Natural wine is the hottest thing in the world of wine right now, the boozy buzzword from Brooklyn to Bondi and all licensed points in between. The term ‘natural’ wine is problematic, more on that later, but in essence we’re talking about a winemaking movement that seeks to produce wines with the bare minimum of human intervention. That means no additions, no adjustments, no filtration or fining.
Basically we’re talking about removing human intervention in the winemaking process from everything that happens between the picking of the fruit from the vine and crushing it to get the juice through to getting the resultant wine into the bottle. The juice begins to ferment not through the addition of commercially packaged yeast, but rather through the naturally occurring yeasts floating around in the vineyard and winery.
The various options winemakers have to fill the gaps that the vagaries of vintage can create are also shunned, which means no added acid, enzyme, nutrient or tannin.
Any discussion of ‘natural’ wine will invariably touch on organic and bio-dynamic practices and while they’re intertwined, they’re not indivisibly so. When we talk about organic or bio-dynamic wines, we’re referring primarily to the farming practices in the vineyard, while most of the requirements for classifying a wine as ‘natural’ occur, or more accurately, don’t occur, within the winery. So any ‘natural’ wine worthy of the name will come from organic or bio-dynamic vineyards, but there will be wines produced from similarly certified vineyards that can’t be considered ‘natural’ because the winemakers responsible for them choose to be a little more ‘hands on’ when it comes to helping them along the journey from grape to glass.
That’s just part of the difficulty with such absolutist terminology. Also tied up in this milieu are the wines that proclaim themselves ‘Orange’, not because they come from the central New South Wales wine region, but rather because they range in colour from the bruised umber of a hobo’s urine to a turbid tangerine akin to flat Fanta.
Thrill or spill
In essence, Orange wines are white wines made as if they were reds, meaning the juice is kept in contact with skins, often in oxidative environments, to allow the extraction of tannin, phenolic compounds and colour. This can make for some intriguing wines, but anyone expecting them to behave like conventional white wines might be seriously weirded out by the step up in texture and weight.
Advocates for natural wine will say that the removal of winemaking fingerprints from these wines allows for the purest expression of terroir, a wine’s ability to express the true nature of the place from which it comes. In theory, this should be right, but experience tells me that’s not always the case.
I’ve had natural wines that have thrilled me utterly and I’ve had natural wines that have made me wonder if I should rip my tongue from my mouth and wipe my arse with it rather than subject it to another drop. That’s part of the pleasure, and part of the problem, too.
A natural division
There is a political statement inherent in the whole ‘natural’ wine movement that makes me a little uncomfortable, an unfair juxtaposition that banishes all other wines that don’t fit the criteria into a bin implied to be ‘unnatural.’ I prefer the term ‘ low-fi’ that some of the best exponents use.
It also has to be accepted that a more open-minded attitude to winemaking faults is required to enjoy a lot of these wines and I’m cool with that. There is beauty in the flawed as well as the perfect.
But there is a worrying trend amongst the loudest advocates of natural wine to treat any criticism as simply the old-fashioned windbaggery of an old guard who just don’t get it and I think that’s wrong.
A natural wine isn’t good just because it’s been made in line with the philosophies and methods that define the movement. A natural wine is good, just as any wine is, when it’s simply a delicious liquid you want to put in your mouth.
The world of natural wine is one well worth exploring and some real thrills await those who seek them.
Just remember, the best guide is always your own palate and a wine with nothing but a philosophy to commend it will always leave a bad taste in your mouth.