What’s All This About Natural Wine?

Posted in 9 Jan 2019

Natural wine is a very buzzed about term right now – but what does is actually mean? Is organic wine always natural and has a biodynamic drop really been harvested according to the moon? We turned to The Bottle Shop manager Harry Letho for insight on some of our burning questions about natural wine.

Here, Harry runs us through the difference between natural and organic certified wines; tells us all about what we should to aware of when buying these kinds of varietals; and shares some of his favourite local producers – for those looking to dip their toes into the wild world of natural wine.

Natural wine is a fairly loose term right?
It is very loose and it’s often bastardised. As Frank Corneliussen from Sicily would say, you can’t go into a shop and put natural wine on the shelf as a category. This is because it’s not standardised and it’s so subjective. Every grower and winemaker has their own theory about what natural wine should be and they’re all different. I suppose the only common theme is that there should be minimal intervention or no intervention at all in the winemaking process.

So does this mean there’s no chemicals used in the vineyard?
Well it’s not just the vineyard but it does start there. With natural wine, the vineyard has to have organic or biodynamic principles. In general, this means no herbicides or pesticides are used, but the laws do vary depending on the country. Biodynamic farming is about harvesting based on the lunar cycle and the biodynamic calendar. It is a pretty pure way of doing things. Then you get to the winemaking process, which needs to be minimal intervention as well. This is about not adding acid, tannin or stabilisers. Natural winemakers can (and do) add sulphites though.

I actually see that on a lot of natural wines.
That’s because sulphites are naturally occurring, so they are fine. Some natural winemakers will add a bit to stabilise the wine, because there’s a lot of yeast going on and otherwise you get that fizz when you first open the bottle. It is super minimal, though – I mean a sultana would probably have more sulphites in it than a minimal intervention wine.

So is the natural approach actually how wine has been made for centuries?
The basic principles are how wine has been made in the past. Using natural gravitation to press the grapes; pressing grapes with the feet; or just being very gentle. The farming is based off traditional methods too – before we had chemicals. Natural wine isn’t about huge production, it’s about purity of production. It is also about knowing what you’re drinking and putting inside your body. I think a lot of people are increasingly health conscious and concerned about sustainability now – so natural winemakers base their work around that.

Is organic wine always natural then?
No, because when you are organic certified, it means that you are organic in the vineyard. But you can still have intervention and manipulation later on in the winemaking process.

What are some terms that might help people navigate the world of natural wine?
Unfortunately there is not a lot written on the bottle, but you can come into The Bottle Shop and ask our staff about minimal intervention wines. To spot a natural wine, look for something without a lot of preservatives in it. I would also watch out for wines with egg, milk or fish products added. These are used for fining and filtration – where you’re filtering out the natural bits and pieces. If those things are being added, I would want to know more about the winemaker’s practices.

What does ‘skin contact’ mean?
Well, skin contact is just a way of getting tannin, colour and texture out of the wine. So you also want to ask about whether the wine is organic or biodynamic – those kinds of things. If the vineyard is biodynamic certified, then it’s sweet; I wouldn’t even worry.

Orange wine is very buzzed about at the moment too, how would you describe it?
It’s just a different winemaking method, sort of like rosé. Rosé is where you press red wine grapes lightly to get a little bit of colour out. Orange wine is similar, but instead of being pressed quickly, it is actually left for quite a long time. It’s super textural and the aromas are often quite intense. Usually they are very minimal intervention – or no intervention at all, besides leaving the wine on the skins. And there’s a lot of effort that goes into making these wines, so they tend to be a bit more expensive. They are really fun though.

For someone looking to try natural wine for the first time, which producers can you recommend?
A lot of good natural wine comes from Adelaide Hills, because it’s so lush and beautiful there. A great one is Ochota Barrels. The Green Room is quite popular and their straight Grenache is fantastic too. Commune of Buttons is another one from Adelaide Hills and I really like Tim Stock’s wine, Les Fruits. He’s only being doing it for a couple of years, but it’s great value. They are really expressive wines and they come in all different styles.