Fortunately for me, I have worked for almost a decade now in various popular and well regarded restaurants across Sydney, which has allowed me the unbearable task of having to taste a lot of different both natural and conventional wines. My thoughts on the taste, texture and aroma of natural wines has done a 180 compared to 5 years earlier. I find these wines to be exciting, vibrant, fresh, thought and emotion provoking, which in my opinion is very different to that of some of the more conventional styles of wine.
These wines tell a story. As my knowledge of wine has grown, I have come to appreciate more and more the story these wines tell of the earth they have grown from. The nuances of taste and aroma in natural wines convey a truthful and unadulterated story, which I think sometimes conventional wines seem to lack. I think that this story also can be attributed the winemakers themselves, who very often are very interesting, exciting and inspiring people. Their attitudes, beliefs and sometimes madness are all in full display in these wines. Just take Nicolas Joly as an example.
The more I have read in to the labeling of wine debate in Australia, I have come to better understand one of the biggest issues with conventional winemaking practices. That is the widespread use of chemical sprays and additives used in the growing of vineyards and also in the final adjustments of wine. This I think has detrimental effects on both our own health, but also on the health of the earth, which for the most part I believe we really take for granted. I have said it before, but the conventional side of winemaking practices is unsustainable and need to be put under the microscope more by the general public as we hold the power in making a change.
This is merely a personal opinion and I am not saying through this piece that either conventional or natural wine is better than the other. There are shining examples on both categories, and equally some truly terrible ones.
This is why I love natural wine.
Why I love natural wine.
I first tried a natural wine I think back somewhere around 2012. If my memory serves me correctly, it was a natural wine produced by Harkham winery located up in the Hunter Valley. I remember my initial reaction to the taste, texture, and aroma being one that many people experiencing natural wine for the first time have; I found it to be quite unpleasant. The taste, texture and smell were like nothing I had ever been exposed to before. Until that point I had only ever drank more conventional style wines and I had enjoyed them.
I remember in my head thinking that natural and biodynamic wine was horrible and how could people drink this stuff. Fortunately, this experience spiked an intrigue in me, and as much as I did not like it then, I wanted to know more and fortunately as my palette grew and changed, so did my thoughts and approach to these wines. Some 5 years later and older, I have well and truly acquired a passion, interest and respect for these wines and their winemakers.
One of the big questions in the labeling debate is whether or not listing all the materials used in the production of a wine will even be read by a consumer. It is almost so engrained in to our uneducated minds that a wine is a ‘natural’ product, and that of course there won’t be anything else besides fermented grape juice in the bottle?
I read this article that was publish some years ago now in the New York Times that some winemakers in the US had gone to the lengths of listing all the ingredients that went in to making their wine. The verdict? Well, it was underwhelming to say the least. The winemaker, Randal Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard in Santa Cruz, California said that mostly consumers took no notice of the newly added information. It is worth noting that Grahm follows the principles of biodynamics, so his ingredient list was very, very minimal.
Does this confirm that consumers just don’t care, or is it a matter of consumers just really being unaware of the processes used in winemaking? I am thinking the latter. A few other winemakers followed Grahm in the US and have begun labeling their bottles appropriately, but this accounts for only a spick of dirt in a vineyard that covers not only the US, but worldwide. The initiative shown by Grahm may not have had an instant impact, but it is a very important step in creating change and moving towards more transparency in winemaking. If more and more winemakers can adopt this approach, then surely this will train people to re evaluate wines over time. There will always be a section of people who just don’t really care, but if you have a look at how far organic foods have come in the last 5-10 years, you would have to conclude that a change is possible.
What do you think?
In what can only be deemed as another nod towards the use of chemicals and additives in Australian produced wine, Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) permitted the use of another four artificial products to aid in winemaking. They gave the all clear for the use of these materials on August 9 2017.
The four materials that have been added to the Food Standards Code are:
- Ammonium bisulphate
- polyvinylimidazole-polyvinylpyrrolidone co-polymers (PVI/PVP)
- Silver Chloride
It is worth noting that silver chloride is only permitted for use by overseas winemakers whose wines are being sold in Australia, and not to be used by Australian winemakers.
In my opinion this is another step backwards on the issue of transparency of wine in Australia. With the approval of the first three materials to be used by Australian winemakers by the FSANZ, it is allowing winemakers to further tinker and tamper with wines to achieve a pre-determined result. It is also a further loss for the ecology of the earth, which is perhaps the bigger issue here and one that does not seem to be considered by the FSANZ. I also think that by approving more materials for use, it further cements the opinions of wine makers and drinkers in other parts of the world of Australia as a wine factory, and perhaps cheapening Australian wine as a brand.
Further information can be found here:
So what has this got to do with the issue of wine labeling in Australia?
Mental Notes was an opportunity for a group of wine lovers to come together and taste, enjoy and talk over some truly exciting and vibrant wines, which are a true reflection of their vintage and the terroir the vineyards are grown upon. This is a far cry from some conventional wines, which again mask a wine with additives to replicate previous vintages, or to achieve a pre determined flavour profile.
Wine and wine events are typically cast in a stereotype that conjures up notions of elitism and superiority. Mental Notes and the crowd that attended really broke this stereotype I thought, and created a feeling of fun and excitement. All the winemakers were approachable and friendly, again a far cry from the traditional stereotype often cast over wine, wine makers and wine drinkers. I think a person with little to no knowledge would have been about to walk in and feel comfortable in the environment.
