With a growing spotlight on what we put into our bodies, it’s understandable that natural wine is booming. But what does natural mean where a bottle of wine is concerned? Master sommelier Cameron Douglas demystifies the burgeoning, albeit often perplexing, world of natural wine.
Wine in 2020 can taste quite different from how it would have in the 1960s,’40s, and right back to the early days. The evolution of wine as we know it owes as much to science as to tradition – how, what and where grapes are grown; fermentation vessels; and a greater understanding of climate, moisture, soil and the chemistry of winemaking have all impacted on the wines we enjoy today.
Layer on top of this how variations in packaging, wine closures, marketing, reviews and awards influence our perceptions of wine and you see how the commercial reality – the commodification of wine – has, in less than 100 years, altered our understanding and taste expectations.
Wine is fashionable – a popular variety or style may very well go in and out of vogue from one decade to the next. Chardonnay is a classic example of a wine that was sneered at for a time (this also depends entirely on who you talk to), but is now enjoying a renaissance. Pinot noir, it seems, has never gone out of fashion and remains one of the most successful wine styles globally. The newest category of wine to emerge in the past decade is natural wine.
The impact of climate change, looking after our planet, being mindful about what we put into our bodies, and how we discover better ways to stay healthier has led to an increase inattention on organic farming practices, with less use of man-made potions to control the rapid growth of plants and animals, and more considered use of the land.
The kingdom of microbial life below the ground is now recognised as being as important as the plants we grow on it. Growing consumer awareness of the fragility of our planet has led to preferences for organic or bio-dynamic-grown crops. Viticulture is part of this move, along with production of wines. Natural wine has grown(naturally) from the foundation work of organic and biodynamic farming philosophies. New
Zealand-based Master of Wine Stephen Wong defines it as: “A category of wine where producers seek to push the boundaries by making wines that are distinctive, with minimal interference and manipulation. These wines offer an alternative expression of place; a different voice.”
The term ‘natural’ is not allowed on wine labels because the meaning of the word is too hard to apply to wine. The vin méthode nature category is still in a trial phase of three years, but it does have a standard that lays out minimum and ideal standards for all producers to follow. The ideal standard includes: certified organic and biodynamic viticulture, 100 per cent hand-harvested fruit, no synthetic herbicides, pesticides or fertilisers allowed, wild fermentation only (no introduced yeasts), no fining and no detectable new oak.
In other words – the way wine was originally made before science and chemistry gave us the tools to make clean, fault-free wine (and separate from ‘orange’ wine, a category of its own that is sometimes people’s reference point when they think of natural wine).
Tasting notes: how to buy and what to look for
If you’re looking to try a natural wine in a restaurant, I’d suggest trying it by-the-glass first. Even better, ask for a taste and have a chat with the staff about it. The aromas, flavours and textures will be different from what you are used to.
Some people don’t enjoy the taste at first (this could arguably be said of any wine), while others are curious and are keen to try more. Natural wine has a number of flavour markers – from pure fresh fruits and dried ginger and apricot, to a core of mineral earthy flavours with a sense of place.
It can be any variety, red or white. Good examples are interesting and enjoyable and should definitely be part of your wine exploration journey. If you buy a bottle and decide to taste at home, I recommend you share it and finish the bottle in one session.
Often, the next day, the wine has changed and may be difficult to enjoy because the absence or minimal use of sulphur preservative results in spoiling, in the same way that a fruit juice left unrefrigerated would.
5 natural wines to try
Made from BioGro-certified organic pinot gris grapes and five per cent gewürztraminer, Amoise Gris 2019 is free from additions, fining and filtering.
Alpine Wine Sparks Will Fly 2019 has been bottled early to create a natural fizz. Cherry and strawberry flavours give this take on pinot noir another twist.
Head in The Clouds 2019 is another interesting take on pinot noir by Alpine Wine. Created with minimal intervention, this one is best chilled.
The organic, unfined and unfiltered Amoise Cabernet Franc 2019 by Amy Farnsworth is both silky and vibrant on the palate.
Halcyon Days Gris Noir Hawke’s Bay 2019 combines the best of both worlds in a wine that’s free from finding and filtration.