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Natural wine! A How-To Guide from the Grown & Gathered Book

Words by
March 09, 2017
Matt and Lentil are a young couple cultivating 6 acres of land in Australia, living minimal-waste lives and translating traditional techniques for modern living. Inspired by their successful sustainability blog, Grown & Gathered, the duo compiled their learned wisdom into a book launched October of last year. Straight from the pages of their masterpiece is this guide to natural wine making. Enjoy!
Grown & Gathered
photo © Grown & Gathered
We don’t think there is ever a time when wine shouldn’t be followed by an exclamation mark! For us, wine is the symbol of so many things. It represents celebration and reward after hard work. It represents transformation and the relationship between humans and nature. It represents fun and friends and harvest and laughter. And it represents celebration and magic and science all at the same time. Wine is awesome!

You can harvest grapes off the same vines and use the same winemaking techniques year after year and yet your wine will always be different. The sun and the rain will be different, as will the ferment, the temperature over winter and the secondary fermentation in spring. All you can do is provide the best grapes with the optimum environment to undergo this most magical of transformations. And cross your fingers. All we ever hope for is something drinkable. That is the original point of making wine after all: to preserve the dense calories of grape sugar for a year until the next harvest. But so far, we have been lucky and rewarded with only wonderful, wonderful wine. Maybe it’s because when you make wine the entire experience gets infused into the bottle. All the love, laughter and challenge. All the blood, sweat and tears. It’s all in there. Someway, somehow the experience is almost as nourishing as the consumption. Wine is the ultimate example of how important it is to experience your food.

Grown and Gathered Natural Wine
photo © Grown & Gathered
Making our own natural, wild wines means that every other wine tastes different to how it used to. We can feel the soul of another handmade wine. We can feel its nuance and uniqueness. And we celebrate truly magnificent wines all the more. So it’s not just that our experience of winemaking has elevated our enjoyment of only the wines we make; our experience of winemaking has elevated our enjoyment and appreciation of wine and winemaking in general. We don’t claim to be winemakers, but we are winemakers, and that’s a beautiful thing.

We make wine like we farm: we observe nature, learn its processes, learn how to provide the best conditions, and then get out of the way.
People study for many years to become winemakers, but when it comes down to it, anyone can make wine. You just have to know when to be clean and when to be a bit wild! We make wine like we farm: we observe nature, learn its processes, learn how to provide the best conditions, and then get out of the way. To us, natural winemaking involves no chemicals at any point, from growing the grapes through to bottling the wine. It requires only vines, water and a bit of effort. We will add sulphur if, for one reason or another, our wine won’t be stored in stable cellar conditions, but otherwise we feel it’s unnecessary.

So here’s how we make our wine. All these steps can be replicated whether you have 5 kg of grapes or 5 tonnes. Next autumn, get your hands on some grapes (see the Trade chapter for our story of finding our grapes), gather some friends and experience a ritual that’s been happening for more than 8,000 years!

Grown and Gathered Natural Wine
photo © Grown & Gathered
Step 1 – Harvest.
Hand-harvest the best fruit you can at the right sugar level (11–13% for whites and 12–14% for reds, which we test with a hydrometer or refractometer). All things going well, the percentage of sugar in the grapes equals the percentage of alcohol in the finished wine. We understand that not everyone has access to a vineyard, but any good grocer should be able to order in wine grapes (they are very different to table grapes, so be specific), or find someone with a vineyard – there are lots of them!

Step 2 – De-stemming and crushing.
De-stemming is the separation of the grapes from the stalks and leaves, which can impart a bitter taste. Crushing releases the juice from the berries to allow it to ferment. If you have picked with care, there won’t be any leaves, but there will be lots of stems, and we prefer most of them removed. On a small scale, simply de-stem by hand, and then crush the berries with your hands, feet, a potato masher, whatever. We pick at least 1 tonne of fruit, making hand de-stemming impossible, so we use a small ‘crusher/de-stemmer’ that macerates the bunches with rotating arms and drops the berries through a coarse sieve, catching the stems and leaving us with smashed berries floating in juice!

At this point, the process diverges for whites and reds. For white wines, the skins and seeds are usually completely removed by pressing (Step 4) and then the pressed juice is fermented (Step 3) in vats but without plunging. So for whites, you need to complete Step 4 before you move to Step 3, then continue to Step 5 and 6. You can leave white juice with the skins and seeds to ferment, but this makes a white with a whole different character than you might be used to!

