Natural Wine: What is it?
This article originally appeared recently in LattéLife Magazine.
I’m reprinting a slightly reworked version of this here as, although I seem to drink plenty of natural wines (there’s quite a natural wine subculture here in Sydney actually) and love the controversial/paradoxical nature of the concept, I never actually write about them on this blog. Too much drinking, not enough critical tasting is to blame for that, though but I’m going to try and redress that in the future. Figure this is the best way to start.
So skip ahead if you’re already well down with the cloudy stuff, but otherwise read on. Keep in mind that this was written for a very broad audience so the tone is a little lighter in many ways.
Wine the Natural Way
“Natural wine is the term given to those wines that have been made in a way that is ‘minimally interventionist’, that is, with as little human manipulation as possible. This usually involves grapes grown under organic/biodynamic/sustainable principles, picked by hand and then moved around ideally via gravity. In the winery too, the natural way involves no added yeast (only naturally occurring wild yeasts), added acid, tannin or enzymes, with minimal (or ideally no) S02 or other preservatives, and finally bottled without any fining or filtration.
The end result is what is purported to be the most pure expression of fermented grape juice around, the most ‘natural’ and unadulterated wines that can possibly be produced.
The origins of this phenomenon – unsurprisingly – lies in the old world, with the natural wine premise dating back to some intrepid French revivalists in the 1970s (in the Loire and Beaujolais in particular) whom were first attracted to the idea of creating wine in the same manner as their ancestors.
For more modern producers, natural winemaking appeals as the ultimate protest against the industrial, heavy-handed wine production of yore. In an Australian context, the very notion of natural winemaking stands contrary to the sort of ‘clean and clear’ wine production that we are famous for, which is perhaps why it has been greeted with suspicion locally.
But some more recent Australian natural wine examples have proven to be both drinkable and high quality, particularly those produced by several of the loose team of winemakers known as the Natural Selection Theory (www.naturalselectiontheory.com). This group is based in the Adelaide Hills, though producing eclectic wines from a host of different regions, with all of the participants having their own natural projects.
Some of the top wines from this band of natural brothers includes the Lucy Margaux Adelaide Hills Pinots and Tom Shobbrook’s Barossan reds. Internationally the finest natural wines come from a smorgasbord of European regions, including Etna in Sicily; Beaujolais, the Loire and the Jura in France and in little pockets all over Western Europe, with the style now spreading all through Spain, North & South America and South Africa (as well as Australia and New Zealand).
Perhaps the only thing restricting this growth is the wines themselves, which are infamously variable – at times painfully so – and have a rather limited shelf life. They are so variable as the lack of preservatives and filtering ensures that they are more readily affected by heat, oxidation and microbial spoilage, with this inherent fragility also thus reducing their reputation for cellarability.
|Lucy Margaux Jim’s Vineyard Pinot Noir 2010
Even the photos of the labels are cloudy..
If you can put up with these vagaries, however, the appeal for us drinkers is that natural wines can be truly some of the most lively and interesting available, offering some much needed diversity and entertainment. They’re probably not superior to ‘conventional’ wines, but the more artisanal approach is nothing if not encouraging. Viva natural wine!”
And a choice Australian natural wine:
Lucy Margaux ‘Jim’s’ vineyard Pinot Noir 2010 (Adelaide Hills, SA) $45
Drawn from a site in the lush Piccadilly Valley, this is the sort of wine that showcases all the good bits about ‘natural’ wine. It’s a very juicy, vibrant and open style, full of red fruit and licorice, backed by a palate that feels unforced and honest. There is just a hint of that pointy, slightly metallic unfinished edge but it’s balanced out by that untamed bright fruit. It’s definitely not for the long term – there just isn’t the tannins for that – but no questioning the open, vibrant satisfaction to be had here. 18/93