We've enjoyed meeting so many of you this past month at Moss St. Market in Victoria on Saturday mornings, and thanks especially to those of you who have come by each week to say hello and be our market friend regulars. Providing great local wine to our fellow islanders is why we started this, and it's fabulous to see those growlers coming back.
We poured about 100 samples today at Moss Street and so must have met 100 of you, and we had some good questions today about natural wines, why we limit the use of sulfites, and stability, and it occurs to us that these are questions lots of wine lovers have. So here's our handy natural wine FAQ. If you have more questions, stop by the tasting room (2838 Lamont Road in Saanichton) or our tent at Moss St. (#100), and let us know, and we'll post those too!
1. Q: Where are your grapes from? A: My husband, Rob, and I farm just over 10 acres on the Saanich peninsula, and all our fruit is peninsula grown. We farm 6 acres on Lamont Road (and we think it's pretty cool that our property here was once part of the historic estate owned by Neil Lamont, the founder of Grower Wines, the first island winery in the 1920s). We also farm 2.5 acres on Mt. Newton Cross Road, at what is still colloquially called Marley Farm, and we farm another 2.7 acres of historic farm land over on Mt. Newton Cross Road at Bannockburn (c. 1855-7), the original Thomson pioneer estate. The only fruit we ever buy comes from our friends S, I, and W, also on the peninsula, who have a wee vineyard. We made 26 bottles of dessert wine from their Black Muscat, a classic French varietal, this year. Everything else is estate fruit, and it's all from the peninsula.
2. Q: What is natural wine? A: Natural wine starts with the idea that it's all about the fruit. So you can't answer this question really without also saying how we farm, which is regeneratively.
Regenerative farming is the idea that organic, biodynamic, sustainable are great places to start, but just sustaining what we're doing isn't enough. Regenerative farming for us boils down to this: no pesticides, no herbicides, no fungicides, no synthetic fertilizers (which are largely salts and which, think: fertilizer bomb, are historically a function of the military-industrial complex post-WW2), no till (oxygen interrupts the soil microbiome, which is anaerobic), and livestock integrated.
We're serious about soil microbiome here at Parsell, and that's not just because it's good for the planet (it is: it's how we build soil health and also build topsoil, which is being degraded at a rate faster than replenishment with modern agro-bus). We do it above all because it's also good for the wine. There is some great research out there showing that what we think of as the expression of "terroir" in wine is actually an expression of the soil microbiota. (See, for example, https://mbio.asm.org/content/7/3/e00631-16.short).
So natural wine is, first, about getting the most complex and clean fruit. Then, you carry that approach over into the cellar. Natural wine doesn't filter, doesn't fine, uses wild, native yeast fermentations, doesn't inoculate for ML, doesn't cold stabilize, doesn't use additives or extractives, and restricts the use of sulfites.
Folks sometimes don't know what all those terms mean, so here's a quick cheat sheet of some of those terms--which are really kinds of manipulations that can happen in a cellar.
Filtration - fining - cold stabilization: when you make a wine, you press the juice off from the grape skins and seeds. We use old-school basket wooden presses because the pressing is gentler, which means the wine clears more readily (but the trade off is that we lose some yields). But the juice isn't crystal clear. There are enzyme, proteins, yeast cells all naturally occurring and suspended in solution. So how do you clarify the wine? A winemaker first racks off the wine. Racking just means taking the clear wine from the top of the vessel and leaving behind any sediment that has settled out in the bottom. If you rack enough times and are patient, you can get a wine clear by racking. But you have to be gentle and patient.
We clear our wines only through racking. Nature does the work, and we don't rush it. That's natural wine. And, again, we do it because we believe that the other options are manipulations that negatively impact the quality of the wine.
We understand why other winemakers use these other techniques to speed up the process. If we were making commercial wines, we could filter the wine using a machine with a series of increasingly fine screen panels, with micron levels low enough ultimately to remove any yeast, bacteria, protein, or enzyme cells from the wine. The trouble for us is that filtration of small lots of wine also leaves behind through adsorption some of the cells that give wine bouquet, aroma, and body.
Another intervention for clearing wine is fining. If you've ever used egg whites to clear a broth and make consommé you've used fining. Fining relies on mixing the wine with additives that combine with the cells in solution in order to precipitate and remove them. You can add, for example, the synthetic polymer polyvinylpolypyrrolidone (PVPP). You could use diatomaceous earth, bentonite, activated carbon, islinglass (a fish bladder product), gelatin (a cow and bone-based product), or even albumen (an egg product). We think there are some good reason not to use these products, but it comes down again for us to the quality of the wine. Fining drops colloids, which is a sensory component of wine, and we don't like the idea of spending all that time in the vineyard to grow grapes with complex qualities only to strip some of them out of the wine because we wanted to rush a vintage to market.
