Wine trends come and go. At first, natural wines were considered a fling of the wine world. Something that will pass quickly, and everything will return to “normal” again. But there are a lot of circumstances that contributed to making the natural wine scene a very vibrant and long-lasting one.
Until recently, there was no real definition of natural wines, with the most accepted being the one given by the popular natural wine fair “RAW”. It stated natural wines are made from organically farmed grapes that are transformed into wine without adding or removing anything in the cellar. Following applications of natural wine producers, the French INAO, the organization that controls the wine trade created a certification for French wines that are natural. The certified wines can bear one of the two logos of “Vin Méthode Nature”.
Of course, still wines can be made the “natural” way, of just pressing the grapes and leaving them in the cellar to ferment and become wine. However, the question still remains whether sparkling wines made with Méthode Champenoise (or any other method for making sparkling wines), can be called natural.
Champagne and sparkling wines made with secondary fermentation are a winemakers’ wine. They are created with the addition of some type of sugar and yeast to the base wine before bottling. Even when the base wine was made without any intervention from the winemaker, this step of the sparkling wine production could conflict with the technical definition of natural wines (namely, the part about “without adding or removing anything in the cellar”).
Things are added in Champagne, so it can’t be considered natural, right?
Not necessarily. Passionate producers have found approaches they can use in order to create natural Champagne.
Key steps to make a ‘natural’ Champagne:
1. Using organic or biodynamic grapes
It all starts in the vineyard. It can be really challenging to grow organic or biodynamic grapes in the cold and damp climate of the Champagne region. The producers have to be constantly present in the vineyard to prevent diseases from spreading and ruining both yields and quality.
2. Hand harvesting
Not only is it required by the Champagne AOC to hand harvest, but it also helps the producers control the quality of the grapes that reach the winery. Sorting in the vineyard reduces the chances of wine spoilage later on.
3. No yeast added
Depending on the producer, he might leave the ferments to start completely by themselves, or he can create a “pied de cuve”. In order to do this, he must press some grapes before the actual harvest and leave the must to ferment. This is then added to the bigger tank to inoculate it. By doing this the producer reduces the chances of getting off-flavors and bad ferments.
4. Nothing else added
No SO2 to prevent oxidation and microbiological spoilage, no yeast nutrients, no carbon to reduce the color of the red grapes in blanc de noir Champagnes, no bentonite for protein stabilization. Nothing.
In general, up until the completion of the first fermentation, winemaking is the same as in a still natural wine and faces the same obstacles. The biggest challenge however is to initiate the second fermentation inside the bottle. Champagne regulations clearly state that a secondary fermentation is necessary to achieve the Champagne AOC, and wines made with the Méthode Ancestral won’t make the cut.
5. Use of must to start the second fermentation
While most Champagne producers prepare and bottle the base wine in the winter, when they have less work, natural wine producers do the opposite. They store the base wine until the next harvest has started. Then they use some of the fresh fermenting must to introduce sugars and yeast in the base wine of the previous year. This technique allows the producers to be in accordance with the regulations of both the AOC and the Natural Wine.
Champagnes can definitely tick the most important boxes of any other natural wine. Some people still debate whether it can technically classify as ‘natural’, because of the human manipulation of the second fermentation, since it’s not a naturally occurring process (except under certain conditions, beyond the scope of this article).
However, if you ask me, following the procedures outlined above can definitely qualify a Champagne as natural in my book. If nothing else, this type of Champagne can certainly be considered a very low intervention wine. For me personally, and for many others in the industry, what matters most is the spirit of aiming for grapes that are fully organic, and respect the terroir and fruit by modifying it as little as possible. This is especially true in the case of natural Champagne.
Certified Organic Farming and Certified Biodynamic Farming
Organic farming and or the potentially more rigorous biodynamic farming are at the heart of organic Champagne production. In my travels around the world’s wine regions, I’ve learned that farming “organically” or “biodynamically” can mean slightly different things around the world based on the local context. Regulations vary by country in terms of what is needed to qualify to market a product as “organic”.
Champagne vineyards are located in a wet region, and are about as far north as possible to make commercial grape production feasible in Europe (especially for Champagne grape varietals such as Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay).
This means farming organically can be especially challenging given increased risk of natural threats including mildew, mold, and Phylloxera in Champagne’s rainy climate. While the majority of Champagne growers would probably say that they try to avoid synthetic pesticides as much as possible, given the environment they often face tough decisions that balance the desire to farm organically with the risk of losing all or a significant portion of their crop.
In Champagne, vineyards can be certified organic if they follow the European regulations about organic farming which prohibit the use of synthetic pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The certification also involves inspections and some random testing of plants to ensure that no synthetic pesticides are detected. This testing and certification enable Champagne producers to use the French Agriculture Biologique and European organic “Eurofuille” logos on their product.
It’s useful to know that organic farming still allows for use of other natural methods to help manage pests including medicinal plants, beneficial bacteria, natural predators, and even natural minerals such as sulfur. Many Champagne growers utilize these to manage risks while still producing an organic product.
While organic farming and biodynamic farming share many core principles related to natural methods and respect for the soil, biodynamic farming goes a step further.
Organic Champagne vs. Natural Champagne
The bottom line is, unless a producer starts with high quality organic grapes in the vineyard, a wine cannot be considered ‘organic champagne’ or ‘natural champagne’.
Some people feel that organic champagne has a meaningful impact on taste and results in a better expression of the terroir and the season . Champagne growers who adhere to these principles can apply to join the Association des Champagnes Biologiques, an organization that promotes organic farming and production principles in the Champagne region.
The distinction between organic champagne and natural champagne is a little tricky. As long as grapes are organically farmed (and certified organic), and no other chemicals are added during the winemaking process, a champagne can be called organic. If you were to farm and produce wine in the exact same way, but without the official organic certification, the wine could still be referred to as ‘natural’. Some great French producers still fall into this natural category, as the process of getting certified organic takes significant time and investment.
Some argue that use of fresh fermenting must (i.e. from the most recent harvest) instead of other types of sugar and yeast to start the second fermentation is essential for a champagne to be natural. Since sugar and yeast are organic, adding them in small amounts to initiate secondary fermentation still allows the Champagne to be organic but some don’t consider it to be fully natural given these extra inputs.
If you want to know more about the steps to making Champagne, check out this article that includes more detail.
You can also check out a list of our favorite organic champagnes here.