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Mike Bennie – Understanding Natural Wine In Australia
Natural Wines – But What Are They?
Natural wine in Australia is nothing new. The near 200-year history of grape-growing and winemaking of Australia is riddled with touchstones that sit comfortably under the umbrella of natural wine. Dirt floor wineries, old, large format oak barrels, non-chemical farmed grapes, rudimentary or gentle winemaking practice, lower alcohols, wines that speak clearly of their place and time. It’s a motif that echoes through the chronology of Australian wine, and seen in the history lessons of Yalumba, Tyrrell’s, Best’s, Henshcke, and more, to name a few, and now, encouragingly, in their modern evolutions.
Sure, the advent of science-based understanding of winemaking, the focus on research and analytic exploration of wine, the advancement of technology, chemical science and a need for consistency and output have skewed the agenda, but living history in Australia shows that sustainable or non-chemical farming, and minimal intervention winemaking, are part of the foundation stone of Australia’s great wines.
The roar of the natural wine revolution sits for most Australian wine producers as a binary concept. Natural wine. Conventional wine. The lines are way more blurred. Indeed, the lack of construct around definition of natural wine is often the lynch pin for discussion, and a point mooted to place ridicule and ire on the genre.
Natural wine is wine produced from organic-farmed (to certification standard or certified), hand-picked grapes, with no additions in the winemaking process, no heavy mechanical intervention, no filtering or fining, and low or no sulphur additions.
The definition is simple. While the sulphur statement is nebulous, the rest of the definition is neatly put. A cohort of producers might call themselves natural or mislead, but defining the wines is relatively simple. Conceptually, the debate rages around definition, but a decade-plus into the arrival of modern Australian natural wine and the conversation should be shifting to encouragement and benefits around the genre.
The importance of Natural Wines:
Natural wine from Australia is a small percentage of market, minute even, but its presence and impact are marked and important. The increasing interest in farmers’ markets, organic produce, DIY vegetable and fruit growing, sourcing of ethical meat products, awareness of sustainability in seafood and general shift in ideology to better farming practices have shifted the gaze of gatekeepers, and, to an extent consumers.
Ideologically, it is increasingly important for restaurateurs, chefs and wine buyers to make a more marked connection between pantry and cellar. That organic, free-range, local, sustainable food products now form bedrocks in great dining experiences means that wine lists (and all drinks in general) must follow suit. To have a menu and kitchen that explores best food product rendered into fine plates but matched with agri-industrial, chemical farmed grapes turned into industrially-produced or intervened wine seems obtuse.
Increasingly, natural wine in Australia is speaking more clearly of an Australian cultural vernacular. That Australia doesn’t have a general body of simple, pure, refreshing, food-friendly ‘vin de soif’ wines of Europe is vexing. A country that eats outdoors, lives mostly by bodies of water, enjoys bounty of seafood, long warm seasons, takes cues from the grills and salads of Mediterranean cuisine, uses chilli, garlic and ginger of south east Asian cooking, drinks well over lunches, all feels more at ease with a genre of wines that comes unadorned with winemaking overlay.
Sure, there’s a wealth of aromatic whites, leaner chardonnay, curious white wines of increasingly interesting textural nuance, whites of emerging varieties, world class rose and lighter reds to occupy some of the space, but alongside, the celebration of diversity and inherent sense of drinkability from the oeuvre of natural wine is increasingly important.
Of course, not all Australian wine is produced ala ‘wines for thirst’ conjured by the phrase vin de soif. Progressively, the natural wine scene is holding aloft its fine wine pedigree, particularly from the older generations of wine producers, where inherent quality goes hand-in-hand with less-is-more mantra. A breadth of expressions makes this genre one of the most potent and exciting to explore anywhere, globally. It’s time.
Natural Wines To Try:
Express Winemakers Rose 2016 – Great Southern, in far-flung southern Western Australia, supports a hot-bed of avant garde wine producers that includes Brave New Wines, La Violetta, Freehand, and, here, Express Winemakers. Express is led by young gun winemaker Ryan O’Meara, showcasing wild-edged wines of charisma but committed winemaking approach. This rose is vivacious, set to tangy red fruits and shows a good dusting of mixed spice. The wine speaks clearly with refreshment factor.
Jauma Sand On Schist Chenin 2016 – One of the pioneers of the modern incarnation of natural wine in Australia, winemaker James Erskine has worked alongside biodynamic farming expert Fiona Wood for around a decade. This chenin is superb drinking, lightly chalky, shows a good belt of saline character, and generally delights for its electric personality and high thirst-slaking appeal. It’s in a superb place right now, set between park-wine drinking and something classier.
Gentle Folk Come Down The Mountain Chardonnay 2017 – Gentle Folk is Gareth Belton and family, who have a firm hand on the grape-growing aspect of their production, eschewing chemical intervention and focussing on holistic raising of grapes. The wines have increased in seriousness and quality, with this, a pure, gently savoury, fresh-feeling chardonnay of medium weight and quiet concentration, a strong argument to follow this producer.
Castagna Un Segreto Sangiovese Syrah 2014 – Castagna are a producer before their time, steeped in biodynamic farming and proffering a mantra of minimal intervention before it became common parlance. This inventive blend shows strongly of pleasing sour cherry fruit character, game meat savouriness, pepper, and is bound in ribbons of silty tannins. It’s an engaging wine, elegant and svelte, but best of all highly drinkable.
To explore the full range of Natural Australian wines available here in the UK explore The Australian Cellar’s Natural Wine selection here.