By Brie Sherow
Photography by Catherine Adam
I’ve heard them called ‘pirate winemakers,’ by a vineyard worker from the Loire. These are people that care more about authenticity and expression of place then following the strict bureaucratic regulations of the European appellation system. I’ve heard them called punks by a wineshop owner in Maine. “These guys are from one of the highest lauded regions, but instead of labelling it they just make it locally and drink it from kegs.” At a natural wine wine tasting in Christchurch, one attendee said, “I get the sense that they don’t even care whether we like their wines or not.”
A truer statement might be that natural winemakers don’t care whether their wines are marketable for large-scale distribution. They’re not making it for the market, they’re making the wines that they want to drink themselves. Small quantities, often with lesser known varieties and traditional (rather than industrial) winemaking techniques, these wines are generally meant for drinking straight on release. But these winemakers do care if people like their wines, and they want to share their stories. The evidence was at Budburst 2016, New Zealand’s first natural wine festival, where over thirty of them cared enough to spend a day with the general public explaining what excites them about wine and how it’s made.
Natural winemaking techniques aren’t new, they are a return to pre-industrial times, and many winemakers brought visual aids. The Domaine Lucci table had amphorae, clay pots used to store wine during fermentation and maturation. Before oak barrels, ceramics were used to ferment and mature wines because they are porous (unlike stainless steel) but don’t impart flavours like oak does. Pyramid Valley winemakers displayed cow horns and spoke about biodynamics and their holistic view of agriculture. Cow horns are a reference to a biodynamic preparation where they are filled with dung and buried in the earth to create a rich compost.
Soil health is paramount for natural winemakers, and James Millton of Millton Vineyard devoted an education session at the festival to micro-rhizomes. These fungi attach themselves to the roots of grapevines in order to communicate and cooperate with the surrounding soil, venturing up to a kilometre outwards to find the nutrients that the plant needs. Healthy soil is alive, while chemical fertilisers feed the plant but kill the soil. Soil is a complex community of bacteria, microbes, fungi, worms, and bugs. “When I walk through the vineyard I’m not walking on dirt,” Millton said, “I’m walking on the rooftop of an entire kingdom.” He dismissed chemical use as ‘pharming’ instead of farming, using chemistry instead of biology to stop disease. “Disease is actually just dis-ease,” he said, “an interruption of the natural system.” There is a strong belief by natural winemakers that if the soil is healthy, the plants will be strong enough to protect themselves.
Drunkenness is sloppy and base, but to be intoxicated is to be full of wonder, to be curious and in awe of the world around you.
You might already realise that natural winemaking is more than just an organic designation. It is about creating wines with character, by using only grapes. If that sounds overly simple, you might be surprised by the methods considered commonplace in industrial winemaking. “The majority of wines are commercial and there’s a quick fix for any problem,” said Amy Farnsworth, one of the festival organisers. Quick fixes include adding chemicals to stabilise subpar fruit, filtering wines to remove impurities (which also removes complexities in flavour), and innoculating ferments with brewer’s yeast instead of relying on the wild yeasts that grow in vineyards. Each species of yeast imparts different flavour profiles and characteristics to the wine, but wild yeast can also be unpredictable in the fermentation process. By inoculating with brewers yeast, some would say that winemakers are sacrificing sense of place for peace of mind.
Farnsworth told me that the minimum requirements for festival wine included organically farmed fruit, but also no more than 50ppm sulphur, and fermentation by wild yeasts. No fining agents were permitted, but for whites they allowed a coarse filtration because New Zealand consumers won’t yet buy cloudy white wines.
The list of additives allowed in industrial winemaking practices is pages long. In a Budburst education session, Pyramid Valley winemaker Mike Weersing said to attendees, “you demand labelling in food, it’s up to you to demand it in wines.” One of the more discussed additives in wine is sulphur, which Weersing called ‘the new gluten,’ as everyone has an allergy. It acts as a preservative and with a poor quality crop it can be good or even necessary, but instead of relying on sulphur, natural winemakers advocate for more care in the vineyard, to know the vines and the fruit, to pay attention to the soil and the weather. Many of the winemakers at Budburst used a bit of sulphur at bottling, but the 50ppm allowance at the festival was far less than some national standards that put the legal limit at 200ppm or higher.
