Category — Features
Make it Funky!
As humans we seek sensual stimulation and experience, the new is a delight to unfold, especially when it celebrates and respects the fragile landscape in which we live. – Lance Redgwell
I’m no expert — although I’m a dedicated imbiber — on wine, or natural wine, but I am expert at avoiding monotony, at the pursuit of the avant-garde, and at supporting the small and the local.
I’d been reading more and more about ‘Natural Wine’ over the years and the growing embrace by many of the world’s trailblazing restaurants, but wherever I asked in New Zealand and whichever winemaker’s brain I picked, I couldn’t find any enthusiasm or anywhere to drink it here. Until Apero on Karangahape Rd in Auckland opened and Mo identified me as somebody open to a little exploration.
I love our natural environment, good health, surprise, experimentation, surrendering of control and the reward of finding unexpected and unknown gems, so I propose we should — as Angela Clifford of Tongue in Groove wine says — “start with yes!” when tasting something new.
I’ve asked a selection of people to help us decode ‘Natural Wine’: restaurateurs, wine experts and producers; Mo (Ismo Koski) from Apero (Mo), Lance Redgwell of Cambridge Road (L.R.), Stephen Wong of Wine Sentience (S.W.), Master Sommelier Cameron Douglas (C.D.), distributor and wine shop owner Dan Gillett of Wine Diamonds (D.G.), Ed and Laura Verner from Pasture (P) and Lynnette Hudson of Tongue in Groove (L.H.). This web version of the article holds full unedited answers from all participants ans opposed to the shorter print version.
SSS – If natural wine was a band, which would it be?
Mo. Jimi Hendrix.
L.R. Ladysmith Black Mambazo
S.W. It would be an amorphous, often-changing live performing musical collective like The Eggs, you never quite know which members will be performing at any given time, and whatever it is they’re playing; soul, funk, or free sessions dub, it’s utterly distinct with a flavour and an energy which can only be experienced first hand.
C.D. The Eurythmics: Refreshing, pure, original and easy to like, comes with all sorts of themes, expression and emotions.
D.G. Something from Georgia in a time before electronics, mixers and synthesizers. Incidentally, Georgia (the country) is where the origins of wine-making are believed to have started.
P. The Cure
L.H. Bran Van
SSS – Throw six words at me that speak of natural wine to you.
Mo. Grippy, Polarizing, Fun, Conversational, Funky, Oxidative
L.R. Raw, Pure, Honest, Living, Energy, Luminous.
S.W. Inspiring, skillful, local, undefined, hubristic, fashionable.
C.D. Original, engaging, thought-provoking, historical, memorable.
D.G. Pure, honest, uninhibited, expressive, intriguing, delicious.
P. Edgy, surprising, fun, adventurous, Lo-Fi, experimental.
L.H. Exciting, Drinkability, Challenging, Complex, Structure, Boundary pushing.
SSS – Wine has been slower than food to re-inhabit a natural space; unadulterated, organic, pureness of ingredients… but natural wine has been a thriving scene around the world for a while, yet still seems to be tapping very lightly on our door in NZ, why are we so slow on the uptake?
Mo. Not slow, I think it’s just natural progression, and a geographical thing. If you have observed any trend, food or wine – or beer for that matter – it will always take time to filter here. Ten years ago boutique breweries were rife in Oz and we were drinking Steinlager (just an example). Today; well… you can’t keep up with the beers. And where the fuck did BRISKET come from all of a sudden. There was a time when brisket wasn’t on any menu in Auckland, and now restaurants are made on the back of it, but again, it has been used in the States since forever… I feel Natural Wine will have a similar track, but you do need someone to drive the bus. Thanks Lance!
L.R. The roots of our wine industry are founded in the modern school of scientific understanding. We lack the depth of tradition found in other wine cultures, as a result we have been weaned on the ideas of clarity, stability and consistency well suited to an export based industry, a new dialogue is being whispered with reference to ideas of rawness, cloudiness, unseen textural experiences, a new journey of sensual discovery awaits those willing to explore.