Another way to speed along clarification and prevent the formation of tartrates in the bottle is cold stabilization. Cool climate wines like those here on Vancouver Island have naturally brighter acidity, and tartaric acid is one of those elements. What can happen is that, over time in a bottle, they can naturally fall out of solution and create what are colloquially called "wine diamonds" the white flakes you see sometimes.
You can prevent that formation by cold stabilization, which is when you bring wine down to just around freezing temperature and hold it there for 24 hours. Potassium bitartrate (the precursor to tartrates and also known to you in your kitchen as cream of tartar for baking) will fall out of the solution. If you've ever frozen a homemade chicken stock and seen the heavier molecules sink to the bottom and the liquid rise to the top then you've cold stabilized.
But why are we doing this? "Wine diamonds" are the sign that your wine is aging naturally and that the young acids are smoothing out just as they should. We remove them in winemaking because we don't trust that consumers will learn enough about wine to know that these are not flaws but are part of the natural evolution of wine, which is always changing. That's the whole point of cellaring wine: to give it time to undergo changes and to enjoy it at different moments in the life cycle.
And once again, you have to ask what you're dropping. When you cold stabilize, it's not only the acids that fall out of solution, but you also lose colloids, which are larger molecules that give wine body and what we call "mouthfeel," that sense of something viscous and substantial rather than thin and watery. So we feel that cold stabilizing detracts from the wine's body without adding any value.
So our wines are not fined or cold stabilized. They are naturally vegan (the only ingredient: grapes), and we clear the wine through successive racking. They are released live or raw (we adhere to the Raw Wine standards (https://www.rawwine.com/profile/parsell-vineyard/). Will you get some sediment in the bottle? Sure. You might get lucky and see some wine diamonds. You might see some protein precipitate out as sediment or in solution. These are not flaws. They are signs that the wine you're drinking is not manipulated and retains its full array of natural aromatics.
Wild yeast - natural ML - sulfites: What's with this sulfite thing? I talked with several of you about this at Moss Street Market, and it's a great question, one tied in with the questions about wild yeast and bacteria.
First, all wine has sulfites. They occur naturally as part of the fermentation process. So there's no such thing as a wine with no sulfites. But there are wines--natural wines--that are no sulfites added or that restrict the use of sulfites to "raw" levels (under 30 p.p.m.).
Why do winemakers use sulfites or sulfur dioxide (SO2)? There are really two reasons. One is that it prevents oxygen from reacting with wine. It's a simple organic chemistry reaction, where the SO2 binds with the oxygen to prevent oxidation. So many winemakers are consistently adding SO2 throughout the wine's aging process to prevent oxidation, which is basically what happens when an apple is cut, say, and goes brown on the top layer. SO2 acts as a constant supply of lemon juice in this analogy.
But with that apple, you have to add lemon juice repeatedly to prevent oxidization over time. Wine sits in the cellar for months, often years. So, while 350 p.p.m. is the legal limit in a finished wine, many winemakers are using it throughout the process.
There are two approaches a winemaker can take. You can spend your days preventing oxidation and using SO2. Or you can accept that oxygen happens and "hyper-oxidize" your wines at the outset: you let the "browning" happen on the surface, knowing it add (at least in our winery) some nutty aromatics, and you stop trying to fight nature. That is our approach, and it's why our orange wines (more on that in another post soon as well but in the meantime, if you're curious: https://punchdrink.com/articles/insiders-guide-best-orange-wine/), for example, pair so well with walnuts. (We also have walnuts in the vineyard, and we think that's part of the bigger picture as well.)
The second reason winemakers use it is because it is an antimicrobial. SO2 is basically a way of knocking back the yeasts and bacteria that exist naturally on the skins of the grapes and starting with a fresh slate so the winemaker can add commercial strains of yeast or bacteria. (For more on SO2, here is a good technical article: http://srjcstaff.santarosa.edu/~jhenderson/Sulfur%20Dioxide.pdf).
The advantage of commercial strains of yeast, in particular, is that they are standardized in a laboratory and contain just one strain of yeast. So a winemaker can choose the particular strain of yeast and can control (or manipulate) some of the sensory attributes of the wine, because the kind of yeast has a large impact on sensory and aromatic qualities of a wine.
Wild, native yeast fermentations depend on the yeasts that live naturally in the vineyard and on the skins of the fruit, and what some winemakers don't like about these is that the ambient yeasts all around us aren't just one strain. There could be a dozen or more different strains of yeast, reflecting the diversity of the microclimate of the vineyard. And because you don't know what they are, you can't draw a straight line from strain to sensory effect. You can't control the process and ensure that every bottle of your Pinot Gris tastes just like the last bottle.
This is really worth emphasizing: the focus of commercial winemaking is on creating a standardized product that can be shipped across the country in July, in warm temperatures, and can sit on a shelf in a store for months. Commercial winemakers are gambling that what you want is a homogenous brand and product. And because of this, they need to limit the yeast strains to just the one strain that produces the effect of their product.