At Budburst, the people making the wines were talking about them. “We wanted to break down the barriers between the winemakers and the consumers,” said Farnsworth. This connection made attendees comfortable asking questions and giving their opinion. Instead of remarking on the wine’s clarity or flavour profiles, comments were more down to earth. I heard Foradori’s Manzoni Bianco described as ‘the 3am bring you back to life wine.’ At the Rippon table an attendee said, “I’ve always loved your wines, I think they are really yummy.” “Yummy,” the winemaker paused, “that’s a great word. Thank you.” Farnsworth commented on her experience pouring Stéphane Tissot’s wines. “It was incredible to see people’s faces when they tried it,” she said of a Savagnin from the Jura produced in an oxidative style where the wine is aged under flor, a process similar to that used in fino sherry. “They’d say, ‘I’ve never tasted anything like this before,’ and that was what we were hoping to achieve.”
Farnsworth explained that she didn’t expect attendees to like every wine, but to come with an open mind and try something different than the status quo. Natural wines made from the same vineyard may be different year to year due to the climate and conditions around harvest and which wild yeasts take charge during the ferment. For major exporters that can be a nightmare, like a franchise fast food chain they count on their product being exactly the same each year so consumers know what to expect. Farnsworth described the natural winemakers as “courageous people that have chosen to embrace the diversity of the season and what each vintage offers.” Natural wine celebrates inconsistency. In noting the inconsistencies, you start to see the characteristics that are consistent year after year, those characteristics of the wine that are true to the place that it was grown in. And that’s terroir.
Jess Mavromatis, debuting her first natural wine – her table sandwiched between two more established labels – said, “being the new kids, you’re putting yourself out there a little, it was utterly terrifying.” Terrifying at least until the crowds started rolling through and she was put at ease by their excitement. Her wine Ekleipsis, named after the Greek word meaning both eclipse and abandonment, referenced the blood moon eclipse that occurred on the night of their first harvest and the philosophy of allowing the grapes to ferment without intervention.
Festival attendees were exposed to many different winemaking methods, and the Ekleipsis Underwater Rose sparked a lot of conversation. The wine was placed into old oak barrels during second fermentation and submerged underwater in order to prevent the flow of oxygen. Mavromatis said that all of the winemakers were doing things a little differently, “there are lots of interpretations, there’s not just one way to make wine.” It is always daunting to create something new and share it with the public, but she found encouragement in the success of the festival. “I was happy to have so much enthusiasm by consumers and restaurateurs. People are starting to understand natural wine, it’s reassuring that what we’re doing isn’t so weird.”
Whereas some festivals seem to exist as an excuse to get as drunk as you can as fast as possible, Budburst was different. Towards the end of the day, Millton scorned regulations that legislated against intoxication. “Winemakers want everyone to be intoxicated,” he said. Drunkenness is sloppy and base, but to be intoxicated is to be full of wonder, to be curious and in awe of the world around you. At Budburst, attendees were enamoured by the process, the land, and the people involved in making these unique wines. He swept his hand towards the lingering crowd at the festival below and said, “everyone is intoxicated, but no one is drunk.”
I ran into Carrick winemaker Francis Hutt a couple months later, both of us still buzzing about the event and in anticipation of the follow-up festival. Then he shook his head and said that it probably only had a few more good years. I gave him a confused look. “You know, sponsorships, corporate takeover, it will be all about marketing.” I laughed, maybe it’s true that the natural winemakers are at the heart, a bunch of punks. And if sharing that philosophy with the public remains at the heart of the festival, there’s hope that they can keep the marketers at bay.