Since learning about wine from Colm McCann as part of the Ballymaloe Cookery School 12-week course, I've always been interested in the world of wine and wanted to learn more. My love for natural wines has piqued my interest again and driven me to take the WSET courses and exams.
The Wine and Spirit Education Trust provides globally recognised education and qualifications in wines, spirits and saké for professionals and enthusiasts. I’ve found levels 2 and 3 to be incredible, providing a detailed understanding of grape-growing and wine-making. There is very little included about natural, biodynamic and organic wines so I have had to read and listen and learn elsewhere for this. Realising how these wines are produced and tasting them has continued to prove one of the best ways of understanding these wines.
Meeting and talking to growers at various wine-tasting events is hugely beneficial. WSET is set to update its diploma in 2019 to include assignments to evaluate current wine trends and provide more in-depth coverage on wine, with the removal of spirits. This year, I will hopefully progress on to the WSET diploma and continue to learn more about the fascinating and ever-evolving world of wine.
Au natural . . .
It’s been three years now since I sat at the bar in The Black Pig in Kinsale, sipping what was to be the first natural wine that would make a lasting impression on me. I had tasted organic and biodynamic wines before but nothing stopped me in my tracks like this one. The slight fizzy texture along with the beautiful, fresh, fruit-forward flavour of La Stoppa Trebbiolo Rosso suddenly opened up a whole new world of possibilities for me.
Delicious wine brimming with life, perfect with food, easy to drink and with none of the nasty unknowns that come with regular wine. These wines are made using naturally occurring yeasts and are not filtered or fined. Very little sulphur if any is added (sulphur is a hot topic but I think a little is fine and if they need some to avoid having the entire vintage ruined then so be it!). I’ve found some of the nicest examples surprisingly affordable. Is natural wine too good to be true?
Low intervention is always music to my ears where food or wine is concerned. Less work in the winery means even more work in the vineyard. Having to work so closely with nature and tailor their viticultural practices to be in line with climate change as well as, in some circumstances, lunar cycles is no easy feat.
Working with the flora and fauna of the vineyard, the world of natural wine is fascinating. How wonderful it would be if all wine was made this way. There can be the odd bottle though. I have battled my way through a few glasses where I couldn’t decide if the background notes of barnyard, hay and compost bucket were favourable qualities? Yes they screamed natural, but not in a good way.
Often, they smell worse than they taste. Much more preferable to smelling promising and tasting poorly. So not all natural wines are created equal. Especially as there is no official definition for what constitutes a natural wine. The quality is all, of course, dependent on the grower and winemaker and the countless decisions they make to bring their grapes from vine to bottle. We place so much trust in good natural winemakers and they reward us with incredible wines.
The absolutely delightful thing about natural wines is that they are great with food. Really great. There’s a purity to them that I can’t quite pinpoint. An air about them that makes me feel like I should be drinking the stuff from a golden goblet, gossiping about the latest gladiator battle whilst tearing apart a bread roll on the stone steps of the Colosseum. It speaks to me on so many levels.
Once you taste a really good natural wine, I’m afraid, there is no going back. You will never look at regular wine again. What a wonderful world it would be if wine labels cited every intervention that human hands made in getting that wine to the bottle.
The same is true for food. Investigative food journalist Joanna Blythman forever expresses the same lament. If we only knew how some of our food arrived on our plates, we wouldn't touch it, let alone eat it. Ranging from fungicide sprays, bleach washes and other chemicals used in processing our food.
Reasons for choosing organic are now obvious to the average consumer, but biodynamic carries even more benefits. Guided by the lunar cycles, crops are farmed and harvested biodynamically with the rhythm of the earth and cosmos using a sustainable, holistic approach and are treated with organic tinctures that treat the plant and enrich the soil. And the wine tastes great. Again, what keeps coming up with these wines is their vivacity and structure – it’s quite undeniable.
A really magical feature I’ve discovered is that natural wines are not as sensitive to oxygen as regular wines. Sometimes, they even benefit from being able to breathe and can be transformed when tasted a few hours, or even a day, after. After opening one bottle, I thought I had finally found a truly undrinkable natural wine – but after decanting it and leaving it breathe for an hour, it came good.
A wonderful way to explore natural wine for yourself would be to go to some of Ireland’s restaurants or wine bars that are now specialising in such wines. It’s no coincidence that all of Ireland’s newest Michelin-starred restaurants favour these natural wines.
My own favourite wine bar here in Cork is L'Atitude 51, where Beverley Matthews and her team have curated a truly wonderful dynamic menu, available by the glass or bottle. Recently opened Loose Canon on Drury Street in Dublin has arrived at just the right time. Perfectly placed, it has a fantastic selection of all natural wines and Irish cheeses. Sheridans' cheese shops in Dublin, Galway and Carnacross in Co Meath also list a vast number of natural, organic and biodynamic wines.
Off-licences like O'Briens have a number of biodynamic and organic listed. Bradleys Off-Licence in Cork has an ever increasing range with some real gems and knowledgeable staff that are used to these wines and realise it's not a passing trend but here to stay and grow. Le Caveau in Kilkenny has a great website too, where you can order bottles of your choice or a divine mixed case of low-intervention wines to discover at your own pace.
Natural wine tips
- Most natural wines benefit from being slightly chilled
- The majority of natural wines are for drinking and enjoying young. Although some are age-worthy
- Vintages are not usually stated on the bottle
- If you're not too keen on the taste, leave it breathe a little and give it another chance
- Don't judge the wine solely on smelling it, it can often taste completely different and develop wonderful flavours on the palate that were not promised on the nose
- Go with your gut. Natural wines are approachable and made to be enjoyed