S.W. I’m not so sure that we are slow on the uptake? We launched our first natural wine list in 2011 (natural wines have been listed in NZ since 2008) and this number tripled by 2012. I think it’s simply a matter of population size; with a small population, a larger proportion is required to reach critical mass. Each market is also approaching natural wine in different ways – just as there isn’t any one unified understanding or approach to natural wine, there isn’t just one global natural wine scene.
C.D. Slower than food or just pushed so far into the shadows it was forgotten about? It depends on the buyer and their willingness to engage and change and how the message for change has been conveyed: Some buyers will only stick with what they know, the price they pay and the brands they recognise – natural wine is hardly going to change this group – they are arguably not into the wine – they are more into alcohol. There are wine drinkers who have moved on from this ‘anything goes so long as it’s alcohol’ stage and can be a captive and potential audience so long as the message is not shoved down their throat – as it often can be. They need to discover natural wine by accident or as an incidental part of the wine they have been referred to.Take it easy and let’s not rush it. I sell more wine that is incidentally natural or has a component that is – rather than adding a new section to the wine list.
D.G. That’s NZ in a nutshell, isn’t it? Two reasons come to mind. Firstly, lack of availability, there simply isn’t yet enough natural wine in the NZ market to write a completely balanced wine list. Second, NZ sommeliers and restaurateurs haven’t had enough exposure to have complete confidence in it just yet.
P. It’s hard to find many natural wines in NZ…. yet. If you open one thinking “Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc” and it’s cloudy, it oxidises, it tastes different to what you expect, then the experience might be a bit confronting. When we take time to introduce the wines on our list and give them context, they are more approachable. Perhaps natural wine just doesn’t have enough context here yet and is seen as a ‘trend’. Which is a pity because the techniques used are some of the oldest in the winemaking book and strip away recent industrialization of winemaking. I think we’ll see a rapid growth if Australia is anything to go by.
L.H. It depends if we are talking about consumers or winemakers. With regards to NZ consumers, often they are unaware of how grapes are grown and made into wine. NZ does have a clean green image, but sadly in the wine industry it is not always like this. Consumers are also less well informed on the magnitude of scale for the production of some wine styles and the additives used to make wine, especially when the aim is to bottle the wine as quickly as possible. They think they are drinking a relatively natural product; hence, why change. Today consumers tend to drink NZ wines – which is great – but most people tend to stick with wine styles and brands that they are comfortable with.
With respect to Winemakers there are two camps; those who think it is hocus pocus and not to be touched. Not many winemakers making the traditional Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc style are experimenting with making Natural wines and this is a huge percentage of production in NZ. Then there is the second camp who love experimenting and pushing all boundaries when it comes to winemaking and especially using little or no intervention. From this experimentation grows an in depth knowledge in new ways to make wine. These principles can be used to make natural wines but many practices can morph across to influence other wines within a winery’s portfolio. The practices I refer to are skin contact, natural yeast/bacteria, no additives, fining and/or filtration and low or no Sulphur additions.
SSS – Is there a growing curiosity from the public, how is it being met on the list?
Mo. Absolutely there is a curiosity, normally they instigate the conversation. Personally I still haven’t really listed them, I prefer to hand sell, these aren’t wines to force down someone’s throat. I like the softly softly approach, gauge the customer and engage the customer. Purists are definitely not into them, but it is definitely a good way to introduce people to wine, especially those who have a preconception that wine is shit.
L.R. Yes, with modest but general joy.
S.W. The lists came before the curiosity, we’ve been introducing NZ drinkers to natural wines through the medium of wine lists intently for six years now. The first few years were more difficult, with little awareness amongst the public, but the last few years have seen interest coming from both sides.
C.D. Yes, but it also depends significantly on floor staff (retail and restaurant), their ability to embrace, like, remember and sell wine. Staff who just take food and beverage orders are not going to sell anything – they need to change their behaviour as well. Customers who are curious about natural wine are hungry for short sharp facts that empower them to try something different and new. They need to start on the ‘just natural’ examples then move into the more ‘traditional natural’ examples – slowly.
