With sustainability becoming increasingly important, natural wines are coming to the fore, and some are very good indeed
Unlike organic wines made without any addition of chemicals and using only organic material, or biodynamic wines where grapes are farmed sustainably with ‘inputs of production’ found on the farm, natural wines are made as ‘nature intended’. In other words, the human touch is kept to the minimum in the cultivation and creation of natural wines.
Grapes of natural wines may be grown on organic, biodynamic or sustainable vineyards. However, the goal is to produce wine that is untainted by human intervention so that the taste of terroir in the wines shines brightest. Stuart Olsen from Mudgee and Orange in New South Wales, Australia, is a former school teacher who now makes natural wine. “I believe in employing traditional, hands-off methods to achieve this more natural, softer, riper, fruit-driven style of wine,” he says.
“Lessons from the old, even ancient, ways of doing things mean I don’t try to bend nature; I let her do her thing. I rely on my instincts, what I see, hear and feel, and I don’t employ any more technology or machinery than is necessary. I treat the fruit differently every year according to the conditions given me, but my method is gentle and soft—like my wines.”
Indeed, speak with any natural wine producer and they eschew using commercial yeast strains, instead allowing yeasts in the environment to spontaneously ferment the grape juice. They use cement or clay amphorae for fermentation and storage, as new oak barrels tend to ‘over-spice’ and mask the wine’s taste. And if any substance is added at all, it will be a smidgen of sulphur to render the wine safe for transport. Certainly, wine manufacturing ‘correctives’ that change tannin structures, acidity levels and alcohol levels are never used as they are thought to stress and ‘alienate’ the wine. This approach ensures that the drinker finds in the bottle a wine in its purest form—as nature intended.
The natural wine movement, which began in France, is gaining traction around the world amongst drinkers and producers. As with organic wines a scant decade ago, the quality ranges. One has to sift out the good and best versions, and they are often those made by producers who understand what makes a good wine. Not every natural wine made in the backyard of a farm is going to be delicious and tasting of the terroir. But just like excellent homemade yoghurt, the best natural wine could well come from an artisan producer.
The movement has even led to self-regulation, although producers haven’t yet decided who should take on the role of governing body. Just recently, in New York City, the RAW wine fair—which celebrates natural, organic and biodynamic fine wines—saw its organiser Isabelle Legeron, MW, reiterating its Charter of Quality that celebrates ‘living’ wines. To qualify as a RAW wine, all grapes have to be farmed organically or bio-dynamically and be harvested by hand. No yeasts may be added in primary fermentations, no blocking of malolactic fermentation, no additives should be added, no processing (cryo extraction, reverse osmosis, spinning cone, etc) and no sterile filtration. Any sulphur added must be less than 70mg per litre. Additionally, if the wine is suitable for vegans, it will be indicated. Of course RAW is just one of various societies scattered amongst the many wine producing countries, each with its own code.
AUSTRALIA STANDS OUT
I recently tasted a flight of natural wines form around the world and was taken by the immaculate taste in all of them. I began with two Beaujolais— one from Jean Claude Lapalu and another from Marcel Lapierre—both were resplendent with their succulent fruit. Then I tasted Herve Souhauts’s fragrant and pretty Rhone wine that is changing status from biodynamic-organic to natural, followed by Despagne Rapin’s Vinum Simplex, a Cabernet Franc from the Loire that’s raised in a clay amphorae. Vinum Simplex proved smooth, juicy and delicate. Next, I reached for Arnot-Roberts Sonoma Coast Syrah and reveled in its blue and red fruit overtones with a saline aftertaste.
But it was a pair of Australian wines that impressed me most. Tasting blind, these two amazing Syrahs were the furthest in style from any Syrah/Shiraz wines from Down Under. The first was Jauma ‘ The Message’ Syrah from Mclaren Vale in South Australia, but how unlike mainstream Shiraz it was! The wine had a purity to it, the fruit was delicate and perfumed, the tannins were smooth and silky—and it just drank so easily. The second wine was Tommy Ruff ‘Romanee Tuff’ Syrah from Barossa. It had immense depth and a bouquet of summer berries, and it was eminently quaffable. In short, they were nothing like the deep, dark, big-fruited alcoholic Barossa Shiraz, or the berry-spice-chocolate-cocoa-liquorice-styled McLaren Vale Shiraz. That’s not to say I will turn my nose up at the classic South Australian Shiraz. They are good wines too. But for a wine lover, it’s always a real pleasure to uncover new wines, especially when they are au naturel, as these are.
Indeed, they may well be a sign of things to come from Australia. After all, Australia has an advantage, thanks to favourable climatic conditions. Indeed, grape growing is easy with its Mediterranean and almost desert-dry, hot conditions, and often without the plague of frost, nor rot from dampness that could lead to spoilage. Good quality grapes can be cultivated without the use of pesticides and chemicals, which make these grapes excellent raw material for natural wine production.
Not just from Australia, natural wines are coming to the fore around the world. Many feature uplifting balance, moderate alcohol and unmasked terroir articulation with silky textures and stirring energy. Artisanal and made by hand without—or at most with minimal—chemicals or pesticides, who would say no to them? Not us.
This was first published in Wine & Dine magazine’s March 2017 The Salt issue – Drink Feature ‘As Nature Intended’