In case you missed it, natural wine is the new buzz word when it comes to choosing your next tipple. But what the hell is that exactly? Look, we’re no experts—unless it comes to tasting, that’s something we’re extremely good at—so, we decided to catch up with renowned Australian sommelier and founder of The Weekly Drop, Josh Renshaw.
Aside from having just about the coolest job in the world—his official title is Court-of-Master Sommelier—Josh has been in the food and wine industry for over 20 years, so yea, he knows his stuff.
If you’re looking to impress your mates on your next night out, or just want to know more about what your sipping, read on as Josh explains everything from sustainable to sulphur-free wine.
Organic is a term which is thrown around, so is bio-dynamic. These terms relate to how the grapes are grown, not how the wine is made. Organic farming uses no artificial pesticides or synthetic chemicals and should follow the principles of organic farming. Many vineyards in Australia practice organic farming and lots who don’t have certification also farm organically but just can’t put it on the label. I would always veer towards grape growers who farm organically, as I would when choosing my vegetables.
Bio-dynamic is a strict method of farming created by Rudolph Steiner in the 1920’s. For the most part, it’s taking organic farming to the next level. It follows strict guidelines and even phases of the moon for planting and harvesting. There are some vineyards who practice bio-dynamics and will probably always say so on the label. While there’s no scientific evidence about the benefits of bio-dynamics, I say why not practice farming which supports the regeneration of the soil and the eco-system surrounding it?
A natural wine is one made by bunging grapes into a vessel of some sort, squashed and that’s it. Grapes will ferment as a result of natural yeasts forming and a rise in temperature will create the sugars in the juice to turn into alcohol. With little, or no, human intervention a ‘natural’ wine is born. One thing to understand is natural wine is not unique, nor new. It is a process which has been used for centuries and in every grape growing country in the world, it’s how wine started. In Australia, the movement is relatively new and it pushes the idea of what a wine should be and taste like.
Skin Contact And Orange
‘Skin-contact’ and ‘orange’ refers to white wine which is left ‘on-skins’ to ferment. Normally the skins, seeds and stems are removed from the white grapes before fermentation. Leaving them on adds texture and creates a bolder more savoury version of the wine. This process of treating white wine like red wine dates back 6000 years to the Caucasus region (modern day Georgia) and the region of Jura in France, which has exceptional versions of orange wine. This process is being used by some Australian producers and there are many great examples of this.
Minimal intervention, to my mind, is how all good wine is made, not uniquely for natural wine. Why do you need to spray crops with chemicals, use machines to harvest, add artificial flavours, acid or sugars during the fermentation, clarification or aging process? This is not a good wine. Conversely, grapes left in a vat to self-inoculate ‘naturally’ without the guidance of an experienced wine maker can also lead to faulty and terrible wine. A natural wine refers to the wine making process, not how the grapes are grown, hence, not all ‘natural’ wine is good wine, or well-made wine.
The idea of putting ‘sulphur’ into wine seems a weird thing to do. Why would anyone do that? The fact is, sulphur is a naturally occurring element found in most foods. Dried fruit, packed salads and potato chips, to name a few, and in significantly higher quantities than it naturally occurs in wine. Sulphur is a preservative which, in small amounts added at bottling, keeps the wine from spoiling and adds years to its shelf life. It will not, as many attest, give you a hangover as side effects from sulphur affect a mere 1% of the population. There are, however, many who believe the 50grams or so of sulphur dioxide in a bottle of wine is worse for you then the 90mls of alcohol. I can’t believe that to be true, but I do believe sulphur can affect the taste of the wine so if it’s a taste differential you’re after, then try only sulphur-free wines. The test will be whether sulphur free wines are still as palatable after 20 or so years. My thoughts are probably, no. There are many incredible wines which are essentially made naturally except for the tiny amounts of sulphur added at the end but will never be regarded as ‘natural’ wines.
‘Sustainable’ agriculture refers to the principles of a farm integrating a healthy environment, or eco-system, with the advent of economic profitability and social equity. This would be the biggest question to ask before purchasing a bottle of wine—is it sustainable? Most small, family owned vineyards would be doing what they can to grow grapes and make wine sustainably for the next generation, but my thoughts are if they mention organic or bio-dynamic on the bottle, chances are, you purchasing the wine will help them round out the sustainable circle.
If you’re digging Josh’s knowledge on wine—who wouldn’t?—then you might want to sign up for The Weekly Drop where each week he selects a red and white variety of wine and sends it straight to your door. Sounds like the perfect way to get the weekend started to us!
Image Credit: Justin Aikin