D.G. At the wine bar we are always looking to introduce new wines to customers. We also have regulars who come in every week outwardly seeking something new and interesting. This bracket of wine seems to answer that better than anything else.
P. About 90% of our guests are up for trying new things and enjoy that they can have a different experience with us, encouraged to try new flavours and textures in wine with food. Our list is very unconventional and if people order by the glass we always taste pour first and spend time giving context to the wine. It’s all about how we approach people – trying new wines is meant to be exciting and fun. Walking up to a table with a vivaciously frothing freshly opened Pet Nat with sediment in the bottle is a great ice-breaker. Most people at Pasture have a wine or juice match, which means we can really take people on a journey and we get great feedback about how people have had a positive experience with the wines.
L.H. Within the group of wine enthusiasts there is a much greater awareness and appreciation of Natural wines. Most lists do not have a Natural/Orange option, rather one needs to go to a specific restaurant or bar which they know can offer these wine styles. Most consumers who drink entry level wines do not know what Natural/Orange Wines are, and in fact a commonly asked question about Orange wines is: are they made from oranges?
SSS – In the first issue of Fool magazine Californian winemaker Hank Beckmeyer was quoted saying “it’s more of an art project with commercial leanings” about making natural wine, do you think our history as an industrial food producer focused on export influences our thinking around these styles of wine?
Mo. I think it just takes confidence. Confidence to risk some of the grapes, and confidence in your ability. It can go against everything a traditional wine maker knows, and no one wants to risk a bad wine, not to mention you only get one shot a year at it.
L.R. Yes as above in the third question.
S.W. I would disagree entirely that export concerns drive our thinking about natural wine. The natural wine scene in NZ developed through tasting and drinking imported natural wines collected by wineries and sommeliers on their travels. These led to experimentation within wineries, supported commercially by local wine lists who took financial risks to provide outlets for these experiments. Many of these experimental cuvées had to kept on the quiet because they were ill-suited for export and often of poor commercial sense; many have been rejected for export certification. Export of these natural NZ wines have only been a thing very recently, I’d say only in the past couple of years. That said, the natural wine scene has grown a lot, and like any fashionable growing sector, it attracts those who see commercial opportunity. I’d flip that statement on its head and posit that there are certainly examples of actors in the natural wine scene which can be more accurately described as opportunistic commercial ventures masquerading as art.
C.D. Absolutely yes – so many customers I encounter are sick to death of food crap and let’s admit it – commercial food is trash food – but it’s not going to go away unless people vote with their wallets and feet. Some customers look in the mirror and finally realise that the reason why they look so fat is because they keep feeding themselves garbage. Wine is arguably no different – if it is uber cheap then it’s doctored to the max and is really just about volume sales at cheaper prices. Some people will argue they can’t afford good wine – well I say stop buying ten dollar wines three times a week and start buying one thirty dollar wine once a week and have some fun – your body, mind and soul will thank you for it.
D.G. Wine is one of New Zealand’s largest export markets and our production will always be based around what our markets want. Globally I think there’s a shift towards conscious consumerism – people want to know where their food comes from, who grew it, what’s been added to it – this same shift is already happening with wine overseas, and eventually it will happen here too.
P. Natural wines can be dismissed as being volatile and changeable. That’s what we like about them. Some of them oxidise in your glass right in front of you or we have to open them ahead of service so they can fizz away and calm down a bit. I imagine export products get extra points when they are consistent and stable.
L.H. Very much so. The majority of wines made in NZ are made in a clean, New World style which leaves little margin for pushing boundaries. Luckily there are some wineries experimenting.
SSS – New Zealand has been keen to build a reputation as a producer of serious wines that could compete with the old world in terms of flavour and longevity, does this underlie the skepticism of our wine establishment?
Mo. Again, there is huge risk involved. The risk of waste, and the risk that maybe it is a fleeting movement. A winemaker will never do something lightly, and it is their reputation.
