By Lisa Maqueen
In today’s world trying to keep up with the latest ‘clean eating’ trends and flashy labels with an ever-growing list of food descriptors such as Paleo, Keto, Sugar Free and Gluten Free is a dizzying task. Rising health awareness continues to fuel demand for all-natural products and consumers increasing desire for more transparency in ingredient information and clean label products.
The world of wine is not immune to such fashions (and fads). Vegan. Organic. Biodynamic. Orange. Natural. Sustainable. These are some of the buzzwords and credentials that an increasing number of vintners are now proudly displaying on wine labels seeking to tap into emerging consumer trends. One movement that has been generating momentum over the last two decades, and is without doubt here to stay, is the small but significant market niche of ‘natural wine’.
It all sounds very pure but what exactly is natural wine? There is no legal definition, no regulating governing or certifying body and no industry standard, creating a myriad of assumptions by what the market means or understands by the term. For example, speaking with Julian Castagna (winemaker for Castagna in Beechworth, Australia) his view is that “in the Australian market natural wine appears to mean wine which contains no added sulphur but can come from conventionally farmed vineyards” which many proponents argue is anything but natural.
Drawing together the common threads from the ample material pertaining to the topic, natural wine appears not to be a definitive concept bound by prescribed, finite borders, but rather a fluid notion symbolizing a ‘back to roots’ ideology – growers rather than makers of wine who deliver an unmasked expression of terrior in the bottle whom embrace organic, biodynamic and sustainable viticulture, fermented with indigenous yeasts, minimalistic winemaking not adding or taking anything away from the wine thus no fining or filtering, and without the use of additives including enzymes, acidity, tannins, clarificants, and most hotly contested no or minimal addition of sulphites (less than 50 mg/l of Sulphur Dioxide is the generally accepted benchmark). Basically, it’s said to be wine in its ‘purest’ or ‘raw’ form.
Ironically, the natural wine movement started long before the proliferation of clean, healthy food, diet and lifestyle ideologies of today’s modern era. The natural wine story begins back in the 1950s and 1960s in Beaujolais with a gentleman called Jules Chauvet – a winemaker, a researcher, a chemist, and a viticultural prophet. Chauvet, who trained as a chemist and published widely on fermentation, later returned to his small family vineyard and Domain in Beaujolais and started making wine how they used to in the past eschewing all modern technology and chemical intervention. Chauvet’s winemaking philosophy, often dubbed the “foundation of natural wine”, followed his obsession with fermentation using wild yeasts and eliminating chemicals, viewing Sulphur Dioxide and other additives as “poison” that would impede wild yeasts. Chauvet was a man on his own but later became a mentor of sorts for four of today’s most famous Beaujolais’s Cru vignerons – Guy Breton, Jean-Paul Thévenet, and Jean Foillard, Marcel Lapierre – whom followed in Chauvet’s footsteps. Nicknamed by Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant as the ‘Gang of Four’, these quality minded producers banded together in a ‘back to nature’ movement in the 1990s. Rebelling against the swath of industralised, highly mechanised and homogenous Beaujolais Nouveau coming from the region, the Gang of Four sought a return to terroir driven wines starting with old vines, forbidding the use of herbicides and pesticides, harvesting late, rigorously hand sorting to ensure healthy grapes, disdaining chapitalisation, adopting semi-carbonic maceration and controversially adding no (or minimal) Sulphur Dioxide.
Today, the ideology has spread with natural wines made all over the world from California to Italy to France to New Zealand, made using traditional varietals and styles (some lending themselves more towards it than others), in conjunction with a bunch of other historical genres reimagined or reinvented by the natural wine movement such as skin fermented or ‘orange wine’. Championed by a growing list of chic, hip bars and restaurants from here to London to Paris to Copenhagen, natural wines have become mainstay staples on wine lists with many establishments electing to pour natural wines exclusively.
In a world where there is a certain ‘sameness’ amongst traditional wines making it harder and harder to decipher wines regionality it’s understandable why the movement has gained traction. As Gideon Beinstock, owner and farmer at Clos Saron in Sierra Nevada Foothills in California, describes “conventional methods and technologies at every step along the way…cover, change, distort and help the terroir with the goal of making better wines”. For Beinstock this wasn’t a desirable tradeoff” given his belief that in today’s world of wine “the expression of the vineyard is the only unique element in wine”.
At this stage you may be thinking natural wine, so far so good. But where the natural wine philosophy often goes array and why the movement has created so much discord among consumers, distributors and wine producers pertains to the far left of natural wine spectrum. So-called ‘radical’ proponents advocate no winemaking intervention and absolutely zero additives including sulphites, which naturally increases the risk of creating unruly, wild wines. While obtainable the adoption of such a strict hands-off approach demands optimal fruit quality and ripeness and scrupulous, meticulous winemaking. For example, if you stop adding sulphur the wines often become inherently unstable, requiring winemakers to pay sufficient attention to protecting the wines against oxygen and spoilage bacteria. In addition, the inherent instability of these radical natural wines means no two bottles will be identical especially after ageing when the faults will inevitably become more obvious making these wines less appealing if you appreciate qualities of consistency and ageability.
