There’s some new wine in town, and it looks like it’s here to stay, so what’s all the fuss about natural wine??
You may have heard the term natural wine, it’s beginning to turn up all over the place, but like craft beer it’s not entirely clear what it is and how to sort the delicious from the dirty! If you frequent restaurants or bars with exposed brick walls, menus that don’t have verbs in the dish descriptions and staff who are too cool for school you are very likely to have tried a natural wine, whether you knew it or not.
Like many ‘new’ things that are championed by the cool crowd, the product is evolving so quickly the descriptions and regulation can’t keep up. Which makes it hard to talk about natural wine as a whole and to work out what’s good and what’s bad.
Having learned about wine the traditional way, I’m constantly trying to make the differentiation between what’s good and what’s just cool for the sake of it. I love the idea of a natural wine, but it has to taste good first and foremost, which means sometimes I’m on the fence! Here’s my, hopefully, unbiased, view from the fence, of what natural wine is and how to enjoy it.
What is it?
The idea of natural wine is to make a wine with as little tampering as possible by adding fewer (or no) additives and highly processed ingredients and intervening less in the overall winemaking. Very little of the ‘processing’ of wine is visible to us on the drinking end, so this distinction may not sound big, but like a lot of food production there’s a lot that we can’t see. Some wineries look more like labs where the wine is made to a recipe in order to guarantee certain flavours and textures using additives and processed ingredients. This is completely allowed, but we don’t really see it.
So in natural wine, grapes tend to be grown organically or biodynamically with little or no pesticides, and the wines tend to be simpler in style and winemaking. For many producers it’s not just about chemicals, it’s about making a wine that is more like the wines that were made in the past and/or that is only influenced by things like weather and land, rather than by fancy winemaking and science. They don’t want to be led by science they want to be led by agriculture and manual techniques.
One of the major ‘draws’ to people, is the lack of sulphites used to preserve the wine which are widely believed to contribute to hangovers and headaches (although the evidence of this is limited). The sulphites are used as preservatives which stop oxygen affecting the wine in the bottle and keep it tasting fresh, by taking these away the nature of the wine changes – in some cases, a lot!
What does this mean for the wine?
Some ‘natural’ wines adhere to all of the above and taste like wine – often with a bit more oomph, and more layers of flavour. However, some natural winemakers take it further, and down the line you tend to find the wines have a different set of flavours.
The white wines often lose the fresh fruity flavours of conventional whites and instead take on some more savoury or less obvious flavours – more yellow apple than green, and other flavours that are nutty and herby. At the edges that evolves into flavours more similar to cider.
There’s also a tendency towards deeper colours and more body in white wines, and some of the drying tannin often found in red wine turning up in white wine. You don’t get as much creaminess as conventional wines but you do get a punchy mouthful.
Conversely, a lot of the red wines tend to sit on the lighter side, they are more likely to have less tannin and lighter body with more tart acidity and tangy flavours. Like the whites as they get more natural they lose ‘fresh’ fruit character like berries and cherries and they gain more earthy, nutty flavours. They are more likely to be on the top end of the Red Central and Rediscovery Line on the WineTubeMap.
Many of the wines will be unfiltered so will be cloudier than we are used to, filtering just takes out some of the bi-products of the process out of the wine, like most things, filtering is just an aesthetic thing and arguably means some flavours aren’t removed in that process.
In the best cases these wines are alive and vibrant, just singing with flavour and individual in their taste and flavour. They avoid the homogeneity of supermarket wines that can taste very similar.
In the not so good cases they can be unbalanced and very rustic – or worse still they’ve gone so far from wine that they are unappealing to drink and very out of balance.
How do you know?
The best way to explore natural wine is to find a good bar and friendly barstaff or sommelier and get them to be your guide. You really want someone who cares about your tastes first and foremost and is interested in finding you wines that you will like from their selection.
They are popping up quicker than you can count at the moment but some of my favourites are :
All stellar places to visit, and more on the horizon…
I’m off to WILD, in a couple of weeks, a natural wine fair organised at Timberyard, by India who you will know from our pages here and her partner Jo. Tickets are sold out but you can be added to their waiting list here. We’ll report back and update this blog after a day of tasting natural wine and meeting the people behind it.