S.W. This is hardly a New Zealand thing, you’ll find the same reaction in almost every wine establishment around the world, and rightly so. Natural wine does not grant a guarantee of good wine, there are just as many bad natural wines out there as there are good ones, if not more. But that holds true of the establishment wine scene as well. ‘Conventional’ wine has the ‘uninspired’ and ‘boring’ inhabiting its lower rungs; Natural wine has ‘faulty’ and ‘simple’ inhabiting its darker corners. New Zealand’s wine industry is actually quite open-minded, and there are a great many more wineries than many realise experimenting with natural techniques. They are doing this to gain a better understanding of these techniques, to see what works, how it can improve their wines, and to gain more experience and knowledge. As long as natural wine is a philosophy rather than a dogma or some exclusive club (as some would have you believe), then it poses no inherent danger to the wine establishment. Ultimately, it can lift the whole of the NZ wine industry by giving winemakers more skill and more tools to make great wine.
Where it does not necessarily sit well with the ‘wine establishment’ is in export to more nascent markets. If a foreign market has only just started learning that NZ produces wine, natural wine can add confusion to the process of learning about our wine. More mature markets with solid understanding of NZ’s wine styles are more equipped to understand the context of natural wine in NZ. I sense something similar amongst my fellow MWs who are not opposed to natural wine per se – we certainly drink and enjoy enough of it to put to rest any arguments about that! However; openly, many tend to be more cautious rather than give a blanket endorsement to something that can easily be misconstrued. I think this stems from a belief that the consumer needs specialist knowledge and context to understand natural wine, and more importantly, to navigate the good from the bad, the true from the marketing bullshit.
D.G. First up, serious and natural don’t have to be mutually exclusive. For years now we’ve been trying to make wine that tasted like somewhere else. I think we’ve got a compelling enough story now to start telling that ourselves. We have a unique climate and culture and our wines should replicate that. Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is a great example of that – it’s undeniably Marlborough and there’s no mistaking it for anything else.
L.H. Not at all, variety is the spice of life. The NZ wine industry needs to air caution and not put all its eggs in one basket or we stand to fall by the wayside. The industry needs diversity to maintain and grow existing markets and develop new ones.
SSS – Are our export markets interested in our natural winemakers and in natural wine more generally? If so, who’s the keenist?
Mo. I would say yes, definitely, but it still has to be a good wine. The Japanese market seems to be huge, and there is solid traction in Oz, as they want something new I reckon.
L.R. Yes, All the centers of taste from Montreal, through to Barcelona, Copenhagen, London,Tokyo and Melbourne. It’s a growing global movement.
S.W. This is not a question which can be answered simply. Our export markets are quite varied, with different needs, preferences and levels of maturity – so some are and some are not. Natural wine is part of our story in the more mature, developed wine markets, so yes, there is interest. Obviously, markets with a natural wine scene will be more interested than those without. Anecdotally (because our production numbers of natural wine are still quite low, any statistics would be anecdotal in nature), Japan, Australia, the US, the UK and Singapore show a healthy interest in natural wines from NZ, as can be expected. We had a full turnout for our masterclass on NZ natural wines at Vinexpo in Hong Kong earlier this year, but I wouldn’t jump to any conclusions based on that. Perhaps in a few years time, when we have enough solid figures to study, there could be proper analysis of this question, but numbers are simply too low to achieve any statistical significance at the moment.
C.D. No. NZ wines to the rest of the world is a challenge despite the figures suggesting otherwise.The figures are skewed towards proven brands and styles like Sauvignon Blanc. Other whites and other reds – like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are relegated to the shadows – some with a leg in the light. This is changing as more key influencers discover more wine and expand their understanding. Sommeliers are one such group of influencers as are wine Apps such as winepop.com.
D.G. Yes and yes. It seems USA, UK, Japan and Australia are already well-established markets for our natural producers. Take Les Caves de Pyrene in the UK for example, perhaps the biggest natural wine distributor in the world and operator of a number of natural wine bars and restaurants throughout London. In the USA rapper Action Bronson exclusively promotes natural wine in his worldwide TV series “F*ck, that’s delicious” – on that note actually, it was a shame NZ didn’t have more to offer when he visited last year.
