If you’ve been to any cool wine bar lately you might have noticed a new category of wine sneaking its way onto the list: natural wine. Related terms you might be seeing: sulphur free, wild yeast, skins contact , biodynamic, organic, low intervention.
A little while ago I was driving home with a friend after dinner, attempting to explain why her glass of pinot gris was a) orange and b) cost $18. I said, it’s a natural wine – as if that may have been enough explanation. ‘What?’ she said, ‘did the vines plant themselves in neat little rows, fall off the vines when perfectly ripe and spontaneously ferment and end up in my glass all without human intervention?’.
You might pick her for a cynic, and you’re not wrong. But she has a point, the naming of something as natural is the core issue here – the wine was indeed ‘natural’, yet it was still a strategic, costly, human managed process which resulted in her drinking it. It has still been processed from fruit into wine.
For the minute though, the name seems to have stuck, which is what brings me to this post: as a regular wine consumer how do you know what all these words mean? What should you expect when you order / buy them and what are some of the techniques which result in a such a different style of wine?
MAKING NATURAL WINE
Firstly, a quick insight into Australian winemaking: We’re collectively very good at winemaking, we have a high level of technical education & overseas experience yet by and large the majority of winemakers in the country have been taught by two universities with similar programs. We’ve been taught how to make flavoursome wine which has clarity, great flavour, varietal and/or regional typicity and which are overall very clean. We can use chemical & natural additions, preservatives, reverse osmosis, filtering & fining to shape wine into a saleable, fault-less, credible product. This is further reflected in the show system where cloudiness, faults and ambiguous ‘funk’ will lead to lower scoring. There is absolutely nothing is wrong with this type of winemaking: these wines have character, provenance, shelf life, ageing potential and are widely accepted by consumers and highly rated by journalists.
Natural wine challenges (often ignores) these processes and seeks to go from grapes to wine with minimal input from the winemaker. Indeed a definition by respected sommelier Stuart Knox (printed in Wine & Viticulture Journal V28, N6) states natural wine is ‘a wine that is farmed without any chemical additions and, then produced in the winery without any additions or subtractions to the must. Sulphur Dioxide prior to bottling isn’t a problem for most…’. Cathy Howard goes on from the same article to suggest the following are a general criteria for production [paraphrased]:
- – Be hand-picked from a organically or biodynamically managed vineyard
- – Have no additions of acid, commercial yeast, tannin, nutrient
- – No other flavour additives eg. oak chips
- – Minimal fining and filtration
- – No added preservatives (except pre-bottling)
A point to clarify is that biodynamically/organically grown grapes are not always made in a natural style; plenty of mainstream wines are made with BD fruit. Besides that though, fermentation often happens in small batches in old barrels, amphorae or small stainless tanks, generally using wild yeast. It’s difficult to make assumptions about oxidative handling & filtering as is varies so much by producer.
Most are made without sulphur addition until bottling – which helps to extend shelf life. If you’ve deduced sulphur affects you adversely, these wines can be a good choice. Biodynamic and organic grape growing in combination with sulphur free handling results in much lower levels (around 50% of most conventional wines). However, this isn’t very well regulated. Look for ‘no sulphur added’ type statements but be aware that very low levels of sulphur occur even in the most natural environments.
Stylistically, in white wines, extended skin contact is also common. This method borrows from traditional red wine making and aims to extract some colour & phenols from the skins. The result varies yet overall can contribute an increased sense of ‘grip’ on the palate, darker colour and increased flavour density. The bronze colour has led to these wines collectively referred to as ‘orange’ wine. In addition to this, most of these wines are unfined & unfiltered (except for perhaps a coarse filter) which means they are often cloudy. Note however that just because a wine is made in an ‘orange style’ doesn’t mean it’s ‘natural’.
And most are in the more expensive end of things – a throwback to the cost of doing things by hand.
EXPRESSION VERSUS FLAWS
One of driving forces behind making wine this way (there are many!) is that it shuns ‘corrections’ in favour of natural expression. Therefore, judges & sommeliers should be able to see the terroir more clearly – the resulting wine is then by definition totally unique, unforced, inimitable & unequivocally shaped by the vineyard site.
That is, unless the wine has faults (or flaws) which potentially obscure all this hard-won sense of terroir. Many of the processes in modern winemaking are designed to prevent or eliminate faults and correct any perceived imbalances – and so without them natural winemaking can result in higher incidence and potentially obscure itself from its original ambition.
By no means an exhaustive list however potential faults may include cork taint, volatile acidity, ethyl acetate, oxidation, mecaptans, brettanomyces & excess sulphides. Many of these are utterly tolerable in wine and might be downgraded (when low in influence) to a flaw. This is subjective, but I would rate VA, brett, sulphides, and oxidation in this group. Personally I don’t mind seeing some of these less conventional flavours in wine – it can add interest and intrigue and I am reminded that I am drinking something that was borne from an agricultural pursuit. Of course there are many natural wines which are free from any of these – who mercifully escape controversy.
So how do you decide where the line is between clarity & terroir versus flaws & intrigue? My short answer is if the terroir is obscured by faults, then some of the identity is lost, which makes the wine harder to like, harder to drink and I am much less likely to repurchase. A long answer would consider each wine on its own merit, at the time, with food & greater sympathetic context. The other way to answer this question is to ignore it entirely and focus only on the most important thing: is the wine delicious?
So you can see that there is a lot of grey area here. Hopefully I’ve established that natural wine is just unconventional wine and therefore shows a wider spectrum of flavours (and idiosyncrasies). Hopefully if there are flaws they don’t overwhelm the wine and instead give it dimension and interest. And hopefully it means that producers are championing healthy vineyards and low chemical use – which helps keep this industry sustainable.
If the wine is not delicious then it doesn’t matter how it’s made or who made it so keep that it mind next time.
Until next time! Clare