McLaren Vale-based natural wine specialist, Alpha Box & Dice believes that the trend towards minimal intervention wine is here to stay and is being driven by a range of consumer choices and influences including transparency and truth around the winemaking process.
Speaking with TheShout at ProWein 2018, co-owner Justin Fairweather said that the growth and interest in natural wine is about authenticity rather than demography.
Fairweather entered the debate against four-time international winemaker of the year, Neil McGuigan, who described natural wine as a “grape-based alcoholic beverage” as it is made with minimal intervention and often minimal or no sulphites which can deliver a ‘funky’ aroma that can be confronting for some consumers.
“Contrary to comments from the great mentor to the industry, Mr McGuigan, I think that is where we need to spend time as an industry to establish a definition so that when we are talking about natural wine is, we understand what that is and who the consumers are or could be. It is about getting consumers excited about different projects and the diversity that Australia has – and it is definitely there in the natural segment. People are understanding it more and why winemakers are doing it because it is a lifestyle approach and not just because they want to make wine that is cool.
“The demographic of the consumer that likes natural wine is broad which is good, but I think that the whole farm-to-table movement is showing that people want transparency and the ethos behind that needs to match. Who is the farmer behind my food and can I go and hang out with this farmer and some of the great chefs are talking about having small restaurants again as there is then control over the whole process and the experience people get. The consumer deserves to know who has grown those grapes and how they have landed in the bottle. Coffee has fair trade and that is so normal in coffee now, and the wine industry is not respective of a way to look at that.
“It looks like natural wine is a millennial thing, but I think is it actually more of an experimental thing and there are more people that are experimenting because they value their life and they value where things come from. They want to know the truth in food and wine and beer is also going that way too.
In relation to the debate over whether natural wine is sulphite free or preservative-free, Fairweather said the definition is still a gray area.
“Decanter has a charter that says that wine with sulphites up to 70 parts per million can still be considered as natural wine, and if you speak to Australian winemakers that is very generous – to us the definition of natural is 20 parts per million or below.
We have conducted a lot of experiments, that have been too natural we want wines that will age and still have freshness and complexity but will be consumer friendly for a lo g time, so that when people open in 10 years time they wonder what the hell are they drinking.
“The consumer friendliness is the key and people who drink this wine understand that it can be more of a now wine and not a Penfolds that you need to age for 20 years. A lot of critics say it won’t age and most drinkers want to drink it now – it’s now wine.
We have found a middle ground with minimal intervention which means whenever you can be minimal but not compromising the wine you are making. Our definition of minimal intervention is 50 parts per million and starting at the vineyard to be biodynamic or organic where possible.
“Some of the old school growers who were against this, have found that it does use less water if we use organic practices and we actually get better yields which brings us more money. It is not an easy transition and it is not ideal for everyone, but it is definitely the way we need to be going in the wine industry.
“It is not about how big we can be as a winery, it is about how real can we be – that is what is so exciting, whereas a lot of other wineries are not about to do these things with wine because they are so stuck with an old world approach.
“We are focused on small batch and keeping things real – an industry leader is someone like Paxton and what they have done – they have taken something that was a little trend towards organic wine and now it is one of the most serious trends in the winemaking industry. We are not low sulphur to the level that Paxton have been able to pull off with 20 parts per million that still has so much life left to it, but we have still managed to achieve minimal intervention and that’s the safest place for a lot of Australian wineries to head.
“Expect the unexpected with Alpha Box & Dice in the vineyard and in the winery. It is about the alphabet of wine and we are at 20 ‘letters’ now – and we have 26 in our minds which we expect to grow to in the next two years. The best selling wines are our low sulphur Tarot Grenache as well as our Golden Mullet Fury – which is our take on an orange wine and extended skin contact and something that is fresh and beautiful to drink.”
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