P. We can’t seem to find enough of it in NZ for ourselves.
L.H. Japan is very interested and the keenest. They celebrate natural wines and are a very sophisticated wine market. Australia would be a close second especially since they have a strong natural wine movement of their own.
SSS – We celebrate Marlborough Sav or Central Otago Pinot Noir because of their Terroir, but is Natural wine a truer expression of the land and place?
Mo. Yes, but probably less obvious than the above examples. More than anything I think it is an interest point of view, rather than terroir.
L.R. I think the search for true expressions of place is the driver behind all great winemaker’s work. It’s true that to me organic farming is fundamental, but one can take that fruit add a cultured organic yeast, filter the wine, add 50ppm sulphur and still reflect a very clear picture of the climate and soil factors contributing the site, they could even use wild yeast, but by filtering and sulphuring to conventional levels be considered not natural, however this is classic practice and still quite minimal. On the other hand someone with less precision can cloud the picture through microbial spoilage in an attempt to be ‘natural’ thereby muddying the picture of place.
S.W. Not always and not necessarily. With all things being equal and starting from the basis of excellent fruit, a highly skilled winemaker could arguably capture a bolder and more extreme expression of terroir with natural winemaking techniques. The fallacy here of course, is that when you are delivered perfect grapes, a ‘conventional’ winemaker would be making as close to a natural wine as possible, as the raw material is so perfect that it requires no intervention. The strength of the natural argument to express terroir is that natural winemaking leaves no room for error, so a disproportionate amount of care has to be taken at every step along the way since none of the safety mechanisms normally available to a winemaker are accepted. Terroir is an interpretive thing anyway; it is inherent in the site, and in any given year the climatic conditions of that vintage decide what the key and tempo is for that given piece of nature’s music. Wine is simply the interpretation of the score; a conventionally made Marlborough Sauvignon or Central Otago Pinot is just as much a valid expression of its terroir and is identifiable as such, just as a well-made natural example is – they’re just different from one another.
C.D. Can be – depends on how natural things go and what an individual winemakers understanding of ‘natural’ actually is. No sulphur does not mean ‘natural’ and skin contact Pinot Gris does not necessarily mean natural either. The answer I think may lie in the creation of a New Zealand Natural Wine Movement where producers gather and argue for months then decide a basic description and interpretation that fits the New Zealand environment / model. One that New Zealand wine growers can endorse too.
D.G. I think natural is as true an expression of land, time and place as you can get. The wine is essentially made in the vineyard and there is nothing being added to or taken from it.
P. I get a bit nervous when terroir is used a branding stamp. Just because a cultivar is grown somewhere renowned for it, doesn’t make it inherently delicious or good. I find it much more exciting to come to a glass with less expectation and meet it for what it is. I know one way to describe natural wine is through minimal intervention in the vineyard and the winery. So in that way I believe natural wines are a pure expression of a place and a time.
L.H. Surely making wine from grapes only, without any additives is the most pure expression of terroir. The issue comes down to recognition of Terroir. Typically most people have learnt to identify characteristics of variety and place of origin from wines made with sulphur additions and without the use of skin contact. If we all learnt to taste wine without sulphur additions especially we would learn to identify place of origin etc, just like we have when tasting wine made with sulphur. The problem is that there are few people who can taste both wines made with sulphur and those without and identify the place of origin and other defining characteristics. I am sure this will change.
SSS – When people hear “Natural Wine” they tend to think ‘Orange Wine’, is that the whole story?
Mo. For me No. You can definitely have a natural wine that is not orange, but Orange Wine is an obvious target or generalisation as it is so different to everything, and it stands out. It is more about the technique.
L.R. No, natural wine should be thoughtfully farmed organic fruit, that embraces native yeast and bacteria, avoids filtration and fining and makes its way to bottle with no other additions save a small addition of Sulphites (debatable but often essential to deliver a better product especially if shipping).
