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“You’re a really good agriculturist but you’re a bad winemaker.”
Angiolino Maule, La Biancara‘s winemaker and founder, thinks this statement from oenologist Franco Giacosa might have changed the course of his life as a winemaker.
“In the past, I would say a good wine is 90% vineyard and 10% winery. Today, I would say that wine is made in the vineyard, that’s the base. But wine is not fully made in the vineyard.”
Whether it’s made in the vineyard or winery, the point of it all, as Angiolino explains, “It’s about making natural wine without defects. That’s the first goal.”
What is VinNatur?
Founded by Angiolino Maule in 2006, VinNatur is a wine association that unites and supports small producers of natural wines. In 12 years, the association has grown from its original 65 founding members to now representing 190 producers from nine countries: Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, Austria, Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Slovenia.
Going Beyond Organic and Biodynamic
“Natural wine” is an interesting and attractive concept but an ambiguous term in the present-day wine world. The definition of natural wine remains subjective with no official accreditation to support producers who claim to make natural wine, which in turn leads to abuse and criticism—especially around the semantic properties of “natural wine”.
As natural wine continues to rise in popularity, VinNatur plays a paramount role in defining its premises. Going beyond ideological and philosophical ideas, the association has specified a list of permitted and forbidden practices—both in the vineyard and cellar—for its members.
You can take a look at VinNatur’s procedure guideline here, which was put in place in July 2016. All VinNatur wines are officially certified by external laboratories verifying that no pesticides, no herbicides, and no chemical fertilizers have been used in the process of making the wines. Checks are done every year and are mandatory for each producer. The prime objectives are threefold:
- To align members of the association and improve the quality of natural wines through scientific research, lab analysis, and innovative natural winemaking techniques.
- To communicate explicitly to VinNatur’s consumers about how the wines of VinNatur are made.
- To offer VinNatur’s consumers more than self-declarations but guarantees of quality and reliability.
And Moving Forward
Currently, VinNatur is the only natural wine association in Italy that collaborates with universities and research centers. Besides the regular checks and inspections, VinNatur is also delving deeper into the sustainable ecological development of vineyards. The research subjects that VinNatur is working on include soil vitality, entomological and botanical biodiversity of vineyards, and reduction of copper and sulphur usage.
“Our research is based on both observations and scientific data,” says Angiolino.
He continues, “We are focusing on how to replace copper and sulphur with vegetable extracts that help vines to build up resistance. But our most major project is on biodiversity.”
“But if your mind is not mature enough, no methodology is going to work.”
I’m sitting in a Villa Favorita 2018 class, called “Natural Wine Making – The Role of the Cellar”, and I am particularly intrigued by the dialogue’s focus on personal well-being and ethical living. It resonates with me since I only began to appreciate natural wine because it aligns with my lifestyle choices.
The speakers are the aforementioned Franco Giacosa and Angiolino Maule.
The speakers discuss how natural winemakers can take conventional wisdom in life and apply it to minimal-intervention winemaking—from committing to a healthy diet to developing an inner compass of personal values. Following the rules of nature and life, Angiolino says, “But if your mind and philosophy are not mature enough, no methodology is going to work.”
Ultimately, being a VinNatur wine producer requires unwavering commitment built upon personal conviction.
“You have to work on the winemaker’s mindset and convince them that prevention is the way, not chemical treatment.”
Villa Favorita: VinNatur’s Annual Event
Villa Favorita is one of the biggest natural wine fairs in the world. Held at an 18th-century Venetian manor in Sarego (Vicenza, Italy), the three-day annual event serves as a meeting point for producers, distributors, and consumers. The event usually takes place in the same week as Vinitaly, and both event locations are about 50 kilometers apart.
158 producers participated in the 2018 edition where visitors got to taste and purchase the wines made by these VinNatur producers.
The 2018 program was thoughtfully designed to help people discover and learn about natural wines. Besides the walk-about tasting where visitors got to taste wines and speak with winemakers, there were also thematic tastings of volcanic wines and orange wines; masterclasses about minerality in wine and aging wines made without SO2; and dialogue classes like the abovementioned “Natural Wine Making – The Role of the Cellar”.
So let’s address the elephant in the room. Were there a lot of bad wines, funky wines, and wines with faults? The short answer is no. There is no bourgeois high horse to ride on; we’re drinking pretty well here, naturally! I spent two days at the event and tasted over 150 wines; less than 10 of those wines showed perceptible microbiological flaws. It was the first time that I attended VinNatur’s Villa Favorita. According to my more experienced colleagues, the wines of VinNatur have made a tremendous leap in quality over the past three years.
