Natural wine 101
Author: Max Allen
Photography: Rodney Macuja
The hottest wine trend of the decade? That's easy: all things natural. Grapes grown with a minimum of sprays, preferably organic or biodynamic; nothing added in the cellar except perhaps a small amount of sulphur dioxide preservative at bottling. Just wine.
It's also been the most controversial trend of the past 10 years. Critics in the industry decry the lack of an official definition of natural. They grumble about the murky, rustic and even feral flavours found in some natural bottles, and they accuse some winemakers of jumping on the natural bandwagon. But the trend has been overwhelmingly positive as far as wine drinkers are concerned (so what if the chardonnay's a bit cloudy and smells a bit like cider? It's still delicious), and the movement shows little sign of slowing down.
If you want to brush up on your natural-wine smarts, here's my pick of a dozen of the best. All were made with as few additions as possible: spontaneous wild-yeast fermentation, no acid or enzymes or tannins added, no fining (clarification) or filtration, and very little (or no) sulphur-dioxide preservative at bottling. Almost all were produced from grapes farmed using biological (low-chemical input), organic or biodynamic methods. For readers particularly interested in this aspect of natural wine - whether the grapes are free of synthetic sprays - I've indicated which are from certified organic or biodynamic vineyards.
SPARKLING, WHITE AND ORANGE
Let's start with something bubbly: a pét-nat - pétillant-naturel, or "naturally sparkling" wine - that finishes fermentation in the bottle. The 2015 Les Capriades "Piège à Filles" Rosé ($40) from France's Loire Valley is a good example: organically grown gamay, grolleau noir and côt (malbec) grapes bring lovely hedgerow berry flavours to this pale-pink fizz produced with no additions at all.
The 2016 Bobar Yarra Valley Chardonnay ($30), made in a very natural way (no additions other than a tiny amount of sulphur at bottling; unfined and unfiltered) from conventionally grown grapes is a good example of cloudy but fine white. There's a slight haze to this wine, but it doesn't detract from the full, satisfying flavours of lemon pith and cracked wheat.
Many natural winemakers ferment white grapes on skins, producing rich, intriguing amber-coloured wines. A terrifically tangy, tannic, food-friendly example from the ancient winemaking country of Georgia is the 2015 Pheasant's Tears Kisi ($48): robust-flavoured certified-organic grapes fermented in large clay amphorae called qvevri. From closer to home, the 2016 The Other Right "Moonshine" ($36) is a beautifully pretty yet gently grippy Adelaide Hills organically grown viognier, fermented on skins for a week and bottled with no additions. Another fabulous amphorafermented wine, this time a pale, dry rosé made from certified-biodynamic syrah grapes, is the 2016 Cobaw Ridge "Il Pinko" ($35): slightly cloudy, with crunchy red-berry fruit and an even, creamy texture.
Next, a couple of brilliant, vibrant pinot noirs. Outspoken Adelaide Hills vigneron Anton van Klopper was one of the first winemakers in Australia to advocate for the natural cause, and his best wines, such as the entrancing, multilayered 2016 Lucy Margaux Monomeith Vineyard Pinot Noir ($45), have influenced a generation of others. Think winemakers such as Patrick Sullivan, now based in West Gippsland, whose 2016 "Windy Cottage" Pinot Noir ($46), made predominantly from biologically farmed Yarra Valley grapes, is thrillingly juicy and delicious.
A detour to France. Jean Foillard is not only one of the country's leading natural winemakers, he's also one of the very best producers in Beaujolais, a region many consider the birthplace of the modern natural-wine movement. His deeply fruity and supple, structural and ageworthy 2014 Morgon Côte du Py ($75), made from organically grown fruit with no additions except a little sulphur at bottling, is a benchmark.
Now a couple of boisterous Aussie red blends, both made using whole-bunch fermentation and carbonic maceration, designed for early glugging. The 2016 Smallfry "Stella Luna" ($28), from a certified organic and biodynamic vineyard in the Barossa, is a lovely blend of perfumed cinsault and gamy shiraz. And the 2016 Jauma Fairygarden Shiraz Grenache ($40), from an organically farmed vineyard in McLaren Vale, and made with no sulphur additions, is all spicy raspberries cascading cross the tongue.
And to finish, two fuller-bodied reds: the slurpy 2016 Cullen PF Malbec ($39), a preservative-free wine from one of Western Australia's most well-established certified-biodynamic vineyards, with saturated-mulberry notes; and one of the most brilliant Italian reds - natural or otherwise - I've tasted for a long time, the 2014 Foradori Teroldego Morei ($78). It's a biodynamically grown, amphora-matured single-vineyard expression of Trentino's teroldego grape: luscious, voluptuous dark cherries framed by sinewy graphite tannins.
When the grapes are this beautiful, so full of life and character, it's only natural to let them shine, unadulterated, unadorned.
Above, clockwise from top: 2015 Les Capriades "Piège à Filles" Rosé; 2016 Smallfry "Stella Luna"; 2014 Foradori Morei Teroldego; 2016 Patrick Sullivan "Windy Cottage" Pinot Noir; 2015 Pheasant's Tears Kisi; 2016 Cobaw Ridge "Il Pinko"; 2016 Jauma "Fairygarden" Shiraz Grenache; 2016 Cullen PF Malbec; 2016 The Other Right "Moonshine"; 2014 Morgon Côte du Py; 2016 Lucy Margaux Monomeith Vineyard Pinot Noir; 2016 Bobar Yarra Valley Chardonnay.