Natural wine 101: What it is and why you should drink it

Can you imagine a world where drinking a little too much wine at dinner won't leave you with a sore head the next morning? Natural wine could be the answer.

Wine has been made and drunk for thousands of years, predating even Roman times. Back before wine was mass-produced, the drink was made by crushing grapes and leaving them until they fermented, with no yeasts, vitamins, enzymes, tannins or sulphites added.

Now, turning away from the complicated ageing processes and filtrations popular in the wine world, some winemakers have stripped the process back to what it was all those years ago.

What is natural wine?

While there is no formal definition, natural wines mostly use organically-farmed grapes, which are transformed into wine without adding or removing anything - the overarching philosophy is non-intervention. The process usually uses no additives, preservatives or filtration, resulting in a unique taste that is distinctly different from conventional commercial wine.

Steve Caracatsanoudis - a partner and winemaker at Robinvale Wines, a winery which has been making natural wines since the '80s - says that, because there are no written criteria to adhere to during the natural winemaking process, the definition is open to interpretation.

"In my opinion, a natural wine firstly has to be certified organic and biodynamic," Steve says. "Secondly, there’s an assumption that there are no additives used during the process."

Producing natural wines "takes enormous skill, awareness and sensitivity," according to France's only female Master of Wine and passionate advocate of natural wines, Isabelle Legeron.

Lou Chalmer, an agroecologist and natural winemaker at Yume and ANALOG, tells me that although natural wine currently only occupies about 0.5% of the Australian wine market, it's set to rise to 5% in the next couple of years.

"When I got involved in natural wines, it wasn’t really that commonly known a term. I got a lot of flak from people who had been in the industry a long time, who were sceptical that no one would buy the wines. And yet we’ve seen the market share of natural wines in Melbourne grow steadily over the last few years," Lou says.

Lou Chalmer from Yume and ANALOG / Image credit: Angus Gibbs

What does it look like and taste like?

To look at, natural wines are sometimes - but not always - cloudier than conventional wines.

"I think what characterises them primarily is the real intensity of flavour and the vitality and personality of the wine. They’re always so full of life and three-dimensional on the palate, particularly compared to more conventionally-produced wines. They taste like fermented grape juice because that’s what they are. There’s so much more clarity and expression," says Lou.

Because natural wines have a great deal of texture - because they're not filtered or fined - they also pair well with food.

"There’s such an intricacy of flavour in natural wines, which means that you can pinpoint some of the beautiful flavours that are woven into the wine and match it really well to a specific dish," Lou tells me.

You can find red, white, rosé, sparkling and even orange natural wines. which seem to be popping up on more and more wine lists across Australia. Orange wines are essentially white wines made like red wines, and were traditionally made in Georgia, where they were called amber wines, in large clay vessels called qvevri.

Apart from the obvious appeal of the unusual colour, orange wines make for versatile additions to meals, because they sit in an in-between world, where you can pair them with lighter dishes like white meat and vegetables, but they are robust enough to stand up to heavier dishes like red meat, according to Lou. 

Why should you drink it?

A lot of people have become quite used to wines that taste a bit the same and are made with the same techniques and added ingredients, whereas natural wines tend to be quite diverse and taste a little bit more like food, which Lou believes makes them much more exciting.

Aside from trying a new world of wines with a more diverse range of tastes, research suggests that natural wines are much better for your health than conventional wines.

Natural wines can also be consumed by asthmatics, who may usually struggle to drink conventional wines. "If you’re an asthmatic - like me - you can drink our wine, and most asthmatics can even drink a lot of our wines that do have preservatives in them. It’s about the level of preservatives and histamines," Steve says.

Lou has certainly found that the sulphur headaches she suffered from after drinking regular wine have eased since she turned to natural wines.

And because natural wines are mostly produced by smaller producers, the winemakers also tend to be a lot more efficient with their resources than larger corporations, meaning you may be helping to reduce your environmental footprint if you choose a locally-made natural wine over a conventional wine from overseas.

But will it still give you a hangover?

