Natural wine: is it a load of cow pooh?

More and more wineries are claiming to produce ‘natural’ wine. Is this just more spin, or is it for real – and does it have merit?

We know the wine game is full of spin, and when wine is over-supplied, producers are under great pressure to differentiate their product, which is marketing-speak for ‘make their wine stand out from the crowd’.

Recently, they’ve used organic and biodynamic viticulture, reduced carbon emissions, reduced energy usage, even light-weight bottles to achieve this… and now, so-called natural winemaking.

Some are sincere about their use of these processes, some less so. Some appear to use them solely for marketing advantage; some practise the most laudable viticulture and winemaking but are too modest to make any fuss about it. It can be difficult to work out who’s sincere and who’s a cynical opportunist.

The good thing is that most of the buzzy practices I’ve mentioned are good for the environment, so even if the motivation is suspect, at least the effect is positive.

But how do we define ‘natural’ wine, anyway?

Surely all wine is natural. Some alcoholic products claim to be ‘naturally fermented’. Well of course: all fermentation is natural, I hear you retort. Well, yes and no. There are degrees of naturalness. A wine fermented by inoculated yeast and malolactic bacteria, and boosted with yeast nutrients to assist a sluggish or ‘stuck’ ferment, could be said to be less natural than a wine which was left alone without any additives, in which Mother Nature did her thing without assistance. The parallel might be a natural birth compared to an assisted one, with sedation and painkillers.

As well as the above, a highly processed wine might have been earth-filtered or even centrifuged prior to fermentation, or the juice might have been settled with the aid of added enzymes. After fermentation, it might be filtered again to remove any remaining yeast cells. Anti-oxidants might be added, sulfur dioxide being the best-known, but also ascorbic and erythorbic acid. Tartaric acid is added to many wines, especially whites, to correct a perceived imbalance.

Some red wines are fermented with oak chips; some reds have powdered or liquid tannins added, not necessarily to boost tannin content, but to make the colour look darker and younger in your glass.

A truly natural wine will have been subjected to none of this. Or it may have been subjected to a bare minimum – such as 20 or 30 parts per million sulfur dioxide at bottling time, to protect the wine during its journey to your glass.

You can’t generalise about whether natural wine is intrinsically better. The most zealous advocates would argue that it is; that even a bad, faulty wine naturally made is better than a gold-medal wine that was made with a lot of intervention. Well, that’s a choice for the individual. I frankly could never recommend a crook wine just because it’s natural – and I’ve tasted a lot of crook ‘natural’ wines. I’ve also tasted some rippers. There we go again: you can’t generalise.

Natural wine doesn’t have to taste terrible. Some of the leading Australian proponents include Cullen (tastings), Paxton (tastings), Gemtree (tastings), Castagna (tastings), Krinklewood (tastings), Temple Bruer (tastings), Thistle Hill (tastings), Lowe (tastings), and in France many leading producers espouse some of these philosophies, including Chapoutier (tastings), Zind Humbrecht (tastings), Domaine Huet (tastings), Domaine Leroy (tastings) and Larmandier Bernier (tastings).

Many winemakers, such as Keith Mugford of Moss Wood (tastings), are sceptical about the natural wine trend. He says such winemakers often claim to express terroir better, but the risks associated with some of their techniques can result in faults that have the opposite effect: they shroud terroir. “”The risks are high but the quality improvements are relatively small,”” he says.

Mugford and others are frustrated by what they see as a besmirching of those who don’t espouse natural winemaking (or organics, or BD). By putting themselves on a pedestal and preaching the superiority of their wines, he says, they are – whether intentionally or not – putting everyone else down. “”There is a reason why winemakers do what we do. We are not out to harm people or the environment. Most people who farm the earth respect it. We’ve learnt a lot about growing better grapes and making better wine, and our research and teaching institutions do a good job disseminating that information so advances can be made. It would be a pity to throw all that out the window.””

To see what additives and processing agents winemakers can use, go to www.foodstandards.gov.au and look under Section 4.5.1.


First published in Gourmet Traveller Wine, October – November 2011. 

 

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