The “natural” wine movement has been revving up throughout the past few years. In certain circles, it’s natural wine or bust– and those circles are widening every day. It’s proving to be more than just a fleeting fad; the natural wine movement is putting its money where its mouth is. According to Market Research, the global natural wine market reached 10.5 billion in 2022, and is projected to reach 25 billion by 2030. The buzz is everywhere– new natty wine spots are popping up on practically every corner, reaching levels of hype comparable to frozen yogurt in the 80s. Natural wine is breaking through to the mainstream at record speed.
It’s true, the natty wine hipsters have some serious fire on their heels, but do they have Champagne? … Not really.
There are plenty of good reasons for the lack of natty Champagne on the market, and we’re here to explain why.
What Makes a Wine “Natural”?
“Natural” is a general term in the wine world, meaning that there are no legal requirements or certifications to be able to market a wine as natural. But, generally speaking, natural wine refers to wines made using old-school, non-industrial practices— pesticide-free viticulture and additive-free vinification. In perfect execution, natural wine is pure, unadulterated fermented grape juice.
While there are over 50 legal wine additives in the European Union, the villain of the natural wine movement is, without a doubt, sulfur. When it comes to Champagne, a bubbly is widely considered natural when it is farmed without pesticides and contains a minimal sulfite addition (between 10 to 20 milligrams per liter at pressing) without any additional sulfites added thereafter.
The above is a feat of its own, but some go further by only using natively occurring (as opposed to manufactured) yeasts, keeping the dosage at zero, and limiting any other additives in the filtering and fining process.
What are Sulfites?
Sulfites are a food preservative used widely in winemaking. Adding sulfur throughout the winemaking process is commonplace around the world, though there is a common misconception that sulfites are used less often in European wines. (Ever had Mosel Riesling? Absolutely delicious, but known for having some of the highest concentrations of sulfur in the wine world.) The EU does not require a sulfite warning on the label like the US does, which has led many consumers to believe that there are no sulfites in their European wines. But let’s be clear– every wine (yes, even natural wine) contains sulfites to some degree. You can’t have wine without sulfites. This is because sulfites are a natural product of alcoholic fermentation. Wines cannot be removed of their naturally-occurring sulfites, despite what peddlers of sulfite remover wands may have you believe.
Added sulfites, however, are used at several points throughout the winemaking process to preserve freshness, protect against oxidation, and keep unwanted bacteria out of the wine. Sulfites are first introduced in the vineyard, where copper sulfites are sprayed on the vines as a fungicide to prevent powdery mildew – the bane of wine regions around the globe!
Once the fruit has matured, it is picked and quickly transported to be pressed from its grape skins. As the pressed juice flows into an open container, a small amount of sulfur dioxide is added to the must, a process known as sulfuring. This helps to preserve the wine and slow chemical reactions by killing harmful bacteria that will inhibit the proliferation of desired yeasts for fermentation. This addition of sulfur ensures that the proper flavor development occurs without the myriad of faults that can often dominate a “natural” wine.
After the primary fermentation and upon bottling, small amounts of sulfur dioxide are added to the still wine with the liqueur de triage, and again at disgorgement to stop unwanted bacteria from forming in the bottle.
So with all that being said, there are several instances where added sulfur can be introduced to your Champagne, but the amount of sulfites added depends on the house and the winemaker, the stability of the fermentation, and the desired ageability of the finished wine.
Why Champagne Uses Sulfites
Sulfites are used in every wine region, but they are especially imperative to Champagne makers, who seek to control every aspect of the methode traditionnelle. It’s the nature of Champagne to showcase the exacting precision of the winemaker, and sulfites fine-tune that precision. Most Champagne makers won’t fudge their master-craft for the sake of a sulfite-free status, but that’s not the only reason why sourcing Champagne can be so difficult…
Champagne has a terroir like no other. In the Champagne region, vines are grown at their northern limits. The most suitable conditions for grapes to grow are between 30 to 59 degrees latitude, and Remis sits at 49.5 degrees north– these grapes are right at the borderline, and the region faces major environmental challenges year after year.
The most pressing of these challenges is the constant threat of mildew forming on the vines. The 2021 harvest lost half of its grapes due to this fungus. Summer storms are becoming increasingly common in the region, which leave the vines and fruit damp, the perfect condition for fungal growth. The fungus is a looming threat in Champagne because of unpredictable rain and the region’s predisposition to trapped humidity.
In addition to the heavy rainfall, Champagne’s topography leaves it especially prone to mildew. Champagne’s undulating hills offer just as many advantages to grape growth as it does disadvantages. While the slopes provide the vines sunlight, they also trap in fog. The average slope gradient in Champagne is 12 percent, but some of the region’s hills reach a gradient of 59 percent. When fog rolls in, the hills keep it from blowing away, providing an ideal humid environment for mildew to thrive.
All of that risk makes organic farming in Champagne a precarious endeavor, and many small family farmers find themselves unable to take such a risk – potentially losing an entire year’s crop in the process. Out of the 33,000 hectares of vines in Champagne, only 600 of them are certified organic and only 495 of them are farmed certified biodynamic.
Most small farms practice a more flexible “lutte raisonnée,” which translates to “reasoned struggle.” The practice is close to organic farming, as it involves using chemicals less often and less aggressively than typical farming processes. However, la lutte raisonnée practitioners are not subject to any checks and balances or set agreements, unlike certified organic and biodynamic farmers.
Because Champagne is aged in the bottle – a closed environment that can neither be tested, cleansed, or corrected for the duration of the process – it is important to limit the opportunity for unwanted yeasts and bacteria to grow, and that’s where sulfur dioxides come in. There’s nothing worse than Champagne gone to waste due to spoilage, and sulfites help Champagne’s output so you can pop more bottles of primo bubbly!
Sulfites Are Safe
The final reason that most Champagne producers add sulfites into their bubbly is because there is no real reason not to. Sulfites are safe to consume, and Champagne keeps a pretty close watch on how they are used in their wines.
Worried about sulfite allergies? Don’t be. Chances are, you don’t have them– sulfite allergies are extremely rare, and sulfite sensitivities affect about 1 percent of people. If you’re truly worried about the sulfites in your wine, you should also be worried about the sulfites in bottled lemon juice, sauerkraut, dried fruits, dried potatoes, apple cider vinegar, pickles, mushrooms, shrimp, and so much more.
To sum it up – natural wine can be a great option! But it’s definitely not a health necessity. You’ll be fine.
Is Natural Champagne a Thing?
In short, the answer is yes, but it can be very difficult to come by. We’re always on the lookout for a top-notch natural Champagne to feature in one of our daily offers, and we do offer some stellar natural sparklers every once in a while, stay tuned for the next one!
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