What is natural wine — anarchic, rule-breaking juice or wine the way it should be?

Even just 10 years ago most wine drinkers — and bartenders for that matter — would have no idea what you were on about had you offered them a bottle of natural wine.

But a lot has changed over the last decade, and natural wine is popping up on bar menus around the country, with more than a couple of bars choosing to stock only natural wines.

So what is natural wine, and why does the topic get people so worked up?

Well for one, some of the old guard of the wine world just can’t get their heads around a younger generation of vintners that don’t seem to play by the established rules. But it’s also because there really are no rules when it comes to natural wine. There is no appellation of origin rules, nothing in legislation setting out how a wine must be made in order to have the word natural appear on its label. And there are more philosophical questions: isn’t wine a natural product anyway? 

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For their part some of the more hardline natural wine boosters can be rather dogmatic.It can also be odd to see the same bartenders who fine strain a Daiquiri champion the cloudiness of an unfiltered natural wine.

But wine has always inspired passionate debate about its merits. There’s obviously some bad natural wine out there much as there is some bad conventional wine out there. Neither style has a monopoly on great wine. At the end of the day we figure it comes down to what tastes good to whomever is drinking it at the time.

What is natural wine?

The basic idea of natural wine is pretty simple, really: as Alen Nikolovski explains over the page, natural wines are wines made with minimal intervention from the winemaker.

Wine writer and noted natural wine advocate, Alice Feiring, once defined natural wine — which has no legal definition on the books, by the way — in these terms: “Grapes, maybe a splish of SO2 [sulphur dioxide]. Nothing gets added to the wine and nothing gets extracted.”

That means no yeast is to be added — the grapes ferment with the aid of wild yeast and wild yeast alone. The wild yeasts are found on the skins and stalks of the grapes, as well as in  the winery itself, on the equipment and on the walls. This world really belongs to yeasts after all — we’re just living in it. But this does mean you may find unwanted yeasts in your wine, contributing off flavours, spoiling the ferment.

Feiring also believes that natural wine should mean that winemakers do not use machines to fix the texture and taste of the wine, no reverse osmosis to reduce the alcohol level, for example, and no centrifuge to clarify the wine. She also prescribes “minimal chemical to no chemical farming,” in the vineyard.

Is this a new thing?

Natural wine isn’t a new thing at all. Indeed, when it comes to orange, skin contact wines, their history dates back to the very beginnings of wine. 

But top quality winemakers have worked in a way that is pretty darn close to natural wine for a long time, letting the grape and the vineyard shine through in the wine. That often means having the winemaker step out of the way.

So what’s the problem then?

One of the great things to arise from the natural wine movement is that it has given consumers and the trade an opportunity to rethink what makes a great wine.

For a good portion of time at the start of the 2000s the wine industry and winemakers were fixated on getting high scores from wine critics like Robert Parker in the US and James Halliday in Australia. 

If you picked up a top end score from the critics, you’d use that in all your marketing material. And consumers, whose wine knowledge was never really that deep anyway, would flock to the top scorers. 

So what’s the problem with that? Over time you tend to get wines converging around similar styles and made to take the top marks. But natural wine doesn’t work like that. It is more dependent on the vagaries of the vintage. 

It means you need a different frame of view to appreciate these wines and you’re assessing them for what they are and not against a pre-determined standard.

What does organic mean? 

Because, as Feiring suggests, natural wine should have very little — if any at all — chemicals used in the growing of grapes, many natural wines tend to be farmed organically or biodynamically.

Organic wine is made from grapes from a vineyard that has been certified organic; that means that the grapes are grown without “synthetic or artifical additives,  chemicals, herbicides, pesticides, fertilisers or genetically modified products and organisms,” according to Wine Australia. The ceritifcation process takes three years.

What is biodynamic wine?

Hold onto your butts because this is where you’ll find some of the more esoteric winemaking and farming practices.

Biodynamic winemaking seeks to treat the vineyard as a whole ecosystem, in line with the lunar cycle. On of its most famous practices is a vineyard treatment in which cow horns are filled with manure and buried under the vines.

As Tom Hollings wrote in these pages a few years back: “The philosophy comes from an Austrian man named Rudolf Steiner who back in the 1920’s developed an approach to agriculture whereby all animals, plants and even the solar system are considered as being inter-related.” 

 

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