “biodynamic wine”, “minimal intervention” wine and now “clean wine”, what does it all mean? Isn’t all wine basically just grapes?
A few words which will hopefully make things a bit clearer…
Organic wine, biodynamic wine, natural wine, minimum intervention, and clean wine explained
When we hatched L’altre Vi, Rubén and I were clear that we wanted to work with sustainable producers. I’ve always loved wildlife and nature and Rubén, although more of an urban creature, has plenty of experience id-ing bugs. So organic it was and with it the possibility to bring some of Catalonia’s most quirky, creative and exquisite wines to the UK.
Wine does indeed start with grapes, but how it ends up depends on how the vines are grown and what happens in the winery. When we buy supermarket wine from a big producer we expect it to taste the same each time. Yet the grapes themselves will probably have been grown for maximum yield rather than quality and many wines will have travelled long distances by sea, only being bottled in the UK.
To achieve consistency and stability they need help. Winemakers have a battery of techniques and processes to make this happen, ranging from adjustments in acidity and aroma, filtering and fining to make the wines clear and cheeky ways of adding flavour like the oak chips sometimes used instead of barrel ageing. There are crafty high-tech solutions too, from reverse osmosis used to correct the concentration of grape juice before fermentation, to micro-oxygenation which can replicate the more costly business of ageing in barrels. All great for producing cheap wine in volume, but the end product tends to be onedimensional and (sorry), rather boring.
Good wine is made in the vineyard. Without top-quality grapes, no amount of tweaking will do. In organic grape-growing, no chemically synthesised pesticides or herbicides are permitted; the soil is a living ecosystem and wildlife flourishes around the vines. In the Penedès – L’altre Vi’s home patch – organic vineyards are the scruffy ones, full of wildflowers. The others are neat and tidy and empty of life beyond the rows of vines.
There are still pests to be dealt with – like the grape moths controlled by pheromone traps to disrupt their life cycle – and growers still spray when faced with crises like this year’s outbreak of fungal infection. However, they can only use permitted non-synthetic means like powdered sulphur.
In the winery, although bound by much stricter regulations than in conventional production, winemakers are free to buy in organic yeast, filter or fine their wines and add low levels of sulphites to stabilise them. A wide variety of wine styles are the result, some from large scale wineries and others from quirky small producers like the ones we work with.
The original organic movement, started in 1924, biodynamic agriculture works with living soils and the invisible energies of the earth to optimise plant health. It views a farm as an ecosystem, nurturing the health of the vines through unique compost and spray preparations and acting according to the yearly cosmic cycle. Biodynamic wines have stricter constraints than organic ones and are more similar to Natural Wines. Although it can seem whacky, biodynamic farming obliges the vinegrower to pay very close attention to the vineyard and has a track record of producing outstanding wines. Many of the most sought after wines in the world are biodynamic, although the wineries may not admit it!
Natural wines and “minimum intervention”
Natural wines allow the organic or biodynamically grown grapes to lead the way in terms of the finished wine. Winemakers interfere in the most minimal way possible, starting by letting the grapes ferment with the yeasts present in the vineyard and on the skins of the grapes. This “spontaneous fermentation” is followed by bottling without filtering or fining and without any added sulphites to preserve the wine. The results are wines unlike any others, all crazy flavours (grapes, apples, honey, cider…) which may be cloudy, and which are more akin to a probiotic yoghurt than a bottle of standard plonk. The first time you try them, natural wines can be a bit of a
shock to the tastebuds. But, once hooked, add another fabulous dimension to wine tasting adventures. We love them.
The “clean wine” movement
This is marketing, I’m afraid. Exploiting the fact that food labelling standards don’t apply to alcoholic products, and feeding on people’s ignorance of winemaking. They offer an exaggerated version of conventional wines which feeds on fear. Cameron Diaz’s “Avaline” are standard organic wines – the white one is even Catalan – but they certainly aren’t “pure” in the way a natural wine is. They’re still processed wines and, reflecting a lack of transparency, fail to mention who the producer even is (I happen to know the Catalan winery has been sworn to secrecy as part of its contract).
So – conventional wines, organic wines, biodynamic wines, natural wines and clean wine – all should now make a bit more sense. Enjoy exploring!
Salut i vi! (Good Health and Good Wine)
If you live within 10 miles of Oxford, L’altre Vi are offering FREE DELIVERY – deliveries are made Wednesdays & Fridays, just be sure to select “I LIVE IN OXFORD!” from the delivery options.
You will also find them at East Oxford Farmers Market on 2nd & 4th Saturdays monthly.
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