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?
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?