Natural Wine

The ‘Natural Wine Movement’ is a hot topic within wine circles today. France and Italy all have annual wine fairs exclusively devoted to ‘natural wine’ and London just held its first on in June. Even Australia has its own budding group of Natural producers and staunch camp followers. Which says a lot, because Australia’s big, technologically focused, factory-oriented, wine industry is about as far away from Natural Wine’s fundamental ‘low-tech’ philosophies as wine can possibly get. Natural Wine is almost becoming establishment—last year’s ‘next big thing.’

For those of you who don’t know much about Natural Wine, I’ll try my best to explain what anyone who does know Natural wine will understand it’s a very vague and slippery topic.

From what I gather, Natural Wine is a loose coalition of producers following four main philosophical approaches to wine making:

  • organic,
  • Bio-dynamic,
  • low-sulphur/no-sulphur, and
  • traditionalist/antiquarians.

There is considerable overlap between groups with some producers practicing all these methods and others just focused on one or two.

One commonly held belief is to make wines that are as healthy for the environment and consumers as possible. The problem comes when defining what is healthy and what is not, as healthiness tends to come in degrees. For someone fighting cancer, just getting a little healthier is a good thing; for a hypochondriac, almost everything in life is unhealthy. Similar extremes—and all the spaces between— exist within Natural Wine.

A second underlying shared philosophy is what we all used to call ‘Non-interventionist’ winemaking—the wine equivalent of ‘too much cooking spoils the dish.’ The ideal is to grow the best possible grapes in a way that accurately expresses their ‘terroir’—the influence of soil, site and seasonal weather conditions. To preserve that expression as much as possible, fermentation is left to take its own natural course and the wine effectively ‘makes itself.’ Afterwards the wine is left undisturbed by human hands until bottled. The irony is that non-interventionist winemaking requires intensive human ‘intervention’ in the vineyard to ensure healthy fruit worth fermenting.

What is considered healthy and how much intervention is what divides the naturalists from one another. And divisions there certainly are.

At its best the Natural movement looks a bit like the Green party, full of very well intentioned people trying to convince everyone that nature should be prioritized above all else. Beyond that one note of agreement, we find a few smart ideas mixed in with a fair bit of crazy nonsense.  Eventually the better ideas are absorbed into the greater political landscape.

On its grumpier days, the Natural movement looks more like the old, Internationalist Communist Party, where the Trotsky-ites, Stalinists, Leninists, Maoists and Anarchists were often on the verge breaking apart into ever smaller splinter groups seeking ever higher levels of ideological purity. Manifestos get written, they squabble amongst themselves, and then end up making excuses for not really accomplishing what they intended. Or the revolution eats itself.

A case in point. For years an Italian ‘natural’ wine fair ran in parallel with the world’s largest, ‘unnatural’ wine fair, Vinitaly. Eventually participants squabbled over ideological differences, stopped talking to each other, and now there are two Italian natural fairs running in parallel.

Here’s a brief overview of Natural Wine’s main sub-groups.

Organic/Bio-production

Organic producers are considered the conservative element within natural movement. They avoid synthetic chemicals (pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, etc.) when treating their vines, but allow organic compounds like sulphur and copper in grape growing and wine making (copper is actually quite poisonous to the environment). Organic production used to apply only to grape growing, but newer EU regulations now apply to winemaking also. Producers must document there practices for official ‘certification.’ The labor intensive practices and paperwork add considerable expense to organic wines, but usually the wines are worth the added cost.

Bio-dynamics

Bio-dynamics is a more rigid form of organic production that follows Rudolf Steiner’s philosophies. Steinerism is a mix of folk farming traditions dating back to pre-industrial/pre-scientific eras. Biodynamic choices are heavily tempered by astrology. Vineyard practices include specially prepared magical ‘potions’ and natural fertilizers applied according to cycles of the moon and planets. Grape picking, wine making, bottling and barrel wracking follow similar schedules.

Steinerism has more than its share of whacky ideas. A biodynamicist once told me his vines were bathed by positive energy vibrations reflecting off the pyramid and egg shaped hills surrounding his vineyard. We shouldn’t forget that Steiner believed in the in existence of Atlantis and that mankind was as old as the earth.

Beyond these more fanciful, superstitious aspects, Bio-dynamism does offer a lot of common sense farming practices that often delivers impressive results. Almost every biodynamic wine I’ve tasted has been interesting, if not special.  

