Natural wine. The words on every consumer’s quivering lip. Appearing in the zeitgeist in the early 2000’s and gradually making its way to every wine bar’s tag line descriptor, natural wine is something we are all interested in as we become more mindful of the things we put in our body. The first sip of a natural wine is nothing short of invigorating. We taste a cascade of flavours and there is an undeniable texture that causes these wines to almost glitter, it can only be described as feeling “alive”.
These words have become the gateway to a bottle of wine that lead to more virtuous, and frankly more enjoyable, consumption. However, there is a lot of confusion that arises around the term, and we don’t want you to be put off the concept by a complicated or negative experience. You may have heard the words, “organic”, “biodynamic”, or “natural”, but what do they really mean and how do they affect your wine’s taste, texture, ethos and mythos?
We know it can be a little intimidating when we first learn about wine, but once you wrap your head around a couple of these terms, your universe shall expand and your options diversify and you’ll be able to enjoy the liberating world that is natural wine. So, stay cool, calm, clear and collected and read on.
Where did wine come from?
People think that natural winemaking is new, but it’s in fact as ancient as wine itself. Natural wine making started around 7000BC in China, where the earliest winemaking evidence was discovered. The evidence was found at Jiahu, in the Yellow River Basin of the Henan province of northern China. It’s a fascinating site, full of relics that tell a story of a community that favoured art, music and consuming good food and wine. Analysis of clay vessels found there showed traces of fermented beverages made from rice, honey, hawthorn fruit and of course, grapes. Precisely that. Nothing but a raw product, placed in a vessel and left to ferment. This forms the basic premise behind natural winemaking; nothing added, nothing taken away, just good old fermented fruit.
Who else made wine?
Sites that homed other ancient civilisations show that winemaking was as ubiquitous across the globe, part of daily life and consumption. Qveri (a fermenting vessel made of clay, that is egg shaped) found buried underneath the ground in ancient Georgia, Armenia and Slovenia from 5000BC. Amphorae from the Romans are still scattered through Italy throughout Italy and beyond. Greeks in the early 6th century heralded wine as such an important elixir they visualised a deity around it; the image of Dionysus is etched into most minds when we consider the God of wine.
Wine was used ceremoniously, no matter the religion, mostly due to its mind-altering effects being attributed to becoming closer to God. Because of its importance and the ease of making it, families made wines for themselves and their friends in their homes. Vines grew in community spaces. Anyone could pick them or trade. Families built their own vessels to ferment in, made their own recipes. Wine was a human right. It may have been rudimentary and tasted relatively awful by today’s standards, but it was a drink that unified people, reflected their culture and ultimately, made you feel good. There is
nothing quite like sipping a glass or a tumbler or little mug full of cool, rich liquid, surrounded by people you love, eating food that warms your belly.
What happened next?
Since then, wine consumption and culture has exploded. We owe this predominantly to Europe’s expansion and exploration throughout the fifteenth century but its mass production is a by-product of the industrial revolution. Rapid advancements in technology have allowed for complex machinery to harvest fruit, chemicals to alter flavours to cater to market niches, preservatives to make the shelf life almost infinite. Marketing from huge companies began to roll out, confusing and hooking the consumer with imagery and catchy terms.
We are told what to drink, how to drink, when to drink. Cities grew and access to arable land was kept to people who made it their profession, so your everyday Joe didn’t have to make his own wine. He could walk down the road and pick up a bottle that was made and then sent from anywhere in the world. Vineyards and wineries have become factory farms for supermarkets. The fruit is covered in pesticides and herbicides to preserve it throughout the year and then in the winery it undergoes rigorous blending with a myriad of chemicals and constituents in order to get a tailored result, year in year out. This is unbelievably bad for the environment, and also our bodies!
It also has been linked to the exploitation of labour, it may be providing employment but in poor and dangerous conditions that aren’t paid well. Same goes for growers, huge companies dictate the market price of fruit, and can name their price when it comes to buying grapes in bulk, leaving smaller growers in near destitution. Wine is now a commodity and the soul and sacrality of ancient winemaking done by peasants and kings alike has been vigilantly replaced with what we can essentially define as a paint-by-numbers, money-centric enterprise. We do not taste the land, the place, the air and the fruit in commercial wine, we taste what they made it to taste like. We have all tasted a home grown tomato and reflected on the supermarket tomato, and the differences between the two, in flavour, mineral content, life, is comparable to the wine industry.
What's the difference?
to rely on specific farming techniques that work with the land. This is where the terms organic and biodynamic come in.
Organics is complicated and means a lot of things, but essentially it means using renewable resources and conserving energy, soil and water resources which in turn maintain environmental quality. The production cycle is as closed as possible with careful use of external inputs permitted by organic certification standards.
Biodynamics is an agricultural practice founded by Austrian scientist Rudolf Steiner. It relies on the lunar cycle and how the moon’s influence on plants dictates when things should be done in the vineyard. It also relies on specific botanicals as medicines for the earth, using natural ingredients for fertilisers, pest repellents, etc. These are two schools of many different variations on sustainable farming and growers pick and choose what best suits them. Permaculture practice, the Fukuoka method, the list goes on but all favour biodiversity, nutrient rich soil and ultimately, great fruit that didn’t come at any environmental cost.
It also means picking the grapes by hand, selecting carefully and being kind to the vine. In the cellar it means avoiding the use of chemicals or products that alter the flavour of the wine, letting the indigenous yeast that exist ambiently in the biosphere to ferment instead of packet yeast, and for some it means little to no preservatives like SO2. The use of sulfites as a preservative has been in practice since the 8th century, so it is hotly debated. You can assume that most natural winemakers use an indiscernible amount of SO2 in the winemaking process compared to the buckets in the conventional stuff or soft drinks, but sometimes they are entirely sulfite free. Where we get confused sometimes is in flavour profile, people think that wwines made this way become “funky” or “natty”. That’s not the case! Winemakers choose a variety of methods, oak ageing, stainless vats, introduction of air during the ferment, co-fermenting grapes, resting on lees...all of these things can make a natural wine look more classic and traditional, or boundary breaking and challenging.
All styles, all types, of wine depend on the winemaker, their ethos and method. Socially and economically, it means paying growers properly for their fruit. Paying workers an adequate wage for their work on the vineyard and in the cellar. It means creating fair and sustainable prices for the market that allows for this. It has also changed the conversation around our consumption of wine. It’s no longer the dichotomy between goon sacks and D.R.C, it’s everything and anything in between. Styles that the ancients favoured like macerated white wine, are coming in hard and fast. French farm wines like petillant naturals and piquettes are an alternative to Champagne, and celebrate that wine is for everyone and not solely for those with fur lined pockets. No conformity, just a reflection of what the wine wanted itself to be.
All in all, it creates a circle of sustainability of which we all reap the rewards. We get unadulterated wine that shows us the beauty of a particular site and a delicious, nourishing, soul quenching drink while growers and workers get to work safely, harmoniously, fairly. The Earth is the ultimate winner in this regard, showing its verdant truth without the burden of heavy metals, chemicals, machinery. You can
see it in the glass and in the eyes of the growers and makers themselves, a step back to what wine is really all about. Living and working harmoniously with the Earth and taking care of one another in the process. It’s also fucking delicious.