There has been a lot of discussion in recent years about wine and how ‘natural’ it really is. After all, according to Wine Australia, ‘Wine means the product of the complete or partial fermentation of fresh grapes, or a mixture of that product and products derived solely from grapes.’ And grapes are a natural product last time I checked.
The term ‘natural’ wine is controversial within the wine trade, simply because there is no legal or industry recognised definition. So, what constitutes a natural wine? Isn’t a ‘natural wine’ just another word for biodynamic? Does a wine that has been designated as ‘natural’ have more health benefits than one that has not? All good questions those.
In my eyes, all wine is natural if it is made from grapes and has not had any other non-grape product added to it. Plus, it is not like the fermented wine falling into that category is collected dripping from grapes on the vine, they all require some human interaction. The term ‘natural’ also has the inference that some wines are synthetic like a mass produced, world dominating soft drink brand. Of course, if the word wine appears on any label, this cannot be so because by law, it must be made from fermented grapes, no other fruit.
When presented with a shelf or menu full of these terms, it helps to know just what you are getting when you buy and ultimately drink them. Here is a potted summary of each.
Organic –Australian Organic offers the definition that ‘The Australian Certified Organic Standard prohibits the use of synthetic agricultural chemicals including pesticides, fungicides and herbicides.’ To be labelled as ‘organic’, wines are certified by a certifying organisation and need to fulfil the obligations of organic practices set out by that governing body.
We are lucky to have some excellent organic wineries in Australia. Many of our wineries practice sustainable principles, some take the step to become certified organic or biodynamic, some do not but adhere to the practices without certification. Why? For some, they want to be able get their vineyards through an extreme event where a remedy is needed that would fall outside those prescribed by the certifying body and thus negate that certification, for others, it is simply a way of life and they do not feel that they need to go that final step.
Biodynamic – These wineries take organic wine growing and winemaking one step further. The principles are steeped in age-old philosophies such as being as self sufficient as possible and working with the natural cycles of the world in which we live to grow and make wine.
Is there a difference between wines made using all that modern science can provide and wines that are biodynamic? I believe that organic wines are wines that better reflect their environment and the vintage conditions. Even more so for biodynamic wines.
Preservative Free – to preserve the freshness of wine and reduce the chances of spoilage before and after bottling, winemakers will usually add a preservative. Most likely a form of sulphur. This sulphur may affect the health of drinker, particularly if there is an allergy to sulphur. The choice of how much to add is up to the winemaker although there is a maximum allowable under the Australian Food Standards Code (Standard 4.5.1) of 250 mg/L total in wines containing less than 35g/L of sugar, or 300 mg/L in over.
Certified organic and biodynamic producers may still add sulphur, albeit up to the lesser amount of 100mg/L in total, to their wines. Wines labelled as ‘Preservative Free’ are often wines with ‘no added preservatives’ as there is a warning that wines may naturally contain sulphur for the ferment.
Natural wines – My understanding of a natural wine is one that has been made with the least amount of human interference. It is not a new philosophy, although it may be a reaction to the more scientific approach to wine that is oft seen in the ‘new world’ these days.
Sometimes instead of stainless steel, these wines may have been fermented using techniques and vessels of ancient times, such as an amphora, and fermenting the wine with the skins for extended periods of time. Of course, it also means less intervention in the vineyard which means that the grapes should be grown using organic or biodynamic principles.
Amphora – The amphora is an ancient wine making vessel and a small number of modern winemakers have revived its use here in Australia joining others around the globe. When a wine is made in an amphora, the juice spends an extended period in contact with the grape skins as it ferments- whether red or white.
The modern practice when making white wine is to separate white grape skins from the juice very early in the process with an emphasis on producing wines with freshness and purity of fruit. Whereas red wines need skin contact for colour and structure. With this extra contact with skin, white wines may take on deeper complexity and texture while the skins offer protection from spoilage. Although the best have balance and freshness, with some of this style of wine, oxidation may become an issue and it depends on your personal tolerance of these characters as to whether you like them. They have become increasingly more common on wine lists over the past years. While the added texture can make them more food friendly, just because they are on the wine list and advocated by the Sommelier, does not mean that they are going to be to your taste and does not mean that they are the best available.
Amphora wines may still have some sulphur added and just because it has been made in an amphora does not mean that it is a more natural wine than any other. It also does not automatically mean that it is certified organic or biodynamic. Check the label.
White wines that have been made with this extended skin contact are sometimes known as ‘Orange Wines’ which seems a very ‘in’ term around the world. Of course, here in Australia (as in the USA), we have an active wine region that shares that name ‘Orange’, just to add to the confusion when someone asks, ‘Do you enjoy Orange wines?’
While there has been recent growth in the number of organic and biodynamic wines available in Australia and you should consider these wines as you would any other. There may not be a significant noticeable difference between conventional wines and wines made using these principles. I often notice that there is a freshness of flavour and a lightness of texture to organic or biodynamic wine, without sacrifice to fruit ripeness, body (although they are often medium rather than full) or complexity. Do they offer extra health benefits? Perhaps, if you have certain allergies or a low tolerance for additives, including added acid or tannin.
If you are looking for wines that are preservative free, made in an amphora or have been labelled as natural wine, it is important to do your research. If the wines have a best by date on the label, make sure that you take note.
Some of the red preservative free wines will be cellar candidates for shorter term cellaring. As a red wine, there is enough alcohol and tannin to not need a hefty dose of sulphur to keep them fresh. I would recommend that until you know the nuances of the wine, drink it early. Certainly in the case of many white wines. Click here for some suggestions from my trip to the McLaren Vale.
I would recommend trying wines that are made in an amphora if you can find them as they are interesting drinking, although sometimes challenging. While I have tasted some amphora white wines that are fresh with facets of complexity, some have a distinct oxidised edge that only appeal to those who love the style. Approach them with an open heart and decide for yourself. If you are interested in trying an amphora wine, start with one that has been made by an experienced winemaker such as Glenn James from Ducks In a Row.
So, getting back to the original question: aren’t all wines natural? The answer is: yes, however…. some are more natural than others. Apparently….
Note: This article was first published in March 2014 on blahblahmagazine.com.au although it has been modified.