The terms and definitions listed below are simply our humble attempt to master many of the broad, elusive concepts of natural wine. When we really get into the minutiae of wine (chemistry, biology, agronomy, Steiner, philosophy and the like), we realise the old axiom rings true: the more you know, the more you realise you know absolutely nothing. As with all things in education we’re always learning and changing, so you may see the occasional update to this page. And if you have any suggestions or comments about what’s here, or any terms you’d like to see, our door is always open in-store or via email.
France’s protectionist system of designating and controlling geographically-based names.
We recommend the film Natural Resistance which offers a few winemakers’ insights into the complexities at play within the government’s protectionist systems of regulation.
An exhaustively researched and written-about subject in the world of wine, one which warrants a much greater description than the one we’re about to present. That said, we can offer a very rough description of this fascinating topic. Biodynamic farming is a style of organic agriculture cultivation developed by Austrian anthropologist Rudolph Steiner (1861-1925). Under the umbrella of biodynamics, polyculture and animal husbandry are central to working farms, and farming practices focus more on preventative actions rather than treatments; a variety of natural preparations (of plant-based, animal, and mineral origins) are utilised in the farm to prevent disease and to bolster the health of the soil and plants. Of equal importance is the relationship of the farm to the exterior forces of the world at large, particularly the gravitational pull dictated by the moon’s rotation around the Earth and the Earth’s rotation around the sun. Ultimately, the working biodynamic farm is self-sufficient, its ecology mimicking a natural, non-agronomic ecosystem that protects itself from external forces and promotes the health of all that grows.
A non-exhaustive list of useful texts on biodynamics:
- Nicolas Joly, Biodynamic Wine Demystified
- Maria Thun, The Biodynamic Year - Increasing yield, quality and flavor, 100 helpful tips for the gardener or smallholder
- Monty Waldin, Biodynamic Wine Guide
For some, size matters. Anyways, here’s this helpful list of bottle sizes:
- 75cl: bottle
- 150cl: magnum
- 300cl: jeroboam (or double magnum)
- 600cl: methuselah
- 900cl: salmanazar
- 1200cl: balthazar
- 1500cl: nebuchadnezzar
- 1800cl: melchior
Seemingly skimming the clouds, resting atop the vertiginous slopes above the city of Sion in the Valais, you will find the municipality of Ayent, the home of Domaine de Cherouche, the small but extremely impressive domaine of Marc Balzan and Andrea Grossman.
Sion is the capital of the canton of Valais, and indeed this area has played pivotal role throughout the history of the region, through its pre historic settlement (the earliest traces of human existence here have been dated as far back as 6200 BC), through the development of the valley into an agricultural hub, through the villages growing into towns and then into cities, and now into it’s modern day self. Sion is known for it’s energy generation, waste processing, as a medical hub for the region, and more importantly for our focus - it is known for its vineyards and its wine, and it is now the third largest wine growing region in Switzerland.
I visited Marc and Andrea in late October of 2019 on a whirlwind ‘producer tour’ that took us across France, Switzerland and Austria. I had not come across their wines before, and knew very little of the Domaine at that time and was incredibly excited to make the journey. Marc had worked across Europe in positions adjacent to the world of wine in the hospitality sector for many years as a butler and maître d’hôtel, after returning to his home in the Savoie, his interest in wine was piqued by his sommelier colleagues in the late 80’s and he began to focus more on his wine education, participating in tastings, working in wine stores, competing in sommelier tournaments, visiting salons and working in vineyards. He also worked for two years overseeing the farming at the renowned and mythical Swiss estate ‘Mythopia’ before he and Andrea moved on to begin their own domaine.
Andrea’s journey took her from her home in Zurich where she was training to be a teacher, to working in the vineyards of Lavaux, and she stayed close to the region, in Lausanne, for ten years working in various cellars and vineyards, also painting and teaching German for a living, before the desire to grow and make her own wine grew stronger and stronger.
Then a vintage arrived in 2007 when Marc and Andrea were working the same vineyards in Lavaux, and the rest is history. They began working towards the goal of a project together, and in 2010 Domaine de Cherouche was born.
