One of the questions I get asked most often is “what is Natural wine?” That is a very good question because there is no real definition. So, I thought I would go some way as to explain what natural wines are and the current movement behind them.
So, as I just stated, there is no real definition of ‘natural’ wine, so the best way to explain it is by saying that natural wine is a movement. These wines are crafted by winemakers who want to go back to basics by using absolutely the most minimal human intervention to create a wine that is completely true to its terroir. Wine makers refer to this as to going back in time and making wine how it was once made before chemicals and machinery got in the way. This is where the hype has come from. It is one of the many natural trends at the moment and I believe what some producers are doing in this area is absolutely fantastic.
However, this seems to have started some sort of conflict out in the wine drinking world. The ‘conventional’ side saying that ‘natural’ wines are faulty and lack flavour. Whilst the ‘natural’ side saying that ‘conventional’ wine is full of nasty chemicals, that give people headaches and a bigger hangover. There is a lot of chatter out there on both sides of the fence and my opinion is that both sides are right and both sides are wrong and I think it’s time we start just looking at all wines on their merits and not put them into a box.
I believe that not all ‘natural’ wines are actually made completely naturally. On the flip side, not all ‘conventional’ wines are made with harsh chemicals and are over worked by wine makers. Some ‘natural’ wines are faulty and oxidised but most are amazing juicy wines with complexity and heart. Most cheap ‘conventional’ wines are full of additives but most wines over the $25 mark are made using only the bare minimum additions necessary to create a fantastic wine that is commercially viable.
Here is a bit more information behind it all
As we all know, grapes come from vines. In natural wine, they should be organically produced to remain as natural as possible. The grapes are then picked and, in the case, of ‘natural’ wine they should be hand picked to eliminate the use of machines. Then once in the winery the grapes should literally be crushed to create juice, left to ferment naturally. Then, once fermented, separated from its solids and then finally bottled without being fined or filtered. There are a few other ways the wines could be made due to how the winemaker would like the wine to turn out, for example leaving the juice on its skin to either generate colour for a red wine or add complexity and richness to a white. Or you could allow the wine to go through malolactic fermentation another natural ferment that can happen in wines to change a bitey malic acid into a softer lactic acid (mainly used in reds), just to name a few variations.
So, this is where it gets confusing. All wines are made in a very similar way but in conventional wine making they are using machines and additives to better control the outcome of the wine in the bottle. Here is a little breakdown for you.
Organic production – there are very many wineries who grow their grapes organically and most of them are not actually certified. As it costs a hell of a lot of time and money to certify and most wineries choose not to. And this includes some ‘natural’ wineries.
Hand Picking – Again this is done in both natural and conventional wines. The difference being ‘natural’ wines can be perceived as more valuable and can justify a higher price tag. In contrast, many conventional wines are made to be price friendly. You will not find a bottle of any wine, natural or otherwise, that has been hand-picked for under $20 a bottle. The cost of labour involved is way too high. The quality of the grapes is obviously significantly greater being hand picked compared to machine harvested.
Crushing/Pressing – As far as I am concerned unless you are using feet to stomp the grapes or an old-fashioned basket press, then all wines are crushed equally.
Fermentation – There is yeast in the air everywhere. If you crush grapes and allow them to sit, they will inevitably start to ferment. The problem with this is that this process if done naturally and may not be able to be controlled. This is why ‘conventional’ winemaking inoculate their juice with a yeast strain they know and that way they will be able to have more control over the ferment. There is a huge amount of ‘conventional’ wines that are naturally fermented.
The second side to this is the use of temperature-controlled tanks in conventional winemaking. These are used to ensure ferment does not get too hot or too cold to ensure they ferment all the way and that there is not too much residual sugar left in the juice after fermentation. If there is too much then the wine may be too sweet or, worse yet, go through a second fermentation later on in the wine’s life. As with wild ferments, there are also a lot of ‘natural’ wines that have been fermented in controlled tanks.
Sulphur – now this is the big one that gets everyone talking. There is a huge belief that wines that have sulphur in them are bad for you, give you a headache or make your hangover worse. Before we move on with this, I want everyone to understand that sulphur occurs naturally in fermentation and all wine will contain it. The addition of sulphur is used to protect the wine from a whole range of problems that can occur in winemaking, the main one being oxygen. Oxygen basically kills flavour. Like when you have had a bottle open for too long and there is nothing left, the same happens during the winemaking process.
Other Additions – winemakers can use a wide variety of additions to control their wines in ‘conventional’ wines. Things like tartaric acid (a natural occurring acid in grapes that have been extracted into powder form) to add or balance acidity then on the flip side there are de-acidifiers like Calcium Carbonate (aka chalk) to make the wine less acidic. Winemakers add oak chips (in cheaper wines) or add the wine to oak barrels to add tannin and to the wine. In Europe where it’s a bit colder, winemakers can add sugar to make the wines more alcoholic. They might also add Dimethyl Dicarbonate to stabilise the wine or lessen alcohol levels. This is just to name a few.
Fining – This is basically getting rid of any particles in the wine that make it cloudy. The ‘conventional’ way is to add a mixture of coagulants into the wine so the heavy particles drop to the bottom and the clear juice can be separated. This process is done with a wide range of products but mainly egg whites and milk products. Natural wines will not (generally) be fined. This means their appearance is generally cloudy. This makes no real difference in the flavour of the wine it just adds texture.
This is all a big generalisation, I am just trying to give you an idea of what happens in the winemaking process to differentiate between ‘conventional’ and ‘natural’ winemaking. I personally believe both styles of wine can be absolutely fantastic and they should be all judged on their individual merits and not be put into a box and determined based on opinion of style.
Let’s start talking about how the Australian wine industry is diverse and ever evolving. Our winemakers are amongst the best in the world and should be celebrated no matter how they decide to make their wines.
Here’s to trying a broader range of wine in 2019 and not be blinkered with our thoughts but rather completely open to trying new styles!
Sunshine Coast Hotels Wine Specialist