Recommended VinNatur Producers
As stated under “Statute” on the VinNatur’s website:
To produce wine in a natural manner means fully respecting the territory, the vines and nature’s cycle and, through experimentation, limiting the use of invasive and toxic chemical and technological agents both in the vineyard and in the wine cellar. It is the Association’s intent to preserve wine’s individuality from the standardization that chemistry, technology and industrialization have brought to the world of agriculture and particularly to wine related activities.
Viticulture and vinification make up a complex ecosystem where chaos reigns and the balance can so easily tip towards outcomes we don’t desire. I appreciate the VinNatur’s community for its concerted and informed effort to create an as-close-to-ideal-as-possible environment where nature can take its course and leaves us with something beautiful and real. What’s more: the association is doing its part to safeguard soil balance and the ecosystem.
Here are 12 VinNatur producers and wines to be on the lookout for.
- Barale (Piedmont, Italy)
- Éric Texier (Rhône, France)
- Daniele Portinari (Veneto, Italy)
- Fongoli (Umbria, Italy)
- Gratavinum (Priorat, Spain)
- Heinrich (Burgenland, Austria)
- Mas Zenitude (Languedoc, France)
- Reyter (Alto Adige, Italy)
- Rocco di Carpeneto (Piedmont, Italy)
- Tarlant (Champagne, Italy)
- Terpin (Friuli, Italy)
- Thomas Niedermayr (Alto Adige, Italy)
Another winery that I can’t wait to taste more from: Barale Fratelli. I had a chance to try one wine from them at @vinnatur_org’s #VillaFavorita2018 and it’s this alluring Barolo. It seems outrageous that this Barolo Castellero 2014 Barolo is so drinkable right now. The essence of rose and fresh red cherry are built into its core. Dried savory herbs and a light hint of earthy characteristic penetrate the edges. A Barolo on the finesse side.
Quite possibly my favorite red at @vinnatur_org’s #VillaFavorita2018. Éric Texier’s Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2015 captures the intense purity of precious old-vine fruit in a bag of finesse. Native-yeast, whole-cluster fermentation with one-week maceration without punchdown (that lightness!). Aged in old oak barrels. Unfined and unfiltered wine. The early picking is quite apparent. No way, it’s not green at all. The phenolic ripeness is perfect. It’s the fresh acidity and splendid fresh fruit flavors that tell the details. This might be the most elegant and aromatic Châteauneuf-du-Pape I’ve ever tasted. It gives me the same emotions I got when I had my first taste of Tignanello (my bourgeois ghost never dies). Drink from 2020-2030.
I gave myself the challenge of picking just one white grape wine and one red grape wine to take home from @vinnatur_org’s #villafavorita18. The @daniele_portinari’s Garganega was my final choice for the white. 📝 This wine underwent one day of maceration and was fermented in steel tanks. I appreciate the spicy nose which has a bit of red wine’s character. Soft in the mouth with floral nuances and a gentle tug of tannins. 👌🏼 I picked this because, well, I enjoy the wine and Garganega is an indigenous grape of Veneto. I also wanted to buy wine from a new producer or young winemaker with a small production size.
If it’s Montefalco, I want it. @cantina_fongoli’s “Serpullo” Montefalco Rosso Riservs is a blend of predominantly Sangiovese with some Sagrantino, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. The grapes were picked from 40-year-old vines. Spontaneous fermentation happened in open vats. Aging took place in large, neutral Slavonian casks for three years. No fining, no filtration. Good ol’ @vinnatur_org style. 🍷The 14.5% abv is very well-integrated. A big wine that should be served later in the night. I adore the massive load of plum flavor perked up by maraschino cherry. A little bit of leather. A little bit of candlewax. A balanced full-bodied wine that is neither too indulgent nor made up.
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Yay! I finally had a chance to taste the wines of @gratavinum, thanks to @vinnatur_org! Priorat + Demeter certified + working with amphora = totally my kind of deal. The Gratavinum’s Silvestris Priorat 2015 (4th photo) was selected by @decanter’s Andrew Jefford as the top 10 wines at a blind tasting of 122 natural wines. Interestingly, my best impression goes to the one and only white and a non-Priorat at that (5th photo): Amphora Roja 2017 (Xerel-lo). It’s spicy, minerally, and wonderfully distinct. All the reds are good too; and despite the price difference of nearly $70 between some, they belong to the same band of quality for me. 🤷🏻♀️
Spent the day in classes and conducting interviews. By the time I was ready for tasting, I had less than an hour left at @vinnatur_org’s #VillaFavorita2018. I thought the most effective way to spend the last hour would be in the media room, get some turbo-charged tasting going on and only note down the wines that really stop me in my tracks. And this Heinrich’s Blaufränkisch Leithaberg 2014 did exactly that. It wasn’t my first encounter with Heinrich’s wines, and now I’m completely baffled why I didn’t give them any attention in the past. This Blaufränkisch is structured and defined like a professional pumpkin carving. The flavors are packed seamlessly like a turducken—rich, complex, and utterly fascinating. A wine that I want poured into every glass at my thanksgiving dinner.