So, on this visit in 2019, we arrived to Sion in the afternoon, an early morning train from Lyon had bought us us up into the mountains and onwards to our alpine destination. We were only able to visit for a few hours, an engagement the following day in Südstiermark, Austria, meant that we had to be on a night train to Vienna by 6pm that evening. Having never met before, I was a little nervous when we exited the train station and were met by Andrea, Marc and their children. We made our greetings in a warm but definitely slightly happy-awkward manner, and piled into a little silver van and began to weave and wind airway upwards, out of the city and up into the mountains.
I was sitting by the window - on the side that fell away to the valley below - and as this was my first visit to the Valais I was awestruck (and a little terrified) of the steep mountainsides and of the sheer scale of the valley. It was just to so magnificently grand in scale, and stunningly beautiful.
Upwards we continued, until we arrived to a wonderful house built from stone and wood, nestled into the steep slope with the compact but ship-shape and well organised cellar below.
We decamped from the van, and after dumping our bags at the back door of the house, we eagerly went straight to look at the vines, which didn’t take long as the closest vines are planted just behind the house. They have eight plots of vines in total, spread over 1.6 hectares below and above the house, where they farm a mix of gamay, pinot noir, chasselas, chardonnay and the more rare and site specific varietals of petit arvine, amigne, and paien. Their farming is certified organic and they only use copper and sulphur in minimal amounts in the vines.
Standing with Andrea at the top of the hill we talked a little about the challenges of farming in such a location. The mountain slopes rise steeply upwards behind the house, and curve and slice their way down to the valley far below. The terraces are worked into incredibly steep slopes, and are spread up to 850m altitude. Farming here takes courage and dedication, two traits that are no stranger to the personalities of Marc and Andrea, who changed their lives to follow their passion, and to end up here in the clouds of the Valais, living their dream.
Marc appeared from the cellar and we followed him into the vines. The soil was remarkable. Jagged shale and schist peppered with quartz lay underfoot, and the vines and small trees in the vineyards send their roots deep down to penetrate and weave around the stones. To visit here and walk the narrow paths between the rows is lesson in geology - and the ingenuity of the farmer. I was becoming very keen to get into the cellar and taste the wine that could be produced from such a site, and by these people.
My wish was granted soon thereafter, and we puffed our way back up the steep slope to enter the cellar, though Marc strolling casually, seemed unbothered by the incline, the altitude, or by the hand rolled cigarette tucked in the corner of his mouth.
Marc likes to experiment in the cellar, but also strive for purity and true expression of the vintage and the terroir. A short walk and shuffle past some giant covered plastic fermenting vats deeper into the back cellar revealed a row of steel tanks, filled with the not-yet-finished wines of that years harvest. I had never tasted amigne before, let alone amigne still fermenting in tank, and it was a joyous and informative experience. It was all fresh acidity, minerality and pithy flesh, but then a subtle stony power weaving its way underneath, and I got that rush that always happens to me when tasting in the cellar, of tasting the wines that are not yet ready, the wines that tease and entice with the promise of the future…we continued on to a dame-jeanne of piquette, that was bright and invigorating after our journey, then on to a vat of still fermenting, vibrant, playfully herbal and yet more structurally serious gamay that snapped the palate into shape. Hello, I thought.
We tasted through many tanks that afternoon before moving up into the house, and on to tasting a vertical of cuvées selected from vintages 2015 - 2018. We sat there in the early evening in the dining room, whilst the kids zoomed about us on rollerblades and Andrea worked just next to us in the kitchen preparing dinner. It was an extremely memorable tasting. Obviously wine in tank (from another vintage) is a different beast to a ‘finished’ wine in bottle, but to this day I still remember being struck by just how different the wines here were. The clarity, focus and subtle power of the 18’s rode confidently across the echoes of the 19’s that I just tasted in the cellar below. What had been achieved from that terroir, from the specificity of practice in the cellar left me a little confused, but also in awe. I’ve tasted and compared a few ‘unfinished’ and ‘finished’ wines in my time, and the evolution here was truly thrilling for me, though at the time on that whirlwind trip I couldn’t organise my thoughts to place exactly how.
Later on the train to Vienna, we decide we just have to have another look at one of those wines and we (predictably but prematurely) broke into my suitcase stash. Using my Swiss army knife, I opened a bottle of this uniquely Swiss wine as we rumbled through the night in the Swiss mountains. I remember being greatly amused by that.
