Natural wines, produced by winemakers who are exponents of ‘natural winemaking’, have come about relatively recently as an extension of organic and bio-dynamic practices in the vineyard.
Equally they represent resistance to mass-produced, industrial scale production that assuages the thirst of the many, worldwide. Organic and bio-dynamic wineries have made commendable strides in promoting sustainable agriculture and you can now see healthier vines and a diverse natural ecology in the vineyards when you visit. It is a fairly simple step to curb the use of synthetic products when growing the grapes, letting the forces of nature have their way so that each vintage is produced at the whim of the weather.
In the Winery
Natural winemaking however extends this ‘laissez-faire’ approach into the winery. Additions of cultured yeasts and chemicals - apart from sulphur dioxide - are not allowed. If the crop is harvested after rain it is not tweaked to correct the dilution of juice which is something relatively simple to achieve in normal winemaking regimes. For many commentators however, the great reduction in use of sulphur dioxide (SO2) leaves the whole system open to production of faulty wines.
For a winemaker this is a high risk approach. Customers in general prefer a level of consistency with what to expect when drinking the wines. Lack of control allows variable flavours, good and bad, to come through, making the quality of bottle from vintage to vintage a bit of a lottery. We know from experience that a faulty bottle can put off a customer forever, particularly if it is the first time they have bought it. Regardless of explanation afterwards, there is such huge choice in the market that a bad experience will invariably lead to something else being chosen next time.
Sulphur dioxide - a long and widely used additive in wines and foods - has an effect on the rate of oxidation that a wine undergoes, which has implications for the length of time that you can age it. Grape varieties too seem to have a different propensity for ‘taking up’ SO2. Tempranillo for example can develop an off-putting rubbery smell if the maker has been too heavy-handed with SO2 in the winery, but use too little and swift oxidation allows an acetic, vinegary edge to develop in the wine. Higher levels are used in sweeter wines to prevent re-fermentation.
Drinking Natural Wines
It is true that a wine made with limited intervention, chemical or otherwise, can shine with brilliance. The fruit character is unmasked by manipulation so the freshness of acidity and the succulence of flavour really come out in the glass. You may feel you will avoid a headache or a hangover by drinking natural wines, but both are principally caused by alcohol, rather than sulphur dioxide, with further links to naturally occurring histamines. Sulphur allergies are very rare and normally manifest themselves in sneezing or hay fever symptoms.
Orange wines are closely associated with the natural wines movement, but an ‘orange’ wine is by no means necessarily ‘natural’. It is simply a white wine which has been fermented on its skins in the fashion of a red wine. The colour will generally be deeper – not necessarily orange – and it will probably require less SO2 to preserve it.
‘Real’ is an even less regulated term than ‘Natural’ but is starting to appear in the marketing of wines along with varying claims that conventionally made wines – even those made by growers who genuinely minimise the use of treatments in the vineyard and winery – are not ‘real’. Often linked to organic, biodynamic and artisan production, ‘real’ wines have been applauded by Tanners (and The Bunch) for many years yet we advocate caution. Wines sold under this banner will be, by definition, expensive and many will be disappointing and a proportion downright faulty!