No-sulphur/Low-sulphurists

Since Roman times sulphur has been used to kill harmful bacteria and protect wine from both quick and slow death by oxidation. The steady adoption of hygienic practices, stainless steel/inox tanks, refrigeration and faster harvesting over the last 30-40 years has greatly reduced sulphur use in winemaking. More recently, some producers are pushing sulphur to absolute minimal levels or eliminating its use completely—both are risky, highly controversial practices.

The main reason for sulphur elimination is that some people have strong allergies to it. Beyond this, some producers also believe sulphur strips out living parts of wine which, in turn, impacts negatively on aromas and flavors. The problem is that without sulphur wine becomes unstable and generally won’t age for long; oxidation is difficult (some say nearly impossible) to beat without sulphur addition.

Red wines contain tannins, which are derived from grape skins and act as strong anti-oxidants. White winemaking normally removes skins immediately before fermentation to preserve fruitiness, soften textures and avoid tannin’s bitter astringency. That is why whites usually need more sulphur protection against oxidation.

Where no-sulphur red wines offer an easier option, no-sulphur whites are very tricky to make. Consequently, no-sulphur white wines are made more like reds, macerating them with intact skins to pick up tannins during fermentation. The resulting wines usually aren’t as transparent--more amber, rose or brown in color—and tend to have firm, sometimes astringent, tannic structures similar to reds.

No-sulphur wines tend to shade aromas and flavors with oxidative characters. But where oxidative characters are integral to the complexity of Sherries, Madeira, Tawny Ports, etc…they are the antithesis of the fresh, fruity characters normally found in modern table wines. Up until now oxidation has been considered a fault in non-fortified wines.

Where no-sulphur reds are more recognizable, the whites are like nothing tasted before. At their best they challenge us with weird and wonderful new ways of seeing a particular grape variety or style. Others taste more like yeasty beer or coarse apple cider. At worst, others are oxidized, dirty and unwine-like.

And the big question lurking over each wine is how stable and potentially long-lived it might be—years, months, weeks…? I’ve tasted good five year olds and others nearly dead in their infancy.

I spoke with an Austrian wine scientist intrigued by the challenge of making no-sulphur wine. His view was that everything had to be perfect to pull it off: perfectly clean, ripe, well balanced grapes, perfect growing season, ultra-clean winemaking, storage and bottling conditions, perfect transportation and cellaring... That doesn’t happen often.

All of which explains the less extremist ‘low-sulphurist’ group who examine each wine on its own and decide how much or little sulphur they can get away with and still deliver a wine that is both stable and pleasurable.

Antiquarians/Amphoraists

A very interesting group of producers are exploring ancient Greek or Roman wine making recipes using amphora, for fermentation and/or storage containers. Similarly, other producers follow traditional techniques that still survive in Georgia and Armenia where grapes are tossed inside buried amphora, sealed air-tight and are only opened a year later when the wine is ready to drink up. This technique takes us back further to the beginnings of winemaking 8-10,000 years ago. It is also about as ‘non-interventionist’ as anyone can possibly get.

Like wooden barrels, amphora breathe in tiny amounts oxygen that positively conditions wine. Depending on its shape, the clay and glazing used, and whether buried or not, each amphora has its own rate of oxygen exchange leading to distinct wine styles. The examples I’ve tasted so far from Italy, Slovenia and Portugal have been very compelling wines.

Because little written, historical evidence survives about amphora made wines, producers are essentially experimenting with new technology—they don’t teach this stuff at any winemaking university! I see strong parallels with the return to lagar made wines in Portugal. Smart science and methodology are unlocking new potentials for these ancient winemaking tools, bringing new meaning to ‘new wine in old bottles.’

I’m still trying to keep an open mind about natural wines.

My longstanding impressions of organic and Bio-dynamic wines are positive. Some of my all-time favorite wines are made this way. But then so are a lot of ‘unnatural’ producers who focus on making high quality grapes and do their sustainable best to be environmentally friendly.

Where the few amphora wines I’ve had have been intriguing, I’m much less convinced by the no-sulphur crowd.  Their wines have been inherently inconsistent and, sometimes, too odd. While some I find intellectually interesting, few are pleasurable. I don’t think we should be letting anyone off the hook for making bad wine just because it’s trendy or supposed to be healthier for us. But it’s still early days so I’ll wait and see.

I remember the first ‘organic’ wines that appeared the in 1980s. Some of those wines were awful, made by people who were more interested in growing organic grapes than making good wine. But over time many worked out how to do both.  

It’s worth remembering that the early organic movement was on the extreme fringe of the wine industry. Today much of the environmentally friendly ‘sustainable’ and healthy ideals they advocated back then have become common practice amongst many small and large producers globally. It’s reasonable to assume many Natural Wine philosophies will eventually be absorbed within the greater wine industry in future as well.