I’ve been drinking natural wine for about five years and making it for two years. I do this because I believe that it’s one of the things that I have the power to do to bring positive change to the world, to my life, and to my health. It’s part of my “ichi-go, ichi-e” philosophy.
When I first started drinking natural wine, I was also still drinking some conventional wines, but only from small wineries. This choice was satisfying my own conviction that each of us can influence the world in some way.
I knew that the viticultural practices seen in natural wine production were generally less harmful to the environment compared to conventional practices, and often bring benefit to the land and soil. I also wanted to support small producers, as I knew from both research and personal experience, that small producers tend to use agricultural resources more efficiently. I believed in the power of cultivating change at a grass roots level. Each of these choices, I felt, would make a difference to someone, somewhere along the way.
Then I tried a natural wine, the Le Petit Gimios ‘Muscat Sec de Roumanis’ from the Languedoc in France, which was so vibrant and pure, that I fell completely in love with the taste.
My appreciation for wine changed overnight. I had enjoyed the sensual nature of drinking wine before that, for the long & slow enjoyment that comes from a glass. I looked forward to the mystery and intrigue in each new bottle of wine, every little flavour discovery. But this wine spoke to me in a way that changed me, and convinced me to drink only natural wine ever since.
Natural wine is endlessly fascinating. The flavours are quite different to conventionally produced wines- more akin to food. Each one has its own personality, its own nuances and details to be discovered. These wines are made intuitively, to reflect the influences of the soil, climate, season, and winemaker. They’re alive with flavour. I know that for some people, their intensity is confronting- but not for me. There is an earthen truth in natural wine that can’t be found in conventional wines, a myriad of complex but uniquely beautiful sensations that they invoke.
There’s no strict definition of natural wine- many people take their own “truths” into consideration. The definition that I came up with whilst working as a sommelier has helped me explain the agroecological approach that I believe defines its production.
First and foremost, natural wine is about farming. At a minimum, farming practices are organic (while biodynamic and Demeter are better still) though not necessarily certified. Even better again is agroecological, though it’s fairly difficult to quantify and relies on a true appreciation of natural resource management and how ecosystem value can be created through the land being farmed. The grapes are generally dry-grown, meaning they’re not irrigated. Vines that can withstand heat and periods without water whilst not compromising on wine quality are preferentially grown in hot, dry areas.
In natural winemaking, a lot of people like to use the maxim “nothing added, nothing taken away” to describe the practices. In essence, natural winemakers don’t add yeast, sugar, tannin, nutrients, enzymes, or any of the other dozens of permissible additives allowed in Australia- just a small amount of sulphur (if any) to protect against oxidation and spoilage by bacteria. Natural wine is usually not filtered, never fined. Nor is there a desire to exert an overt oak influence on the wine, or do any of the many crazy processes that have been devised in the last few decades to manipulate a wine’s final character, such as reverse osmosis to influence the delicate balance between flavour and alcohol content. Oh, and adding water to dilute the juice before it ferments? Adding sugar to boost alcohol and palate weight whilst maintaining acidity? Not on your life.
Natural winemaking is pure and simple; farming grapes to optimise their character and then fermenting them to create wine in a way that respects and enhances this. It’s an 8000 year-old art form that is carried on today and is possibly one of the longest continuous cultural activities maintained by humans (Curry, 2017).