This is not our thing. What we want to make is a clean, fresh wine that tastes like this place and like a particular moment in time. Our wines are all small lot, and, because we use 100% native yeast fermentations, each lot can be different from the last. We let that full diversity of wild yeasts have their expression, and what we notice is something funny: our wines smell like the land here and they pair seamlessly with the foods that live and grow here.
It does matter that we are the stewards of some beautiful and historically important farmland, both in the Martindale Valley (https://birding.bc.ca/regions/victoria
saanichtonvillage.ca/history/). The native yeasts around us come from generations of farmers doing things like planting fruit orchards and growing berries. We have elderflower and hawthorn hedges, wild Nootka roses at the margins of the vineyards, hay fields all around, and old crabapple, Garry oak, and black walnut trees in the middle of some plantings. And so our Ortega wine, for example, has notes of elderflower, hay, and green apple. Some of those notes are highlighted by the kinds of yeasts and microbes that live in the vineyard and find their expression. We also can't help but notice that its bright acidity pairs perfectly with our local wild salmon or with Salt Spring Island mussels. The idea of natural wine is to grow great fruit, without interventions, and then get out of the way. This wine from this place is our thing.
So what does that mean about our use of sulfites? We generally do not use them. We never use them in the early stages of the winemaking process because we want to encourage spontaneous fermentations from wild yeasts. We also don't use them after fermentation because we want our wines to go through ML naturally.
What is ML? It stands for malolactic fermentation. The best way to think of it is that there are two (three actually, but more on that in another post) fermentations a wine can go through. The first is the yeast fermentation, in which yeast converts natural sugars (or added sugars in some commercial wineries) to carbon dioxide and alcohol. The second is a natural bacterial fermentation, in which malic acid (like in apples) is converted to lactic acid (like in cream).
ML is a natural part of the fermentation process and happens spontaneously in the spring after harvest, when the temperatures begin to warm. But again, if your goal as a commercial winemaker is to make a standard product that is always the same, year after year, bottle after bottle, because you want brand consistency, you don't want that process to happen on its own. Just as there are diverse yeast strains, there are also diverse bacteria strains all around us. So if you wanted to control the process you would add SO2 as an antimicrobial and then inoculate with a commercial bacterial strain to initiate your ML.
Our belief is that diversity of microbial life adds complexity to our wine, and we're committed to working with local, ambient elements to get the fullest expression of place, so we allow spontaneous ML in all our wines.
The only times we use sulfites are at bottling. We bottle both with no sulfites added and we bottle some wines with raw levels of sulfites at 20-30 p.p.m.
Why? Here's the thing about natural wines: heat is the enemy of all wine. If you take your wine from the grocery store and put it in the hot trunk of your car for a few hours, you will damage the wine. But you won't necessarily know it because that wine, from a microbial perspective, is sterile. There is nothing living in the bottle to react to the temperature. But you will still cook your wine.
If you put a natural wine in a hot place, you will not only cook your wine but you will begin to get a fizz. That is because you'll start a re-fermentation, and, as I said above, carbon dioxide is one of the effects of fermentation. If you let this go on long enough, the cap will pop off the bottle, and you will have red wine in your trunk. This is true even at 20-30 p.p.m., but raw levels of sulfites do give you a bit more temperature stability.
So if you want no sulfites added wines, we can do that. Just please don't cook our lovely wine. Otherwise, we bottle at raw levels. And, still, don't cook it.
Natural wines are shelf stable but they are not temperature stable. They will store and age like any other wine, and once you open them they will last a few days. But, unlike commercial wines, because they are still living, if you heat them they will fizz.
What this does mean is that we do not distribute our wines. We sell only from our tasting room and at the farmer markets.
A hundred years ago, no one expected to have peaches in December and no one expected to get wine delivered in July. Today, we demand foods out of season, and one of the consequences is that winemakers ensure their wines are sterile so wine can be shipped long distances in summer months without temperature control. If you want winter peaches, we're not here to judge. But there's nothing quite like a fresh peach right off the tree in the summer, and for us that's what natural wines are in the wine world.
And you can have your wine in July, if you buy it locally. All you need to do is store it in a cool (cold isn't necessary), dark place (light is also the enemy of all wine), and it will last for years. Not that we really think you'll wait that long.
If you want to store our wines long term, ask us to put a wood cork in your bottle and store the wine on its side in the cellar to reduce the oxygen exchange and keep the cork moist. Otherwise, to reduce the environmental footprint, we generally cap our still wines, and they will store 3-4 years with caps. We recommend storing crown capped natural wines upright and decanting before serving.
Q: What's your background as a winemaker? A: I started out as a wine writer in the United States, based primarily out of Sonoma and Napa, and I've lectured on wine at places like the Professional Wine Writer's Symposium in Napa, Women of the Vine, and the San Francisco Wine School. I have a post-graduate extension certificate in winemaking from the University of California at Davis (and, like my husband, a Ph.D. in romantic poetry).