I sat back and slowly sipped the Chant de la Lienne 2018, a 100% chardonnay that leapt from the glass and passed in a riot of minerality and tangy, round-yet-gently bitter and fleshy fruit across my palate, as I reflected on the warmth and ease of the hospitality we’d just been shown, a reception and experience that I felt, and still feel, summed up the wines almost perfectly - if ‘perfection’ is even possible for something so full of life and ever changing. Surveying the vineyards with Marc and Andrea, or walking amongst the vines, talking with them about their farming and their goals, you are struck by the unity of this pair, the quiet focus that drives them ever forwards. I’d never met them before, but they exuded such a sense of balance and of grounding in their individuality, their winemaking, in their their certainty, that just felt so familiar, so open and welcoming.
I felt that the wines of Domaine de Cherouche are a perfect marriage of the place where they are grown and of the people that give them life. They are strikingly individual, comprised of parts unique and hitherto unknown, and yet are deeply inviting and rewarding just the same.
Italy’s protectionist system of designating and controlling geographically-based names.
We recommend the film Natural Resistance which offers a few winemakers’ insights into the complexities at play within the DOC/DOCG system of regulation.
A final addition of sugar to a traditional-method sparkling wine which starts the secondary fermentation in the bottle. In Champagne we’d refer to dosage as liqueur d’expedition, and the secondary fermentation as the prise de mousse.
The total dosage also influences the final legal classification for Champagne sugar levels, as per Champagne’s official website:
- < 3g/L: with zero dosage: brut nature / brut zero / non-dose / zero dosage
- 0-6g/L: extra brut
- < 15g/L: brut
- 12-20g/L: extra dry
- 17-35 g/L: dry
- 33-50 g/L: demi- sec
- > 50g/L: doux
A process through which heartless winemakers can strip their wines free of character, personality, until everything is one homogeneous, uninspiring, insipid liquid that consumes us all. OK, not really — filtering simply clarifies a wine to be free of any particles remaining from fermentation, and fining wine can create a more gentle mouthfeel and remove any harsh, astringent tannins. That said, wines of tremendous clarity, gentleness, and purity can certainly be created without these interventionist techniques.
The choice to fine or filter wine also plays a role in whether a wine is vegan, as several common techniques for fining include eggs, gelatin, or fish bladders.
Referring to mechanical harvesting, pruning, destemming.
Not often seen in the world of natural wine, but a very common practice in industrial winemaking: where harvest, pruning, sorting and destemming is completed with the use of tractors or specialised machinery. Once I spoke with a person who worked in Marlborough, New Zealand in a massive, industrial winery and they said that the machines were so large and automated that there would often be small animals both dead and alive fed into the machine alongside the grapes it was meant to collect. Cute!
A tasting term used to describe a retronasal wine fault that can be experienced only upon breathing out after having swallowed or spit; it’s an important distinction as it means that mouse itself cannot be smelled or tasted initially on the palate. While there isn’t a confirmed cause of mousiness in wine, most scientific research shows that it stems from rogue yeasts like brettanomyces or lactic acid bacteria present in the wine. Exposure to oxygen or high pH in wine may also play a role in the emergence of mouse. The pH argument finds support from the fact that the sensation of mouse can often dissipate when the pH in the taster’s mouth changes by, say, eating something rich or fatty.
Many winemakers speculate that climate change may play a role in the increasing number of bottles that have this particular fault, as changing pH levels in soil, ambient yeasts, or ecosystems may ultimately impact the wine. Unlike other wine faults like volatile acidity, mouse can be mutable; wines that show mouse just after bottling may be completely fine after a period of time left alone under cork. That said, once a bottle is open and begins to show mouse, it will rarely ameliorate and can worsen in the glass. Mouse can come in a few different shapes and sizes, but common red flags would be a savoury, nutty, or dirty sensation on the palate after swallowing.
In the simplest terms: white wine made like red wine.
White grapes are macerated on their skins (or: undergo skin contact) for any period of time to produce a dizzying array of wine styles. Orange wines can range from feeling more akin to white, with just a touch of amplified aromatics and colour, all the way to fleshy, broad, astringent wines with dense tannic backbones and extracted aromatics.
Orange wine has recently become one of the most popular genres of wine within the natural wine spectrum, but it’s fundamentally important to understand that not all natural wine is orange and not all orange wine is natural.
That said, given its immediacy in terms of feeling really different from most wines in the conventional sphere, it's an exciting jumping-off point for many people dipping their toe into the world of natural wine.We encourage you to dive in headfirst — the water’s just fine.
