With the organic and local foodie movements abuzz, it was only a matter of time before it moved into wine. Organic wines have been on the market for several years, following the same ideals as organic food: the absence of chemicals during growth and production. But while the organic label is a legal certification, involving several rules and regulations, the natural wine movement is a horse of a different color, cropping up all over the world.
Natural winemaking, unlike organic or biodynamic winemaking, is not a legal certification, but rather a term applied to wines made only using native and natural yeasts. Sulfur dioxide is usually used as both an antimicrobial and an antioxidant in winemaking; it has been an important part of winemaking for centuries. The resulting sulfites can, however, cause allergic reactions in some people, and the natural winemaking movement seeks to eliminate its use in the making of wine. While natural wines can be organic, biodynamic or both, these criteria are not required.
Australian Natural Wines
Some Australian winemakers are at the forefront of the natural winemaking movement. In Sydney, natural wines are the fad at certain trendy wine bars, where imported wines from the Old World used to be the norm. Today, natural wines are beginning to encroach on this former rule; the wines do not resemble those that we're used to drinking from Italy, Spain or France, and instead take on their own character and distinctive flavor. Several producers -- such as those who are members of the Natural Selection Theory group -- have begun producing wines that, they feel, will appeal more to the public.
This is not the case for Huon Hoke, who believes that these wines, while promoting a good cause, do not bring anything to the most important quality of wine: the flavor. According to Hoke, many of these wines are less-than-stellar or even undrinkable. Hoke does, however, point out that the movement is bringing more interest to growing biodynamically or organically in order to cater to a public craving a less artifical winemaking process, which is definitely a plus.
It's important to note that this is just one opinion. Natural wines are definitely catching on in Australia, and this can't be just because of their status as "natural." While many of these wines don't resemble those we may be used to, the flavors are definitely not all "offensive." Many of these wines are quite intriguing and have been compared to other naturally-made fermented beverages, like ale or cider. Approaching natural wine with an open mind and no expectations is definitely one of the keys to success.
French Natural Wines
In France, the natural wine movement has been taking off for quite some time as well. The home of natural wine, France began producing it in certain regions, like Beaujolais, when it was postulated that the distinctive flavor of wine from this area might not be coming from the wine at all, but from the yeast used to make it. Certain independent wine bars (including this OA foodie's favorite -- Le Chapeau Melon) have been serving organic wines and natural wines for years, to accolades from winelovers.
In France, however, this movement is regarded not so much as an advance, but as a return to the old way of doing things. Viticulture in France is a time-honored practice, and the French, with their fervent respect and ardor for the past, love the idea of reverting back to the "original" way of doing things: growing grapes without pesticides, picking the grapes by hand (which helps to preserve the natural yeasts), and fermenting with these natural yeasts. What is interesting is that, in France, the use of sulphur is not necessarily a no-no. Many natural winemakers choose not to add it, but it's not quite as feared as in the Australian natural winemaking world.
In a strange and paradoxical turn of events, these French natural wines are starting to become popular in Australia, where one of the seeds for the movement was based in the fact that French wines were too omnipresent in Oz.
UK Natural Wines
The key is in balance. In the UK, some winemakers and supporters of the natural wine movement want to do as the Australians do, completely eliminating artificial yeasts. Many winemakers, however, prefer the idea of leaving this yeast out only when possible, and not to the detriment of the wine's flavor. As a result, what was once one giant wine fair in London on a weekend in late May has since become two: one devoted to 100% pure, natural wine, and the other to French biodynamic wine, highlighting further the differences between the two.
Image: Quinn Dombrowski