From natural to minimal, a sommelier’s perspective

Minimal Intervention Feature Week

I am going to start off controversially and begin by calling them what I’ve always called them, natural wines. Yes, I know this is a term that many don’t like, and I understand why but in terms of their short history, the ‘natural wine movement’ is how it has been described. Moving past nomenclature, I must admit to having an ongoing fascination with natural wines. In the mid 2000s, there was no such thing in Australia; over the first few years I saw whispers in articles, but the reality was the term ‘natural wines’ hadn’t made it to us.

When it comes to wine faults, this is truly up to the consumer; if they enjoy a particular flavour, who am I to tell them it is actually a wine fault?

That’s not to say I wasn’t buying them already, mostly from the wonderful human Andrew Guard who continues to bring in some of the most coveted natural wines from Europe to this day. It was a visit from Sue Dyson and Roger McShane of Living Wines that brought me to focus on these wines as a category that was sitting separate from the mainstream. It was a lightbulb moment, and at the time there was a palpable excitement around them and the different flavour profiles some of these wines brought to the table. I dived in with gusto, along the way offending many well-trained tasters with wines that showed levels of faults that made their palates shriek and beg forgiveness. Along that path though, the regular consumer was curious and came on the journey with me. As a sommelier I was excited by them, but as a business owner I also knew that not everyone had a taste for some of these peculiarities so I always tried to maintain balance on my wine list so we could make sure everyone had a decent glass in front of them.

When it comes to wine faults, this is truly up to the consumer; if they enjoy a particular flavour, who am I to tell them it is actually a wine fault? I’m not mad for Brettanomyces but it works for me on occasion; volatile acidity has its place and I’m one of those that rarely ever sees mousiness. I will judge them harshly in a wine show or writing for The Real Review because the parameters are set, but it doesn’t preclude people from enjoying them. Like anything of taste, we all have our own set of parameters of what does and doesn’t work. In the food world, there are many more menu items far more confronting than a glass of bretty cabernet franc!

Time and trends move quickly, these wines were decried by the mainstream and hailed by the avant-garde, and like all swings of the wine trend pendulum, it probably went too far. It was as this pendulum swung back that the discussion matured (somewhat) around what these wines were trying to say, the discussion around additives and manipulation became more thoughtful and less shouty. Winemakers tried exciting new small batches in the corners of the winery and viticulturally it dovetailed nicely into the ‘health’ discussion around food sourcing and provenance that was becoming a hot topic in restaurants everywhere.

There were times that every wine list I saw was packed to the gunnels with lo-fi funky numbers that, at times I love, but sometimes I just felt the need for a clean and crisp riesling.

However, sommeliers are an excitable bunch and when they find new things that interest them, they tend to go neck deep in them. I am guilty as charged on that front. There were times that every wine list I saw was packed to the gunnels with lo-fi funky numbers that, at times I love, but sometimes I just felt the need for a clean and crisp riesling. Trends are important to cover on a wine list: as much as many customers would be surprised by this, most restaurants are trying to make a profit, so having wines that there is a high demand for has merit. On the other hand, a good list, whether 10 or 1000 wines long needs balance; if everything is cloudy then you can’t keep everyone happy.

The natural wine movement has often been described as punk, but to me it’s more like the ’80s & ’90s grunge scene, edgy and at odds with mainstream but taken up with gusto by the next generation. Its influence is much broader and has threads in many other genres now as well. Now the scene has matured and developed. Its grunge ways have softened slightly, and the parents are into it, instead of complaining about the rubbish noise kids call music these days. Today, I am happy to describe these wines as minimal intervention; it suits them as it describes their purpose without conjuring a negative connotation to the opposite. I like to think they have had a positive impact on the wine industry as a whole, but maybe that’s just an old man reminiscing about the cassette tapes he used to listen to!


2 thoughts on “From natural to minimal, a sommelier’s perspective”

  1. Avatar
    mariovino says:

    Nice article Stu, it’s refreshing to hear a sommelier admit to loading up a wine list with their favourite toys. While we’ve all been guilty at times of getting overexcited about the next bright trend, there’s still too many somms out there whose attitude seems to consist of following dogma and ‘stuff the customer’.
    While I was initially fairly scathing about the whole movement, having seen too many seriously faulty, undrinkable wines, I have to admit that as winemakers have gained experience with the raw materials they have at hand, the number of wines under the ‘natural’ banner that are complex, interesting or just plain fun to drink are undeniably on the increase. If that means we’re kinder on the planet, then that’s win-win.
    What still confounds me though, is seeing an all-minimal wine list alongside a menu of highly processed/molecular dishes. If you’re going to espouse the mantra, at least be consistent about it.

    M.

    1. Stuart Knox
      Stuart Knox says:

      Hi Mario, thanks for the comments, I may be banished for my admissions! But in seriousness, it is great to see the discussion around vineyard health and winery intervention maturing, and a bonus of more interesting wines coming as a result. I am too somewhat perplexed at times about the lists and cuisine not representing the same philosophy.

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