S.W. Absolutely not. Orange wine is a different class of wine from natural wine, and the two circles only partly overlap in the Venn diagram of ‘alternative wine’. Orange wine is made from white grapes fermented on its skins for an extended period of time (usually more than 3-4 weeks). There are plenty of examples of skin-fermented whites which are not made naturally; be it conventionally-farmed fruit, commercial yeasts, must adjustments, sulphur additions, fining, etc. Natural wine covers a range of styles which follow a philosophy of winemaking eschewing these additions. Within it, there are styles which suit this philosophy more than others; oxidative styles, styles aged in vessels other than new oak barrels, and styles which do not require the addition of much sulphur because they either don’t deteriorate as much with air, do not have the chance to do so, or use grapes which have high natural levels of protective phenolics or acidity. The oxidative styles include some orange wines, but also wines aged under flor like those from the Jura. Amphora-aged oxidative styles fall into the second category (including the amphora-aged orange wines) such as those from Georgian Qvevri, Italian Anfora, or Spanish Tiñaja. The third category includes vins de soif, méthodes ancestral and pétillants naturel. I’m sure there are other styles of natural wine as well. The only major category which is missing from natural wine in any significant way is sweet wine, as it is almost impossible to produce a properly natural wine without sulphur or some kind of stabilisation when there is a lot of sugar left in the wine due to the high risk of re-fermentation or microbial spoilage from the presence of a substrate for microbes to feast on.
C.D. No. These are clearly separate categories, but they are linked together because Orange Wine can be seen and is often viewed as an example or branch of natural wine – and in many ways it is. But it is also different because Orange Wine has a specific historical and European context that is emulated elsewhere; natural wine is more based on lesser or very low winemaking intervention in the vineyard and winery.
D.G. Certainly not. There’s plenty of natural wine that isn’t orange, and there’s plenty of orange wine that isn’t natural. Most grape juice is clear and a wine’s colour is derived from extended grape skin-contact. It’s got nothing to do with being natural or not.
P. We thought natural wines just meant you don’t get hangovers…
SSS – Can natural wines last in the cellar?
Mo. I don’t think natural wines are made for cellaring. They are made for enjoying and discussing.
L.R. Yes some can, but most are made to be embraced in their joyous youth, my choice not to use added preservatives is made with this understanding and acceptance. I’m pleased to add however, that the wines are drinking well for several years after bottling.
S.W. Not all of them can, but some most certainly do, at least in the mid-term (ten years). As with all wine, the best examples and those which are expressly made to age and develop do. Vins de Soif, early drinking Beajolais or a lively, fruity, simple Pet Nat would be best enjoyed in the bright flush of youth, but grippy, concentrated orange wines, and powerful Tannat, Syrah or Sicilian reds can age just like their conventionally made counterparts. I’ve enjoyed nicely developed ten year old bottles of Ganevat, Pacalet and Souhaut with no issues. Beyond that, I haven’t had enough examples to categorically make a claim either way.
C.D. Unlikely – I liken natural wine to a pot of tea – make and drink it, if I want it to last then add something that will help it last. That said the perfect cellar conditions can help longevity, but I don’t see many perfect cellar conditions out there. NZ restaurants don’t seem to consider cellaring wine properly. Some retailers absolutely do.
D.G. Definitely. I’ve had natural wines from the 80s and 90s that are still fresh as a daisy. Like any wine for that matter, age-ability is based on cellaring conditions, grape variety or style.
L.H. Yes tannins help wines to age but each wine needs to be evaluated to see if it has potential to age or should be drunk in a short time frame.
SSS – Is it about the process, about what’s in the glass or both?
Mo. Both for me.
L.R. It’s about delivering pleasure in the glass, how we get there is important to some, and for them I continue to push the boundaries of minimalism.
S.W. It should first and foremost be about what’s in the glass, only if that is good should the process enter the equation. It does not matter if a wine has been made completely naturally and with the best of intentions, if it tastes foul, it would have failed it’s only goal.
C.D. Both. The story behind a wine and even how it is made and by whom in a particular setting will always set the stage and generate curiosity and hopefully sales.
