Natural movement gains legs
‘Natural’ is the buzz word in the wine world with the winemaking trend springing up in Paris and recently reaching into other countries. While these wines are often delicious, they can also be a risky alternative, writes JOHN WILSON
WE LIKE TO think of wine as a natural product, made only from the juice of freshly picked grapes. After all, the back-label doesn’t have a long list of additives as found on every other supermarket product. Sadly, the truth is not quite so simple. Under EU rules, a bottle of wine is not required to list any additives or treatments used in its production. There has been some pressure to introduce labelling, but the large producer countries (France, Italy, Spain and others) are understandably not too keen on the idea. Should we be worried? Probably not, although in their book Authentic Wine, toward natural and sustainable winemaking, Jamie Goode, a leading British wine journalist and biologist, and master of wine Sam Harrop, list the ingredients in a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. They include grapes, acidity regulator (potassium bicarbonate) preservative (potassium metabisulphite), and copper sulphate. It was made using antioxidants (carbon dioxide, nitrogen) yeast, yeast nutrient (diammonium phosphate) and clarified using bentonite, filtration and pectinolytic enzymes. Not quite so pure after all.
Natural wine is the current buzz phrase in the wine world. The movement, which sprang up in wine bars in Paris a decade or more ago, has taken firm root, first in France and more recently in other countries. In the past six months, two books have been published on the subject, including that mentioned above, and another by American journalist Alice Feiring. UK importer Les Caves de Pyrene now lists a large number of natural wines, many of which feature in their London wine bars, Terroirs, Brawn and Soif.
Natural wines taste different. Producers let wine take its own course, with all the attendant risks. They argue that minimal intervention allows the “terroir” or “sense of place” to shine through. Sceptics say the opposite is true, and you are merely tasting faults.
Defining a natural wine can be difficult. All agree that it is a wine that has been made with minimal additions of sulphur dioxide or none at all. It can also mean that the vineyards are farmed organically, or bio-dynamically; that no sugar or acid has been added to the wine, that only naturally occurring yeasts were used; that the wine has not been manipulated by techniques such as cryo-extraction, reverse osmosis, micro-oxygenation (all used to increase concentration or “soften” wine) no oak-ageing, and that minimal fining and filtration has taken place. All of the above and many more techniques are commonly used to make wine acceptable to our palate. However, there is no certification for natural wine, and producers are therefore free to make up their own rules.
Sulphur dioxide occurs naturally as a byproduct of fermentation. However, it has been added to wine in some form for centuries. It kills off harmful bacteria in grape juice and acts as an antioxidant and preservative, keeping wine fresh for an extended period. Without it, modern industrial-scale wine production would be impossible. Until fairly recently, it was added in large quantities but thanks to improved technology and a greater understanding of the wine-making process, levels have decreased.
There can be health problems associated with sulphur dioxide. A small proportion of asthmatics are allergic to high levels of it and some wine drinkers believe it is responsible for causing headaches. Others argue that rather than causing your hangover, sulpher dioxide lowers the level of biogenic amines, including histamines, and actually lessens the likelihood of a sore head. In addition, several winemakers argue that the addition of sulphur increases the terroir in a wine, as it kills off bacteria that produce off-flavours.
My first encounter with no-sulphur wines took place some 15 years ago in the cellars of a small producer in the Northern Rhône. There I tasted a range of superb red and white wines, including some wonderful older vintages; it all seemed very promising. However, when the samples requested arrived in Dublin, some were very good, but others seemed dead or oxidised, and others had very weird, funky flavours.
I remained sceptical of the natural wine movement until recently; some I tried seemed to taste the same, and not always particularly nice either. There were plenty of exceptions, but then we have no way of knowing just how natural a particular wine is. Last autumn I attended a tasting of natural wines hosted by
Le Caveau, a wine importer based in Kilkenny. Before starting, I noted that the line-up included three wines I had featured in this column during 2011, including the wonderful Vouvray Sec La Dilettante 2010, the Morgon Côtes de Puy from Foillard and the Cecchin Malbec. Obviously, I don’t dislike them too much. Not all of the wines were brilliant. Some I would consider faulty or borderline. Yet others had character and expression that made them stand out as really interesting and enjoyable.
There is no doubt that modern industrial winemaking can be boring; lots of very similar well-made wines with soft supple ripe fruit and no rough edges. It also means consumers are less likely to come across poor or faulty wines. Natural wine offers a clear alternative; wines that are delicious at times, and better for the environment too, but there certainly risks involved. I include four natural wines below, all well worth trying.
Bottles of the week
Casa Coste Piane, Prosecco di Valdobbiadene, 11%, €17.95A lovely light refreshing sparkling wine with lean pineapple fruits and a crisp dry finish. Light years ahead of the standard cheap sweetish Prosecco, you can buy for a tenner in just about every shop in Ireland. Stockists: Redmond’s Ranelagh; McGuinness Wine Merchants, Dundalk; Le Caveau, Kilkenny
Montlouis Minérale 2010, Frantz Saumon, 13.5%, €18.95A lovely herby nose with pears, rich complex honeycomb and beeswax on the palate, with a real mineral tang and lemon zest on the finish. Stockists: Baggot St Wines; The Corkscrew, Chatham St, Dublin 2; Fallon Byrne, Exchequer St Dublin 2; Redmond’s, Ranelagh, Le Caveau, Kilkenny
Gran Cerdo Tempranillo, Vino de Mesa, 13%, €12.50A large proportion of inexpensive Spanish Tempranillo tastes over-oaked and confected. This unoaked version had good clean cherry fruits, nice supporting acidity and a cleansing minerality. Well-made wine at the price. Stockists: McGuinness Wines, Dundalk; 64Wine, Glasthule; Le Caveau
Ribeira Sacra 2010 Peza do Rei, Adega Cachín César Enriquez Diéguez, 13%, €18.25Regular readers will know that I love red wines from this part of northwestern Spain, and this was one of my favourite wines of the tasting; fresh juicy raspberry and cherry fruits, with a lovely minerality. I could drink this all night long. Stockists: The Corkscrew; Le Caveau