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@maszenitude was one of my favorite discoveries at @vinnatur_org’s #villafavorita2018. Located in the Herault wine region in Languedoc, Mas Zenitude practices biodynamic farming and never adds S02 in the cellar. The Mas Zenitude’s Carignan wines are interesting, and I think it would appeal to many people; but I find them to be too savory and earthy and not enough fruit for my palate. I am, however, incredibly fond of “Zenith” Syrah 2012, a stunning 100% Syrah wine that delivers a floral overtone, high flavor intensity, and precise structure—it was one of the three reds that I wanted to buy but didn’t have time to head back on the last day of the event.
Alto Adige’s producer Reyter makes a “Rahm” Lagrein wine with grapes from 80-year-old vines, which are rooted in sandy clay porphyry alluvial soil with rocky sediments. The vineyards are farmed with ecological philosophy and the vinification is aligned with @vinnatur_org. Reyter’s Rahm is deep, dark, somber, and demands a drinker’s undivided attention. It’s quite an intellectually and sensually compelling wine, and oddly, I think some dubstep music would go well with it.
Tasted three Barbera bottlings by Rocco di Carpento at @vinnatur_org’s #villafavorita2018, and they ranged from good to very good and outstanding. I was most fond of the amphora-fermented Barbera, which was the most structured and rounded up—a tad ‘un-Barbera’ in the most delightful way. The one in the photo, Reitemp, is an old-vine bottling; it showed a good balance of the fruity, earthy, and herbal parts. The structure was juicier and ‘messier’—exactly what a Barbera lover loves: a sense of rusticity like a simple, delicious and wholesome meal.
Yes yes yes! @tarlant’s Cuvée Louis had been on my wishlist for years. I finally had a chance to try it at @vinnatur_org last weekend. This wine is born from the vines planted by the late Louis Tarlant, who was the mayor of the Oeuilly village and a leader in the grower movement to regulate and protect Champagne production; his efforts resulted in the creation of the Champagne AOC in 1927. Louis Tarlant was also one of the early adopters of zero dosage. This Cuvée Louis is a 50/50 blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from five vintages, 1996-2000. Primary fermentation was done in barriques, no malolactic fermentation, and 15 years in the bottle before disgorgement. It’s chiseled, chalky, light, creamy, and profoundly layered. I definitely need to put a few of this in my cellar.
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Managed to check off a few wish-listed wines at @vinnatur_org’s #VillaFavorita including a well-aged Terpin’s Ribolla Gialla. Marvelous, just a marvelously detailed wine. Musky overtone, cinnamon, nutmeg, all the sweet brown spices, baked apple, then the savory green herbs hit, oregano for days, the flavors coat every inch of the mouth, structured with tannins striking at an almost perfect vantage point… oh my, I could go on but I shouldn’t so I wouldn’t. The Terpin Jakot is impressive as well. Jakot, don’t you love Jakot/Tocai Friulano? Such a juicy, orangey wine! The Terpin Jakot seems to capture Franco Terpin in a bottle: bright, bold, and rigorous. The surprise for me comes from Terpin’s Sauvignon Blanc—gently aromatic and throws more punches on the palate than on the nose.
Thomas Niedermayr from Alto Adige was one of the wineries that I marked out and wanted to taste from at @vinnatur_org’s #VillaFavorita2018. Unfortunately, my to-do list was still far too ambitious for the nature of time. Thankfully, at dinner on the last evening, the winemaker Thomas happened to sit next to me. That was when I had a chance to try his Souvignier Gris, a cross of Cabernet Sauvignon and Bronner. The wine left such a good impression that I’ll be sure to never miss another chance of tasting Thomas Niedermayr’s wine again. The winery works with PIWIs, which means fungus-resistant grape varieties—including Solaris and Bronner.
– Thank you Emma Bently for helping me with translation during the Villa Favorita 2018’s classes.
– Thank you Irene Graziotto, Studio Cru, and the VinNatur for hosting me.
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