As my interest in wine and viticulture continues to grow, events like Mental Notes really drive home why wine is something that is enjoyed, and has been enjoyed by so many around the globe for so long. It really is an exciting time for wine, particularly natural and biodynamic wine in Australia, and Mental Notes really embodied this feeling. I think the turn out also highlights that this millennial generation in particular cares a lot about where their wine comes from and in particular how it is being made.
The next wine event to showcase natural and biodynamic wines is Rootstock, which runs from the 25th-26th of November at Carriageworks in Sydney. I for one am really looking forward to this event, and I think many other people are too. This is another chance to advocate and push for wines which advocate for responsible growing and making practices, and an opportunity to further introduce people to what I think is a very exciting movement.
Over the weekend I sipped and spat my way through a bunch of incredible wines from some of Australia’s top and paramount natural wine makers. This is the third year that Mental Notes has taken place, and I dare say that this was the most successful thus far. It billed itself as ‘more than just a wine tasting’, and it really was. Mental Notes is the creation of Joel Amos. Amos also runs Australia’s top natural and biodynamic online wine store, DRNKS.com. Joel also had a hand in making a couple of the wines available on the day, in particular a delicious riesling from the Clare Valley, made with minimal intervention and little to no added sulphites or any other preservatives.
This was like no other wine event I have attended before. Unlike other wine events, the demographic here was far younger than other events I have attended. This was very much an event for the new wave of millennial wine drinkers, whom are very much at the forefront of the biodynamic and natural wine movement that is sweeping across Australia. Leading this charge is a fellow named Mike Bennie. Bennie is one of Australia’s leading wine writers for the likes of Gourmet Traveler and Wine Australia. Bennie is also a vocal advocator, influencer and guru of the natural wine movement in Australia. He is a man with a certain aura around him, and this was in full display at Mental Notes. Credentials aside, Bennie is happy to have a yarn and give you time; he is also the first to top up your empty glass.
Of the 30 plus makers to show at Mental Notes, some wine makers that I was particularly excited to see and taste were: Jauma wines (who’s grenache recently took out the top honors with gourmet traveler), Smallfry wines, Brave New Wines, Xavier and Gentle Folk.
Continues in next post
Our society today is becoming increasingly conscious of the footprint we create through our consumption. Whether its the free range organic eggs instead of eggs from battery farms, or making sure that the steak we eat comes from free roaming, pasture fed, happy cows. We are now looking more and more at our wines to offer these same values. The Australian organic market report stated that organic grape production had gone up 120% between 2011 and 2014.
Organic wine is produced by using organic grapes. This means no synthetic pesticides, herbicides or fungicides have been used in the growing of these grapes. An organic grower takes a much more ecological approach to the maintenance and growing of their vineyards. This ecological mindset replaces that of a conventional one, in the sense that if a problem, lets say say a pest infestation occurs, that instead of nuking them with a powerful chemical, they will look to what can be done to naturally prevent and stop this infestation. This might be identifying a natural predator for said pest infestation. These practices lend themselves to creating a much more natural eco system for a vineyard or any crop for that matter to grow in.
Biodynamic wine is based on principles that were developed by Austrian philosopher Rudolph Steiner in the 1920’s. Steiner said that biodynamic farming is a “holistic understanding of agricultural processes”. These processes and approach sees the vineyard as a part of the wider galaxy or solar system. Vineyards and crops are planted and tendered to in accordance with universal forces, like lunar calendars and moon phases. Astrology plays a big part in the decisions made in biodynamics. Fertilisers also adopt this holistic, almost ritualistic approach too. Preparation 500 is a common fertiliser used, the cow poo is put inside of a cow horn and then buried for months, before finally being applied to vineyards.
Its very interesting stuff.
Check out the following links if you want to know a bit more organics and biodynamics.
Back on to the topic of wine labelling, or lack there of. As we know, wine and other alcohol is exempt from having to label the ingredients on their bottles. However, there are certain allergens and additives that must be declared on any ‘food’ product. These are the allergens that are relevant or most commonly seen on wine bottles.
Egg and egg products
You will see this when egg white has been used as a processing aid. It is used in the fining stage of a wine and also is added to help control bacteria
Fish and fish products
Isinglass, the most common fish product used, is obtained from the dried swim bladders of fish. It is used as a clarification agent in wines.
Milk and Milk products
This is used when milk has been used in fining a wine.
Sulpher is added to most wines. It is a synthetic compound, but it is also produced naturally by yeast in the fermentation process. It is added to stabilise wines so they can be stored and kept without spoiling. Many people are allergic to sulphur, so it can only be addd to a level of 250ppm.
Tree nuts and sesame seeds
Tannin is sometimes added to wines. Again tannin occurs naturally, but sometimes more is needed. It is often made from tree nuts and or sesame seeds.
Again , what strikes me as interesting in regards to the labelling debate is why should only these allergens be labeled and not all additives used, as we see in food products? I understand that these allergens can potentially harm someone who comes in to contact with them, but why are we not given the choice as a consumer to know beyond these allergens, the additives used in making a wine?
What do you think?