In this glossary definition we’ll cover organic wine in the world of the European Union certification specifically, and the definition provided does not necessarily cover the standards for organic certification elsewhere in the world.
With regards to EU standards within certified organic farming, the Commission oversees and sets standards for the production, distribution, and marketing of products within the organic sphere. Their aims include sustaining biodiversity within agriculture, overseeing the responsible use of energy and natural resources, and preserving any local ecological balances (“Organics at a Glance”).
It’s only since 2012 that the term “organic wine” could actually be used on a wine label; previously winemakers only had the option to label their wines as being produced using organic grapes. This change is significant insofar as it marked a change in the approach to regulation; prior to 2012, organic certification could only be applied to agricultural products (thus, grapes, rather than wine). Since 2012, the European Commission’s oversight has expanded to include regulations during the vinification process; particularly with regards to the use of sulfites — now with strict amounts permissible — and barring the use of desulfurization techniques and sorbic acid (“Press Corner”).
For us, “going organic” can be a wonderful starting-off point in the world of natural wine, but like with most governmental organisations, has the potential to be marred by tedious bureaucracy or capitalistic intentions. Because the regulations of agriculture under the EU organic certification are fairly permissive, we tend to work with winemakers who far exceed the minimum standards required by the organisation.
A derivative of the naturally occurring element sulfur, used since antiquity as a cleansing and preserving agent. Today, sulfites have many uses in the winemaking process, starting with sulfite (often mixed with copper) sprays in the vineyard which winemakers may use to ward off fungal rot. In the cellar, winemakers can use sulfites before, during, or after fermentation to aid in stabilising the wine and fending off intrusive bacteria. While small quantities have been used in winemaking since ancient times, it’s the modern wine industry which has pushed its use to harrowing quantities never before seen: today, up to 150mg/l in red, 200mg/l in white, 235mg/l in sparkling, and 250mg/l are permissible additions in wine under EU law; in the new world, those numbers are even higher (Robinson & Harding, 709). While sulfites are commonly thought of as an addition to a wine, it’s important to note that sulfites are also a naturally occurring element in juice and wine, and all bottles of wine containing over 10mg/l of sulfur dioxide must label their wines as “containing sulfites,” regardless of if that sulfite level is free (naturally occurring) or total (both naturally occurring and added).
That “contains sulfites” label on wine came about in the late 20th century amid a surge of concern about allergies to the element. While there’s a small number of people who face an allergy to sulfur dioxide, it’s fairly uncommon, and for those people there’s a lot more to be concerned about than just wine: sulfites are used as a preservative on everything from fresh and dried fruit to packaged salads to minced meat. There’s limited research to suggest that sulfites cause headaches or worsen hangovers, but as with everything there is a good case for lessening the amount of chemicals consumed while already dehydrating oneself with alcohol.
There’s a number of dialogues circulating on the topic of sulfites in wine, with some natural wine purists believing that sulfites have no place in the cellar, and others who, like revered biodynamic winemaker Nicolas Joly suggests in an email sent to wine writer Alice Feiring, “...the question is (not whether to use sulfur or not) but which sulfur to use.” He’s alluding to the fact that there are several types of sulfur dioxide in existence (also outlined in that email), some which are harvested through oil drilling, mining, and lastly, from volcanic origins. He’s one of a growing number of winemakers (notably including Alain Dejean of Domaine Rousset-Peyraguey) who advocate for the singular use of volcanic-origin sulfites as a treatment for wine.
Equally importantly, while the addition of sulfites to a wine may have a stabilising effect, many winemakers also believe there’s a detrimental impact of the addition on the flavour of their wines. In an interview with Isabelle Legeron in her book Natural Wine, winemaker Sasa Radikon notes that “between 1999 and 2002 we made two versions of the same wine: one where we added 25mg [sulfites] per liter at bottling and one without. Without fail, the wines with the added so2 were 1.5 years behind in terms of aromatic development…” (Legeron, 66).
Generally speaking, “natural wine” presents an idea more than it does a defined set of standards, and certainly doesn’t necessarily mean “no added sulfites”. For example, at the annual natural wine fair Raw Wine, participating winemakers can use up to 30mg/L sulfites in their wines. Here at Noble Fine Liquor, we tend to work with people who use less than 30mg/L as well, but we’re not dogmatic about that number. We have wines that have a decent pinch before bottling, and we stock a fair amount of “zero-zero” wines (nothing added, nothing taken away). We have a particular interest in winemakers who produce exceptionally clean, precise wines without any additions; for us, it’s symbolic of a winemaker who has a complete understanding of their vines, fruit, and cellar.
