By James Atkinson

Amid continued enthusiasm for 'natural' wine, a debate between wine commentators including Huon Hooke and Nick Stock once again demonstrated that exactly what constitutes 'natural' is vague and requires clearer definition.

Broadly speaking, the panel at the 'Natural Wine – Talks and Thoughts' seminar, held as part of Crave Sydney International Food Festival (CSIFF), agreed that 'natural' wines are those produced from biodynamic or organic fruit, with minimal intervention in the winery.

But just what constitutes 'minimal' intervention was up for debate. Hooke and wine importer Andrew Guard both declared that the addition of sulphur is acceptable and maybe even essential.

"You can't make a clean wine, not one that will stay clean and fresh anyway, without a touch of sulphur," Hooke said.

"Sulphur's in for me but there are some people that absolutely consider that natural wines shouldn't be made with sulphur," added Guard.

The purist on the panel, Richard Harkham, of the Hunter Valley's Harkham Winery, countered that sulphur-free wine "displays natural viscosity and aromas".

"Every bottle brings an element of surprise which I personally love," he said.

Harkham said wines with additives cannot truly express terroir, but Hooke said wine cannot express terroir unless it is clean and fault-free.

All wine is natural to some extent, added Hooke, "it's just that some are more natural than others".

"If you had wine that was completely natural, it would just be a dirty puddle on the floor where a bunch of grapes sat and rotted for awhile," he said.

"There is manipulation at every level – you would not be able to get a grape vine to produce grapes if you didn't manipulate the vine, for a start."

He said the word 'natural' is "fraught and should be rephrased".

As the 45-minute session drew to a close, a question from a puzzled audience member asking the panel to again clarify their definition of 'natural' perhaps illustrated his point.

Natural wine is nothing new: Brown Brothers

Brown Brothers' Katherine Brown reminded the audience that natural winemaking is hardly new.

"Back in 1889, my great grandfather was playing around with some grapes in his back shed to make our commercial vintage," she said.

"Of course at that stage he had no yeast, the yeast would have come from the grapes. He wouldn't have had any tartaric acid. He wouldn't have had any chemicals to put out on the grapes."

"It's the old becoming new again."

The MC of the session, Nick Stock, was optimistic that the natural wine movement is beginning to move past the "dogma" that has plagued its recent resurgence.

"Because of such an enthusiastic willingness to want to do less and 'take your hands off the wheel', some people seem to be excusing plainly unenjoyable, faulty wine, on the basis of the philosophy behind its production outweighs the end result," he said.

The Shout Team

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  1. Wasn’t natural wine as a concept spawned from the French ‘vin nature’; a simple philosophy of not adjusting the constituents of the must that would inaccurately reflect the resulting wines’ ‘pure’ expression of the terroir/vintage. That means no acid, sugar, tannin, yeast, inoculation etc adjustment. A ‘natural’ wine. Sulphur dioxide and biodynamic fruit are seperate topics for conversation, that are serious distractions from the more important issue in Australia of our disconcerting volume of ‘adjusted’ wine. The worry is not just the fact the these wines are essentially a doctored product promoted as being an expression of place and time, (essentially misleading to the consumer), but that their widespread acceptance tells the story of a wine industry led by producing a commodity product for a market underfire for its irresponsible consumption. Achieving a market determined profile for ones’ wine, by pushing ripeness at the cost of acidity, only to add it back in later, cuts to the core of the very intentions of producing a wine in a certain location, from a certain grape variety. If it can’t be done ‘naturally’ why the hell are we doing it at all?

  2. So the French can add acid and sugar and no one cares to comment! Australian winemakers, charged with arguably some of the most trying growing conditions can add tartaric acid only. Commentators take a very firm grip of yourselves, suck in a very big breath and objectively look at the wines being produced in all regions of Australia. Natural wine is a poor excuse for poor winemaking and generally a total lack of managing wine maturation. This country produces some of the best wines and their should be no cow towing to the “poor wine making” movement nor to the total misunderstanding of how to produce good quality wines. Natural winemakers extract your digits and concentrate on what constitutes good quality wine making. And all consumers; rise above some esoteric chase for minimalist wine and instead buy, and reward, the reducers of wines who put true effort into the production of their wares.

  3. Well said, Chris, and I made a similar point in this panel discussion: that most of our traditional wine regions were established either by accident or convenience, and many originally made fortified wines. You can certainly argue that if wine cannot be made in a certain location without adjustment, perhaps grapes should not be grown there at all.
    I also said that the resurgence of interest in ‘natural’ wine is a reaction to decades of over-manipulated wine, and even if a lot of the wines are not very attractive to modern palates, the motivation behind the movement is sound. It’s making a lot of more conventional winemakers question how they make wine.

  4. The craving for “natural” food and beverages has its genesis in the entreprenurial excesses of the 19th century. As food and and beverages became common items of commerce, the profits to be made from adulteration and fraud were irresistable. Consumers learnt that comestibles were best and safest at their source. Thanks to the work of Public Analysts and regulatory authorities these fraudulent and sometimes dangerous practices have been eliminated. However, the new fraudulence is the promotion of the idea that there is such a thing as “natural” food and beverages, as if to imply that all other products are unnatural. It’s what you might call ‘unenlightened self-interest’. Cloudy and gassy wine at the winery may have a special Arcadian charm for some, but year round supply at remote locations requires the wine to be limpid, stable and resistant to oxidation.

  5. Indeed, Huon, the natural wine movement is not just making thoughtful producers question how they make wine, but also making thoughtful winemakers choose the regions from which they wish to make their varietals.
    It is quite instructive to look at the price/tonne paid for grapes from different regions – winemakers are moving south or sourcing their “noble varieties” there, while the prices down there are going north!
    And while the”‘noble” varieties are increasingly producing best results in the coolest climates, with 170+ varieties planted in Oz we just need to sort out what goes best where.
    And eventually we will more closely achieve natural wine expression related to variety and terroir.

  6. Isn’t the aim of making wine to produce a safe, pleasant and stable drink? I hope so.
    Yeast produce Sulphur compounds during their “natural” matabolic process via the creb cycle, which ultimately produces alcohol from fruit sugars, during the yeast’s search for energy.
    You cannot have a “no sulphur” wine, just a low sulphur wine.

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