As nature intended: Jane Anson on low-intervention wine


Grape harvest at Ch. Palmer, a leader in biodynamic and low intervention wine in Bordeaux.
Photograph: Nicolas Joubard via Ch. Palmer

Low-intervention winemaking is not a passing fad or fashion, explains wine writer Jane Anson. The Inside Bordeaux author believes it’s a philosophy that will change the way we drink for the better.

Today, the idea of low-intervention wines has exploded. “The category may still have only a small impact commercially,” says New York Times wine editor Eric Asimov, “but its impact culturally is huge, and growing”. Philippe Roux, technical director at Ch. Dauzac in Margaux, goes even further, saying, “Low-intervention wines are not about fashion but a social change.” When the director of an 1855 classified estate in Bordeaux starts throwing phrases like this around, you know there’s something going on.

Dauzac is among the latest classified converts to low-intervention winemaking in the region. It follows in the footsteps of poster-children Ch. Pontet-Canet, Ch. Climens and Ch. Palmer. The team has been gradually introducing biodynamic principles in the vineyard, cultivating their own yeasts, and drastically reducing sulphur dioxide (SO2) use during the winemaking process. Roux has no plans for certification, but clearly sees that this is the future for serious winemaking. He says, “If you have the great luck to be looking after estates such as these, it seems disrespectful to make wine any other way.”

What is low-intervention wine?

It’s not exactly easy to tell you exactly what a winemaker has to do to be considered low-intervention. They may well be certified organic or biodynamic, but it’s not essential. They may even make so-called “natural wines”, where everything is stripped as far back as possible, but these guys are far from having the final word on the subject.

All the same, there are some things to look out for. A low-intervention winemaker almost certainly doesn’t filter or artificially clarify his wine before bottling it, so you might find a deposit at the bottom of the glass. He probably doesn’t add any yeasts or bacteria during the fermentation process, or use any cleverer-than-thou techniques such as spinning cones to reduce alcohol, or thermal vinification to cut out green notes from under-ripe grapes. He would almost never add tartaric acid to raise acidity in an overly alcohol-heavy wine, or add sugar to raise alcohol levels in a thin or light one. And you can be absolutely certain that – before thinking about any of this – he will have got rid of any chemical treatments being used out in the vineyard

Leaders in low-intervention

In terms of numbers, the growth is clear. Worldwide, organic vineyards almost tripled from 2004 to 2011 – from 88,000 hectares to 256,000 hectares. And much of it is centred in Europe.

This is partly due to figureheads such as Aubert de Villaine, Alvaro Palacios, Peter Sisseck, Nicolas Joly, Giuseppe Sesti and Miguel Torres, all of whom have championed organic or biodynamic methods for many years. These leaders have helped drive awareness and the unarguable connection between the highest quality wines and these minimal-intervention methods. They are being increasingly joined by figureheads further afield such as Cathy Corison in Napa and the Seresin family in New Zealand.

Why make low-intervention wine?

Guillaume Jordan is a brand specialist who works with Gusbourne in the UK and Primum Familiae Vini, among others. He puts the trend in its wider context.

“Perhaps this is an inevitable backlash against the years where there was simply too much intervention. Too much concentration of fruit, too much new oak, too much alcohol, all these tricks to magnify flavours that in the end serve to mask the terroir. At the same time, being extra clean and taking an industrial approach to wine can also be extremely boring, and there has been an understandable reaction against this.”

The risks of intervention

A good example of this historically has been in Beaujolais, where they often do a thermal flash treatment (where the grapes are heated for 24 hours to around 50-80°C) at the beginning of fermentation to extract and fix colour and put the emphasis on the fruit, even though it is now widely recognised to kill the terroir expression.

Other ways that wine producers can limit the natural expression of a terroir include overuse of oak barrels (particularly new oak with its strong vanillin aroma and taste), using certain types of cultivated yeast that can encourage specific flavours, overly harsh filtration of the final wine – even overly close cropping in the vineyard to concentrate flavours or leaving the grapes for so long on the vine that they become over ripe and high in sugar.

In contrast, minimal intervention methods focus on working with the natural cycle of the vine within its environment – and as a result they are increasingly seen as a sensible choice if looking for vibrant flavours that provide an accurate reflection of the vineyard where the grapes are grown.

“To be truly low-intervention you need to be clean and precise throughout the process,” says Roux at Dauzac. “You need to start by respecting the vineyard. If you do that, there’s no need to add SO2 to limit oxidation because the grapes aren’t healthy, or to resort to acidification because you picked too late. Essentially, the more you work in advance, the less you need to correct afterwards. And it doesn’t happen overnight.”

Low-intervention or no intervention?

Stéphane Ogier, one of the northern Rhône’s most celebrated winemakers, whose Côte-Rotie releases are becoming don’t-miss events, has no organic certification. But he is the essence of low-intervention, farming with no chemicals in the vineyard, using only organic fertilisers and working everything by hand.

And he is clear that low-intervention is a very different thing from no intervention. “It’s a mistake to say I do nothing at all. Intervention with no logic is – of course – not good, nor is doing the same things year in year out because tradition dictates it. But you need to follow your wine. I am not interested in using zero SO2, because I am creating wines to age in bottle, and I want my customers to be able to enjoy them on their own timescales. But, of course, I am very conscious of using only what I believe the wine needs depending on the terroir, the vintage. You have to react to what is happening.”

On certification

Over in Australia’s McLaren Vale, Peter Fraser at Yangarra, with over 100 hectares of certified biodynamic vines, is similarly practical. “Organics and biodynamics are about all the little things that help you be more of a farmer, and that in turn helps you grow better grapes. And once you are getting there in the fields, you can’t help but extend it into the winery. You start thinking instead of relying on tartaric acid, why don’t I just pick a little bit earlier, and keep the freshness that way?”

“It just adds another level of integrity to what we do,” he says. “I like to keep things practical. All winemakers talk about ‘creating a sense of place’ in their wine, but how can you be genuinely delivering that sense of place if you have blocked the pathways for a conversation between the soil and the plant? So, for me, it’s about encouraging as much micro flora as possible and invigorating the soil. In warmer regions like ours, the risk if you’re not paying attention is that jammy, overripe flavours can creep in.” Then he pauses. ‘But some people like that. It’s horses for courses.”

Natural wine around the world

Nayan Gowda is a winemaker based in Bolivia, working internationally and with a particular focus on South Africa. He says, “The natural wine movement definitely has its epicentre in France but at the same time the traditions in France can be an obstacle for wider acceptance of these methods, not least because many of the oenologists and consultants in the country work too closely with the oenological products industry. For me some of the most exciting developments are over in Australia, New Zealand, Chile and parts of the States.”

Domaine Marcel Lapierre in Morgon is one of the best low-intervention producers in France; it’s often called the original natural wine, and is certainly part of the movement that is redefining Beaujolais. Mathieu Lapierre notes that wine consultants can be an issue when it comes this more hands-off philosophy. “Inevitably, consultants are not working closely to the vines on a daily basis, and there is a temptation to apply a recipe to making wine if the main aim is to avoid issues in their absence. A careful approach throughout the process can avoid many corrections and additions, but for that to work you have to know each plot of vines, and be on hand to react.” 

“It’s not rocket science,” says Fraser. “But once we started, we could taste the results in the glass. And then there was no going back.”

Inside Bordeaux by Jane Anson is out now. Order your copy here.