The fining or filtration of a wine using animal byproducts like gelatine, casein, albumen or isinglass would be what generally disqualified a wine from gaining a vegan certified sticker on the label, but it’s not necessarily true that any unfiltered/fined wine is therefore vegan. But understanding what constitutes a vegan wine isn’t exactly a black or white issue that can be clarified with a sticker.
This rings particularly true when delving into the world of biodynamic wine, the agriculture which inevitably utilises animals as part of a sustainable and rounded ecosystem: sheep may graze in the vineyards, horses may plough the vineyards, and in extreme cases cow’s horns may be buried in the vineyard in winter, packed with manure, and dug up and scattered about in spring to stimulate the microbial activity of the soil. And even in organic farming, some degree of insect death will take place during the plant’s life, not to mention the inevitable use of manure as a natural fertiliser.
That said, you’re not necessarily safe going in the opposite direction of mass-produced, commercial wines, for reasons I mention in my note on mechanisation: industrial harvesting of any agricultural product almost inevitably results in unnatural animal death. But these are the wineries far more likely to acquire a “certified vegan” label on their products.
It’s all to reiterate a theory first introduced to me by the good folks at Les Caves de Pyrene in their blog post “What’s the Deal with Vegan Wines” which posits that perhaps there is no such thing as vegan alcohol whatsoever. We tend to assert that using manure or animal husbandry in a naturally-farmed vineyard positively benefits a greater naturalist cause that we should and can all agree upon. In the end, central to the concept of natural wine is a deep respect for nature and those who champion it. From there, we leave the choice with you.
Perhaps our favourite of the untranslatable terms in wine.
A vigneron/nne (here amended to cover the masculine as well as feminine spellings, as is necessary in the deeply binary, pronoun-based Romantic languages) translates in English to “winemaker,” but the term in French also covers the work that takes place in the vineyard (vignes). So in fact, a vigneron/nne is much more than a winemaker, but is more importantly someone that works in the vines. Because we tend to believe, like so many others, that wine begins in the vineyard, we feel this term suits the trade well.
The antithetical process to destemmed fermentation; in this process grapes are left on their bunches with their stems to ferment. While an anaerobic environment can be created (encouraging intra-cellular fermentation) in this process, it is not necessarily the same exact process as carbonic maceration.
Whole-bunch fermentations can be a preferred method of vinification for winemakers hoping to increase aromatics, create texture through the addition of stem tannins (which are often more delicate than say, oak tannins) or remove some colour from the wine (as the stems absorb colour from the fermenting juice).
Say it with me now.
Sources / References
Robinson, Jancis, and Julia Harding. The Oxford Companion to Wine (Oxford Companions). 4th ed., Oxford University Press, 2015.
Jean-Paul. “Domaine Mada.” Diversey Wine, 12 Sept. 2020, www.diverseywine.com/blog/2020/08/21/domaine-mada.
“Dosage, Or.” Champagne.Fr, Dosage, or Liqueur d’Expedition, www.champagne.fr/en/from-vine-to-wine/wine-making/dosage. Accessed 12 Feb. 2021.
“This Is Demeter | Demeter International.” Demeter.Net, Demeter, www.demeter.net/what-is-demeter/this-is-demeter. Accessed 12 Feb. 2021.
Feiring, Alice. “A Letter from Nicolas Joly on Sulfur | The Feiring Line.” The Feiring Line, The Feiring Line, 10 July 2012, thefeiringline.com/a-letter-from-nicolas-joly-on-sulfur.
Celce, Bertrand. “Christophe Foucher (Loire).” Wine Tasting, Vineyards, in France, Wine Terroirs, 6 June 2019, www.wineterroirs.com/2019/06/la_lunotte_christophe_foucher.html.
“What’s the Deal With Vegan Wines.” Les Caves de Pyrene Blog, Les Caves de Pyrene, blog.lescaves.co.uk/2019/06/25/whats-the-deal-with-vegan-wines. Accessed 12 Feb. 2021.
Laroche, Guillaume, and Cédric Blatrie. Raisin: 100 Grand Vins Naturels d’Émotion. Editions Reverse, 2019.