“The first rule of Fight Club is: You do not talk about Fight Club.” Yet, in the David Fincher film from the nineties it is not too hard from a member of this crowd to recognise another. In the wine world, there is a trend that comes to mind when recalling Tyler Durden’s famous code of conduct: natural wine.
It is rare the producer who will self-proclaim a “natural winemaker”, but just as in an accountant with a black eye in the aforementioned cult classic, the signs are there: minimal intervention, none or very little sulfites and ancestral practices are among the shared traits.
However, the motivations behind some vigneron’s reluctancy to adorn their bottles with such a trendy term are actually quite reasonable: They might work that way and believe in the principles behind what’s known as natural winemaking, but they’d rather not label themselves as they might not agree with some of the more strict views among the movement.
Where Is the Line Drawn?
Unlike organic and biodynamic wine, natural wine lacks a legal definition, a widely acknowledged stamp that guarantees a bottle’s “naturalness.” This is one of the reasons why even winemakers who work under principles as esoteric for the mainstream as biodynamism will raise their eyebrows at it sometimes.
A very considerate definition of natural wine is provided by Raw Wine, the world’s largest community of producers and enthusiasts of low-intervention, organic, biodynamic and natural wines:
Natural Wine is farmed organically (biodynamically, using permaculture or the like) and made (or rather transformed) without adding or removing anything in the cellar. No additives or processing aids are used, and ‘intervention’ in the naturally occurring fermentation process is kept to a minimum. As such neither fining nor (tight) filtration are used. The result is a living wine – wholesome and full of naturally occurring microbiology.”
Easier said than done, tough.
“A fault is natural, but is still a fault”, points out winemaker Pascal Colotte from Chateau Jean Faux. The biodynamic producer visited Dublin from Bordeaux for Spit 2018, a wine fair that gathers some of Ireland’s leading independent importers. Even tough a well intentioned shop assistant might point to his wines if you’re looking for something natural, he would rather define them as low-intervention.
“We have a terroir. When you have a terroir, then you must respect it. If you don’t have it, then you have to do a lot to the wine.” At the end of the day, consumers might simpathise with the concept of a natural wine, but they expect the liquid in their glass to taste great and the bottles in their cellar to be stable.
Promoting Natural Wines
Those needs are noted by Lorcan O’Briens, Communications and Content Manager at O’Briens Wine, with whom I spoke to shortly after their recent press tasting. Among the new faces on the retailer’s shelves, a few of them are what one might call natural.
He points out that when a wine is welcomed into their catalogue, “firstly it has to be a good wine.” He explains that instead of setting out to source some natural wines, O’Briens Wine Director Lynne Coyle MW incorporated a few “great quality wines that just happen to be natural.”
He’s aware that despite a growing interest, the category is still niche, and he acknowledges how many producers “don’t want to be seen as just jumping on a bandwagon.” That’s why he believes the best way to promote these wines is by focusing on the winery’s philosophy as well as in educating staff and consumers about these styles of wine.
Many producers make natural wines without shouting about it and most good quality-focused producers will want to interfere as little as possible with their grapes, so are borderline natural anyway.”
Jérémy Delannoy, the man behind online wine shop and community siyps.ie, has also noticed a growing interest in the style. He favours high quality wines from smaller European producers but he notes that “there is a trend in favour of labels and certifications, they often mean trust.” He also acknowledges that some of the wines he sells might be called natural, but his use of that adjective is by no means liberal.
A few months ago, I had the opportunity to interview celebrity wine author Oz Clarke, and among the many topics touched we discussed the natural wine movement. His words are as relevant now as they were then: he deems it a trend driven by many “brilliant people”, but also one that’s succeptible of being taken to the extreme. He celebrated that it gets people excited and talking about wine, but was wary of those who turn it into an ideology or an argument to assume the moral high ground.
Dominó Alentejo’s producer Vitor Claro, who visited Dublin from Portugal for Spit 2018, has found an alternative he’s happy with. We spoke about “artisan wines”, as he refers to the ones produced with as little intervention as possible and a green ethos.
“Trends come and go”, he says, noting that good winemaking is the one that really stands the test of time. For Vitor, a positive aspect of the natural wine trend is that “people are becoming more aware of different philosophies related to wine.” For him, an “artisan wine” contrasts to an industrial product, it’s a wine made in the most “genuine way we can.”
Call them real, honest, artisan, or craft wines if you don’t feel like rocking the boat. For an interesting debate, crack open a good bottle of your favourite low-intervention sipper (a few delightful suggestions below) and get the conversation about natural wine started.
Le Cinsault Parcelle: Le Jardin 2017
€16.95 – Available at O’Briens Wine
Organic Languedoc producer Château de Caraguilhes features its first sulphur-free wine. A bright and vibrant varietal made from Cinsault grapes matured in concrete vats.
Fresh and generous in flavours of red cherries, pomegranates and cranberries with a hint of violets, this smooth red offers soft tannins and a mellow character, very elegant and lean.
Buzet Sans 2017
€17.95 – Available at O’Briens Wine
This wine’s name is French for “without”, but don’t let that make you think it’s a killjoy. A pioneering red, it was one of the first wines with no added sulfites. It is also vegan. It comes from a lesser known region in South West France called Buzet and it’s a blend of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
Ruby and intensely coloured, this red offers a combination of ripe red plums, cherries, sweet spices and a herbacious undertone. Moderate tannins march through your palate as its wrapped by its plump, full body.
Bordeaux “Les Pins Francs” 2015
€33 – Available at siyps.com
This low-intervention white Bordeaux combines biodynamically farmed Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon grapes into an intense wine that feels well-rounded and balanced.
Aromas and flavours of ripe citrus and fresh nectarines accompanied by a gentle floral note are driven by a wine of high acidity and medium body, with a long finish.
€27.50 – Available at 64 wines, Blackrock Cellear, Green Man Wines, Baggot Street wines
This organic blend of several Portuguese varieties is intensely aromatic and with a rich texture on the palate. A brief period of skin contact contributes to give it a fuller body and complexity. Vitor prefers the term “artisan wines” when talking about his philosophy of work.
Ripe citrus notes are intertwined with aromas of orange blossom, passionfruit and apples. High acidity and a palate-cleansing freshness make of this a wine a fine companion of shellfish and rich seafood dishes.
Ribera del Notro Red 2017 Roberto Henriquez
€23.90 – Available at Green Man Wines, The Coach House, Baggot Street Wines, 64 Wines, Loose Canon
Chile’s Bio Bio Valley is one of the sourthernmost wine regions in the South American country and in here, producer Roberto Henriquez crafts wines from organically grown, old vines. This red is 100% País, made with minimal intervention.
Its cloudy apperance is due to it being unfiltered. On the palate, expect a light body and a juicy parade of ripe red berries with a hint of spices and a pleasant earthiness. Soft tannins and a high acidity. Feel free to serve it slightly chilled.
Gabriela’s passion for writing is only matched by her love for food and wine. Journalist, confectioner and sommelier, she fell in love with Ireland years ago and moved from Venezuela to Dublin in 2014.
Since then, she has written about and worked in the local food scene, and she’s determined to discover and share the different traditions, flavours and places that have led Irish food and drink to fascinate her.