Artisanal organic natural wine going mainstream

Graphic: Richard Dale
Graphic: Richard Dale

Flavoursome and exciting, natural wine is the artisanal alternative that is steadily becoming more mainstream, writes Rosie Herdman.

''There's always been a natural movement, it just didn't have a banner to fly under,'' says Stephen Wong MW.

The Wellington-based master of wine, founder of Budburst festival and the wine education and events provider Wine Sentience, is talking about natural wine, the industry's rebellious cousin that is becoming steadily more mainstream.

As more people embrace an artisanal, organic sensibility into many aspects of their lives, it makes sense that this would also encompass alcoholic beverages. Natural wine speaks to those of us who are after something, as the name would suggest, close to how nature intended it to be, made with as little human intervention as possible.

In order for a wine to be classified as natural, it should contain minimal additives and use organic grapes that are farmed with biodynamic methods. This is a system of agriculture that works to restore and maintain the health of the soil, as well as emphasising crop diversification and the avoidance of chemical soil treatments. It views soil fertility, plant and animal health as essential and intertwined parts of the same whole.

During its time in the cellar, very little is done to natural wine to alter its original state. Whereas many conventional wines use filtration methods to clarify or stabilise what's in the bottle, its natural counterpart can be cloudy or slightly effervescent, and sediment may remain in the bottle.

''They have a flavour to them that tastes a lot more raw and less 'made','' says Wong. ''They incorporate kookier styles, which are fashionable at the moment, like orange wines, which are white grapes fermented with the skins on like a red wine, and pet-nat.''

For those not familiar with the name, pet-nat, or petillant naturel (which translates to naturally sparkling) is a wine made using an ancient method where the wine is bottled before primary fermentation is finished, without adding secondary yeasts or sugars. This is different from conventional sparkling wines or Champagne, which are finished before undergoing a second fermentation in the bottle with added yeasts and sugars. Pet-nat is rustic, often bottled with a crown cap (like beer) and can be slightly unpredictable when it's opened.

''It is jubilant wine that's nice to drink now. It's also usually very low in preservatives so if you have any kind of preservative allergy, it's great for you.''

Wine writer Jo Burzynska has witnessed the growth of the industry from a journalist's point of view and credits a handful of key players for raising the profile of natural wine in New Zealand.

Photos: Christine O'Connor
Photos: Christine O'Connor

She says Wong has been an important influence in getting the wine on restaurant lists; while Dan Gillett, owner of wine distribution company Wine Diamonds, is pivotal in importing natural wines to New Zealand; and Andrew Hedley, of Framingham, brought the wines into the country via his United Kingdom distributors when hardly any were available in this part of the world.

''Then, all of a sudden lots of winemakers were showing me their secret experimental 'orange' wines they were making out the back and you could actually start to buy natural wines made in New Zealand,'' she says.

Burzynska believes it will infiltrate the mainstream, and can see practices across the wine industry being adopted from natural methods. ''Even big producers such as Pernod-Ricard are releasing affordable 'wild ferment' wines, which, although not natural, are indicative of the direction things are heading.''

She highlights some common misconceptions around natural wine - one being that they're all faulty.

''This was a view that tended to be held by older members of the wine establishment, very possibly based on not trying enough,'' she says.

''Yes, there are faulty natural wines, and the faults can be more pronounced as natural winemaking means no processes to polish things away. However, good producers using good grapes are making wines with a wonderful purity. And, to be honest, I'd rather have a wine that's a bit funky than something ultra-bland where everything's been filtered away.''

So, what constitutes a 'natural wine'? While there is no legal definition, Burzynska says they're wines with nothing added and nothing taken away. ''Which means, for me, to be truly natural wines they should be from organic and biodynamic vineyards, not just made without chemical additions in the winery.''

As awareness of this style of wine increases, Gillett says he's seeing people move away from skin-contact, textural orange wines to white wines - still natural, of course, but more clean and familiar tasting. Chilled reds are also growing in popularity, which is a delicious way of drinking lighter red wines and dark rose.

''I think people are after something cleaner tasting, maybe a little bit more approachable too. They're not drinking it out of intrigue, they're drinking it because they find it pure and delicious,'' he says. ''It was always going to happen. You introduce people to the far end of the spectrum and then it bounces back a bit and we find something in the middle.''

In the near future, Gillett predicts people will move away from drinking cloudy pet-nats, and start drinking disgorged sparkling wines - disgorgement being a process by which sediment and yeast is removed from the bottle to take away the cloudiness. This can be done without technological intervention, and leaves what Gillett says is a sparkling wine that's more ''striking and pure''.

Otago Daily Times wine columnist Mark Henderson says the natural wines area is fast-moving and evolving, with many Central Otago wineries dipping their toes into production.

That includes Mount Edward, Carrick, Aurum, Valli and Nanny Goat,which have all released orange wines, with the first three and Two Paddocks releasing sulphur-free wines.

Sato, at Pisa, is also producing natural wines while Mount Edward and Carrick have also produced pet-nat.

A selection of natural wines from New Zealand producers.
A selection of natural wines from New Zealand producers.

Natural winemakers

Gisborne winery Millton use organic and biodynamic methods, and their textural Libiamo range wines are ‘‘unfiltered, unfined and uncompromised’’.

Gentle Folk
One from across the Ditch. South Australian makers Gentle Folk offer fresh, vibrant and interesting wines that will also appeal to a broad audience.

Under both his Kindeli and Don labels, Alex Craighead offers low-intervention, ‘‘living’’ wines by way of his Nelson-based vineyard.

The Hermit Ram
This North Canterbury-based winery, helmed by Theo Coles, uses traditional methods and vines grown on active limestone soil.

- NZME, additional reporting by Otago Daily Times.

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