There is no-where to hide with natural wines so the category tends to be polarized more than any other segment by exceptional and down -right horrid examples – sadly not all-natural wines are of acceptable quality let alone pulling off the brilliance of Marcel Lapierre wines. Furthermore, infuriating and outraging critics, true believers of natural wines tend to accept a wine despite evident defects putting it down to the ‘raw’ character of natural wine joyously using descriptors such as “kombucha like”, “wild”, “alive” and “funky”, when most would use terminology like “rotten”, and “cider vinegar”.
Today, wine enthusiasts demand ‘clean’, free of imperfections that express their unique terroir, vintage, grape variety and region – concepts that most of us refuse to dispel because the wine is a ‘natural wine’ thereby implying some sort of higher order.
Sadly, defective natural wines tend to be synonymous with the natural wine movement when to the contrary most natural wines are clean, subtle and most enjoyable.
Regardless of your opinion, what we can agree upon is that the popularity of the movement has created an increasingly environmentally conscious industry and a general trend to produce more ‘healthy’ wines reducing sulphur levels (indeed now in Beaujolais in particular now most producers use very low levels of sulphur) whilst at the same time producing wines with more quality and personality. In my opinion this is all positive news for the wine industry.
Like most prickly topics, the natural wine debate requires a pragmatic approach by both producers and consumers. The majority of natural wine producers believe that in the end it doesn’t matter if a wine is natural, biodynamic or organic, but that taste and quality takes precedent and must be as perfect as ‘regula’r wines. This philosophical reasoning no doubt explains why producers like Marcel Lapierre, a pioneer and benchmark natural wine estate, hasn’t adopted a steadfast ‘no sulphur’ blanket rule adding a bit of sulphur to his export wines to ensure the wines stability for their long voyage and so consumers can enjoy their brilliance on the other end of their voyage. For consumers, trying to navigate the world of natural wine is much more challenging given natural wines huge variability of styles – from cloudy, fizzy, pungent, to clean, pure, refreshing, distinctive, honest expressions – natural wines diverse personalities are as unique as the vintners who make them. For those curious and adventurous drinkers, the natural wine category brings newfound excitement inviting an opportunity to jazz up our palates with something that might be outside our conventional realms of we expect from a ‘traditional’ wine. With a touch of research on a grower’s philosophy, restauranteur and retailer recommendations regarding the wines unique flavor profile, those best enjoyed now versus those that can age, and some well heeded experimentation, each of us is bound to find some rewarding gems that will shock and awe, and dazzle and delight.
RECOMMENDED ‘NATURAL’ WINES:
Foradori Teroldego “Sgarzon” 2016 Trentino, Italy: Elizabetta Foradori has become one of Italy’s superstar winemakers and is undoubtedly the finest producers of wine made from the Teroldego grape variety (one of the country’s oldest and finest native grapes related to Syrah). Biodynamic farming and minimal intervention in the winery give Foradori’s wines spontaneous, expressive and unique personalities. On the nose, this very special single vineyard wine reveals lifted floral aromas, dark berry fruit and sweet spice, and on the palate dazzles with a unique interplay of concentrated flavours of juicy dark cherries, blackcurrants, dark chocolate, cassis and herbs, with a long, lingering savoury finish. A deep, full bodied, refined style with robust tannins, this complex red also offers wonderful approachability that all red wine lovers can enjoy and appreciate.
Castagna ‘La Chiave’ 2015 Beechworth, Australia: The first serious biodynamic winery in Australia located in Northeast Victoria high in the foothills of the Australian Alps whose mantra is “before a wine can be great, it must first be true”. For the past 20 years Julian Castagna has been making wine without artefacts which are a “true reflection of the land on which it is grown” – certified biodynamic, using very low cropping vines, wild yeast and minimal interference with a minimal amount of sulphur. Made of Sangiovese grapes, La Chiave is a magnificent example of the quality of Castagna’s wines. On the nose the wine is complex with intense aromas of red berry fruit (raspberry and sour cherry), lifted floral aromas of violets and rose and detectable earthy notes. On the palate, the wine shows wonderful vitality and richness – its bright and fresh with finely grained, textural tannins and dynamic in flavour with upfront red fruit opening up to complex sphere of spice from the oak, licorice, earth and herbs. Long, lingering savoury length. Exceptionally well balanced, integrated and precise.
Pyramid Valley Chardonnay ‘Lion’s Tooth’ Chardonnay 2016 North Canterbury, New Zealand: One of Pyramid Valley’s top Chardonnay’s named after the dandelion growing in their famous home block vineyard. Premised on the philosophy of biodynamics and using minimal sulphur, this complex and intense wine is bursting with citrus and peach aromas evolving into a palate of concentrated flavours of lemon, white stonefruit and subtle toast underpinned by tantilising minerality. A lush, concentrated Chardonnay showing no shortage of power and personality complemented by its poise and lingering, creamy length.