D.G. Both. It’s about the source and the process which leads to what ends up in the glass. What I love about these wines is they allow you to travel – you can sit at the dinner table and feel like you are back in the vineyard where the grapes were grown.
L.H. It needs to be both. It worries me that some winemakers make natural wines and bottle them even if they have many faults and think this is acceptable just because they are ‘Natural’. This is where caution is needed, especially if this style is to gain a wider audience.
SSS – Are there hard and fast rules or do different winemakers approach the process differently, can a winemaker utilise a little sulphur and the wine still sit under the ‘Natural Wine’ umbrella?
Mo. As yet, no. That could be where this movement goes next. To have some sort of classification put in place, and I think that would be well received by some producers. In terms of sulphur, the messed up thing is that you can add no sulphur to a wine and it will still naturally produce sulphur, hence you can say no added sulphur, but it will still have sulphur.
L.R. Currently there are still a few grey areas depending on who you talk to, Light sulphite use is currently accepted by all but the most hardcore naturalists.
S.W. No one is legislating what is defined by natural, and there are several details still in contention, but in general there are some basic guidelines which most people agree with (e.g. wild ferments, no must adjustments, no fining etc). Some regimes and natural shows will insist that a natural wine can only come from an entirely natural winery, that conventional winemaking will contaminate the naturalness of any wine which is made there, others do not. Budburst for example is taking the stance that natural wine has to be made from verifiably organic grapes, some other shows do not take this stance. Sulphur is something which I think most of the natural wine scene is backpedaling on, as it is hard to argue against the use of very low levels of sulphur in a globally traded wine market where international shipping wreaks havoc on completely un-sulphured wines; and even the strong proponents of sulphur-free winemaking in the early years have started to add small amounts to their exported stock due to being burnt in the past. The level of sulphur is still in contention. At Budburst, we consider 25ppm total sulphur to be acceptable, and for the first year, are allowing wineries to bring wines which contain up to 50ppm total sulphur as long as they have at least one wine at the lower 25ppm level. From our understanding, this is on the lowest-end of the scale for a natural wine show.
C.D. There seems to be a few boxes that get ticked by all winemakers when it comes to understanding and making natural wine. Some of the following may be included or not – depends who you talk to: dry farming (or minimal irrigation), no sprays, especially manufactured sprays, hand harvesting, wild ferment (a must), some skin contact (controversial), vessel for ferment – can be anything from concrete tank to wine barrel to plastic bucket (stainless steel optional), when they think it’s ready to stop fermentation they arrange for this to happen – how is optional. Finally – none, very low, low or some sulphur.
D.G. A completely ‘natural wine’ is one made without any additions at all.
L.H. There seems to be no rules. My interpretation of the natural wine umbrella is that these wines can be made from Organic or Biodynamic fruit and even only Sustainably grown fruit. Typically skin contact is used without additives but low levels of sulphur can be used. Some producers do not use sulphur. Certainly few criteria are enforced, but I think it is too early to make rules yet.
SSS – Are we seeing established traditional winemakers start to embrace this process and movement or is it coming from a new generation of winemakers?
Mo. In OZ I would say it is the new generation, here in NZ, we are seeing the pros give it a go, but hopefully they will inspire the new generation, and that will lead to the cycle that I touched on earlier.
L.R. The movement started with established traditionalists in various parts of Europe, it has been embraced by a growing band of new world winemakers seeking to explore new directions in the taste of wine and challenge the status quo like all cultural industries from food thru fashion, music, literature, art and design.
S.W. New Zealand is still a young winemaking nation, we haven’t even outgrown our first generation of winemakers. I see winemakers from all over the country and from all age groups taking part in this discussion, from James Millton to Francis Hutt. All it takes is an inquisitive and open mind, and the young don’t have a monopoly on that. We are a nation of people who ask why and why not, so it is no surprise to me that the natural movement has sparked interest so widely.
C.D. Yes to both – I am encountering more natural wines being made and offered for sample. Perhaps of more relevance is the ‘less is more’ approach to wine-making allowing more natural interactions in the vineyard and the winery to happen with less control or intervention from the winemaker. A slow but emerging trend. How powerful this trend is remains to be seen – early days still. I expect there is a lot of experimentation underway and wine companies discussing the potential of such a wine style in their portfolio and the cost benefit to such an adventure.