Step 3 – Primary fermentation and plunging.
We then ferment our red grapes (and white juice) in open-topped 400 litre vats with old bed sheets on top to keep the bugs out. The fermentation occurs through the action of wild yeasts naturally present on the berries, which digest the sugars and produce alcohol and carbon dioxide. The process takes a few days to really get going, and then continues for about 14–21 days, depending on the weather (hotter weather equals faster fermentation). Whites are generally harvested earlier than reds, when the weather is still a bit warmer. Where we live, it usually takes closer to 14 days for whites and 21 days for reds.

During fermentation of reds, the carbon dioxide carries the skins and seeds to the surface, forming a solid cap on top of the juice. It’s good to have the skins and seeds down in the juice, though, to impart colour, flavour and tannin. So once a day we ‘plunge’ or ‘punch-down’ the cap until it is mixed with the juice again. This primary fermentation is complete when the cap sinks – the yeast is no longer producing carbon dioxide to hold the cap up, as it has run out of sugars to eat. As carbon dioxide is heavier than oxygen, it forms a fairly effective barrier on the surface of the juice. When the fermentation has finished, though, that barrier is no longer there, so it’s very important to press and move to closed storage as soon as possible to avoid oxidation (which will discolour and alter the flavour of the finished wine).

Step 4 – Pressing.
When the cap sinks for our reds, or as soon as we’ve crushed for our whites, we press. We fill our little wooden press with freshly fermented wine (or crushed white grapes) and the skins and seeds. Most of the wine (or juice) runs freely out. We then stand on top of the press plate to exert just a little pressure, but we believe the best wine doesn’t require much force. These last pressings would be best for vinegar!

Step 5 – Bulk ageing and secondary fermentation.
The pressed wine then goes into old oak barrels to chill out for a while. Th is is called bulk ageing. We can’t bottle it yet because there is still a second fermentation: malolactic fermentation, or simply ‘malo’. This is where lactic acid bacteria digest sharp-tasting malic acid (tart like green apples), into softer lactic acid (a more rounded sharpness, like cultured (sour) cream). More carbon dioxide is also created. If we bottle before the malo, the carbon dioxide could cause the bottles to explode! To prevent pressure building up in the barrels, we use a simple airlock that allows air out, but not in.

It is usually quite cool by the time the wine is in barrel (mid to late autumn), and so the wine is usually around 10°C. Lactic acid bacteria are very sluggish below 12°C, so malo typically doesn’t happen until spring. (If your wine is inside, though, it may begin right away.) It is important to ensure the barrels are ‘topped up’ during this period. Alcohol and water will both evaporate through the barrel’s timber, and this can leave a significant surface area of wine exposed to air inside the barrel, which means oxidation (i.e. vinegar in the making). So, every few weeks, if the level of wine in the barrels drops, we top it up to the bung with some finished wine (we store any wine that won’t fill a barrel in glass demijohns for this purpose).

In spring, we begin to see tiny bubbles of carbon dioxide in the airlocks. Soon there are big bubbles. Once the malo really gets going it is generally over in about 4 weeks. The bubbles stop and we are ready to bottle.

Step 6 – Bottling.
During the winemaking process, we always keep everything clean with filtered water and stay tidy. But for bottling, we make sure we are extra clean. You don’t want dirt or dust in your bottles, inside your caps or on your corks. We usually bottle with reused screw caps that we drop in boiling water. We clean our bottles with hot soapy water, then rinse and dry them thoroughly. And then we bottle.

During the wine’s time in barrel (about 6–7 months at bottling), solids, or ‘lees’, will have settled to the bottom. If, like us, you’d rather not use any preservatives in your wine, lees are a natural preservative that will keep your wine in perfect condition while it is in contact with them. At bottling, though, it’s important to not disturb the lees or the bottles will contain unwanted sediment. We also don’t want to expose our wine to any more oxygen than we have to. So we use a siphon and place it into the barrel clear of the lees, then bottle directly. Perfect. Bottling takes time. But when it’s done, so is your wine – and that’s an incredible feeling.

Grown and Gathered Natural Wine
photo © Grown & Gathered
Enjoying Matt and Lentil's words of wisdom? Check out the illuminate interview with Matt right here.