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What does minimal intervention really mean?

Minimal intervention is a phrase that’s gained traction on the heels of the natural wine movement, but what does it actually mean?

For as much buzzy jargon as there is in the world of wine – small production, sustainable, organic, New World, natural, among them – the terms are quite definitive. In the last decade, however, the increasingly popular discussion around a new phrase has caused some confusion among consumers and even winemakers: minimal intervention.

Many winemakers believe that for a wine to be considered low or minimal intervention, it all starts with vineyard practices to optimise the terroir and purity of the fruit, which is emphasised by implementing organic and sustainable practices.

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Seeking specificity

In Virginia, Maya Hood White, winemaker at Early Mountain Vineyards, views the term ‘minimal intervention’ as encompassing the whole process from farming through to the cellar; for the former, she stresses the minimisation of aggressive chemicals, mindfulness of fuel usage and tractor passes.

‘Irrigation is also an intervention that alters the essence of the fruit and then the wines,’ says Paul Sloan, winemaker at Small Vines. Their high-density planting allows Small Vines to dry farm, which translates to a ‘more pure sense of place’, according to Sloan.

While these farming practices aren’t new, the attention surrounding their influence on low or minimal-intervention wine is what’s bringing them to the forefront.

Sam Bilbro from Idlewild Wines explains: ‘If we make really good vineyard decisions, we can make very few touches in the winery because we have beautiful and healthy fruit to work with in the cellar.’

Gentle farming at Small Vines. Credit: Small Vines

There’s no wine without some intervention

This is probably where we should acknowledge that winemaking, by definition, is intervention.

‘The grapes neither jump from the vine into a vat nor from vat to barrel to bottle,’ says Maggie Harrison, winemaker at Antica Terra, about the necessary go-between of human action that’s been part of winemaking since the beginning of time.

Perhaps this is why it’s so challenging to define – with no precedent or global regulation surrounding the term, low or minimal intervention means different things to different people. ‘It’s a spectrum,’ says Hood White, much like many things in life, which makes it. ‘A delicate balance explaining what we do or don’t do in our production processes while not looking to project judgement on other producers.’

As technology and science have advanced, winemakers have realised that a subpar harvest can still be salvaged; imbalances can be solved through manipulations such as fining, filtration, chaptalisation, stabilisers and additives.

‘It is easier, cheaper and less laborious to intervene afterwards in the cellar with chemistry than to farm well in the first place,’ says Sloan. Since many wineries don’t control their vineyards: ‘The only way they can compensate for flaws is with chemistry.’

For this reason, Sloan reverts to why low-intervention practices should start in the vineyards. ‘We choose to prevent problems in advance by farming well, using proper site selection, trellis design, tight spacing and prompt harvest date decisions.’

Recognising that every wine has its challenges, Bilbro echoes Sloan. As winemakers, he says, it is their job to locate the potential problem points of each variety and mitigate those issues.

He adds that in conventional winemaking, if a wine is prone to stalling at the end of fermentation, they could add synthetic products to aid the yeast. However, in minimal intervention winemaking: ‘We could stir the wine to suspend the remaining active yeast and keep it warm (bring it out to the sun a bit each day) to help keep the yeast active through the finish.’

A fuzzy definition

Though Bilbro is aiding the process, it still fits into Sloan’s definition of minimal intervention. ‘Having the lowest amount of human-made or artificial inputs or enhancements in both the farming and the winemaking process.’

While this definition broadly summarises minimal intervention, the term can still be confusing for most consumers who don’t understand what is regulated or legal to use in farming and wine production.

This is why the term is often misused and misrepresented by consumers. ‘It is so disappointing to listen to a producer talk about their low intervention winemaking when you know the high input, commercially farmed vineyards they are purchasing their fruit from,’ says Hood White.

This is why she encourages consumers to ask questions and emphasises the message of how a lower intervention approach ‘always begins with farming’.

Harvest at Small Vines. Credit: Small Vines

Purity remains elusive

Even still, large-production wineries aren’t the only ones that ultimately might adjust their wines post harvest.

Harrison explains that if a winemaker is adding acid it’s ‘because they truly believe it will make the wine in our glass more balanced, longer-lived, more complete’. It’s part of the winemaking process, and if a winery isn’t fortunate to have estate vineyards they can meticulously watch over, decisions must be made.

As winemakers are craftspeople, adds Harrison, they shouldn’t be chastised for doing their best work, even if that includes making adjustments in the cellar.

Until minimal intervention is globally defined or regulated, each winemaker will have their personal perception and ability to label their wines based on what this term means to them and how they produce wine according to it.

For the time being, it’s up to the consumer to engage with producers they prefer to help inform their own understanding of terms like minimal intervention and what they expect in wines that use that sort of marketing or labelling.

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