"It depends on exactly how much you drink, but I would say that you’re less likely to get a hangover from natural wines," says Lou.

The reason for this is mostly to do with the fact that there isn’t as much sulphur added to natural wines as there are to conventional wines. In Australia, we can add up to 250 parts sulphur per million to our wines, but natural winemakers will add 30 parts or less (if any). Sulphur plays a major role in giving you a hangover because it depletes glutathione - an enzyme that plays a role in the breakdown of alcohol.

"The breakdown of alcohol is a two-step process. Alcohol is first converted from ethanol to acetaldehyde and large quantities of sulphur in wine will also deplete the glutathione in your body," Lou explains. "Whilst acetaldehyde is easier for the body to remove, the process of removal is far less efficient once glutathione has been depleted, thus allowing acetaldehyde - which is a far more potent toxin than ethanol - to enter the bloodstream. It's this that cause the nausea and headaches we typically associate with a hangover."

Lou's picks to kickstart your natural wine love affair

Yume ‘Shan’tell’ Semillon 2017

"I’m really excited about this wine. It was from the second year of working with the vineyard, which converted to organic practices and some ecological principles in the time that I was working with it," Lou says. "Picked early to retain freshness and florals, it’s seen two and a half weeks of skin contact, which contribute to fine-boned tannins. There’s yellow peach, apricot and a whisper of white pepper. Super versatile with fish, white meats and vegetables."

$44.00 from Yume

Image credit: Yume Wine/Angus Gibbs

Chapter 2014 Rosé

"This wine is made in tiny quantities, so it’s hard to get hold of but so worth it when you do! Just six hours of skin contact, it pours a light dusty pink. It’s finely poised with it’s delicate florals, with a long line of acid to draw out the palate. Ethereal."

From Chapter Wine

Ruggabellus ‘Fluus’ Barossa 2016

"Each of the Ruggabellus wines are made to reflect the rugged beauty of the Barossa, which they do exceptionally well. Fluus (meaning flow) is an introduction to the style of red wines that they produce - earthy, yet elegant and fluid," Lou says.

$31 from Prince Wine Store

Where else can I get it?

Hobart

Dier Makr’s wine list - available by the glass or bottle - centres on wines produced with minimal intervention by the winemakers.

Dier Makr, 123 Collins Street, Hobart

Perth

Perth is set to get its first natural wine bar in April this year, in Wines of While. The bar and store will focus on serving natural wines and a simple menu of food.

Wines of While, 458 William Street, Perth

Melbourne

Counting French natural wine-producer Eric Narioo as one their partners, the wine list at Embla may "be slightly weird," as they say on their website, but they "think there are others out there like [them]."

Embla, 122 Russell Street, Melbourne

Brisbane

At Craft Wine Store, you can see grapes being crushed on a busy Brisbane street in its urban winery. While they're waiting for the first batch to age, pick the staff's brains about all things natural wine, or choose a bottle from its family-run bottleshop.

Craft Wine Store, 196 Musgrave Rd, Red Hill

Sydney

At Newtown's first natural wine bottle shop, natural and organic wines, artisan spirits, craft beers and sake are all available for sale. You can also participate in one of their wine tastings.

P & V Wine + Liquor Merchants, 64 Enmore Road, Newtown

Rootstock is Australia's largest annual natural wine festival. If you're curious about natural wines and want to learn and taste more, this festival is your one-stop shop.

Rootstock Wine Festival Sydney, 24-25 November

Adelaide

La Buvette is a French bar in Adelaide which specialises in apéritifs, natural wine and craft spirits. They'll also plate you up a mean charcuterie board or half a dozen French snails in a butter, garlic and parsley sauce, should you fancy.

La Buvette Drinkery, 27 Gresham Street, Adelaide

Canberra

Winner of Gourmet Traveller's 2018 Bar of the Year, Bar Rochford are "all about fine food, exciting wine producers and good jams", according to their website.

Bar Rochford,  First Floor, 65 London Circuit, Canberra

Lead image credit: Yume Wine/Angus Gibbs

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