D.G. Traditional winemaking suggests they have always followed this method. New generations are starting to embrace it again. It seems like things are coming full circle.
L.H. Within NZ I think that there is a movement by some winemakers who perhaps fit into the older generation, but were not really traditionalists, who are adopting many natural winemaking techniques. I do not necessarily think that the new generation are adopting these winemaking ideas. Rather I think it comes down to what sort of wines a winemaker is making. If they work for companies producing high volume wines using New World winemaking techniques then I think they are not using any natural winemaking ideas; quite the opposite in fact. Winemakers however who produce many different styles of wines and are constantly experimenting are more willing to try Natural winemaking philosophies.
SSS – Could this be a breath of fresh air not only for our palettes but also for our wine scene, re-energising the industry both pushing us forward and meeting a growing global demand for sustainable artisanal products?
Mo. I want to say both yes and no. First and foremost the wine has to be drinkable. It can be cloudy, oxidised and fizzy, everything that wine is not meant to be, and still be exciting and thought provoking. On the other hand, it can look like wine should and taste shit. I say we embrace the movement, but allow it to grow organically. Let’s be open to trying these wines, but not force them. Lets think about the domestic market and introducing punters to it slowly, rather than world domination just yet.
L.R. As humans we seek sensual stimulation and experience, the new is a delight to unfold, especially when it celebrates and respects the fragile landscape in which we live.
S.W. As a natural wine scene on its own, I think it will have limited reach. After all, for all of its noise and visibility, natural wine is and will probably always be, a minor segment of the wine industry as a whole. I see it’s role more as a disruptive force, a punk revolution, a Stonewall riot. It’s true value lies in what it has done and will continue to do for wine in general as natural techniques filter through the winemaking communities of the world, improving the sensitivity of winemakers who have grown up in the industrial era of winemaking; introducing drinkers to new varieties and a wider range of wine styles; which in turn preserves less commercially successful varieties and techniques for future generations so we continue to grow and diversify as a global human culture.
One area where I see natural wine – and low-sulphur wine specifically – taking a stronger hold in filling global demand for sustainable artisanal product, is in turning the tables on where and how that demand is fulfilled. Rather than taking the experience to them, make them come here to experience it through local cuisine and food / wine tourism. Instead of having to make the wine fit to travel around the world, why not just make it as naturally as possible and have it only available locally? The Sherwood is experimenting with this approach, having wines served as fresh as possible by bottling on site without even the minimal sulphur needed for shipment and shelf-life. For a country which has a strong focus on tourism, this would seem a natural move to me.
C.D. I think the key word here is Artisan – the insatiable curiosity of wine drinkers will always hold the door of innovation and style development wide open. What is a little humorous is that natural wine was the norm before modern technology and large scale production created the new normal over the past 50 years or so. Natural wine is therefore nothing new, but a largely forgotten approach to winemaking that was superseded by the demand for cleaner, more reliable tasting wine that can be repeated at volume (large or small) and at each purchase cycle.
D.G. Absolutely! This kind of wine is fun, approachable and not to mention bloody delicious! Because these wines are produced on such a small scale, it makes every opportunity to drink them fun and special. Every wine should evoke a memory or emotion and every time I drink Millton Libiamo I am reminded of walking through the vineyards with James and Annie. Natural wine has the best tendency to do this.
P. We hope so. We know when we first encountered wines like this overseas a whole new world opened up for us, and we were invigorated and inspired by what we found and who we met through these unusual wines. We also think that these wines have a special place in conversation with food like ours which is acid forward, and with unusual flavors from our library of preserves and ferments. There’s a rawness, a realness, and a sense of fun that we really enjoy with natural wines.
L.H. Absolutely and I think this reflects on my comments about the NZ wine industry airing caution and not putting all their eggs in one basket. NZ needs diversity and not be renowned for making only one major wine style.
Illustration by Ryan Bird