Natural wines are, apparently, the most divisive topic in the wine world right now. Well, if that is the case, then someone forgot to tell that to the fifteen or so curious people that showed up to Real Food, in Newtown, on Tuesday night.
Co-conspirators Mike Bennie (wine writer, terroirist, and dab hand at organising artisan wine festivals), and Kate Walsh (food activist and proprietor of Real Food), teamed up to put on an evening of relaxed, informal conversation, about natural wine, and a tasting of some of the best examples from Australia, New Zealand, and Europe.
Joining in the conversation were a range of community minded locals, many that had shopped in Kate’s store before, or were friend’s of friends… and then there was me, a self confessed natural wine harlot, terrorist and obvious hedonist.
There were eight bottles of natural wine on show, and one ominously foil wrapped fiend known only as the ‘shame wine’. Each bottle was a wild example of the limitless spectrum that natural wine sits within; from the sweet spark of freshly pressed Pinot, to the confessional VA of Chenin Blanc, or the highlighted buzz and crunch of a rosé grown in the lava filled foothills of Mt Etna, Italy.
‘It’s coming back to nature, through minimal intervention’, said Mike about the nature of natural wines. Whether that be through organic or biodynamic methods of viticulture, ‘it is about re connecting with the rich culture of the earth’.
It’s finding that place of provenance, that every wine should reveal. The French call it ‘terroir’.
Wine isn’t about making to a recipe in order to achieve consistency; it’s about what happened in that year, at that time, in that place. It’s a snap shot of everything that happened within those 12 months, and the only way to truly see that picture as clearly as possible might be to view it in a glass that’s cloudier than usual, and this is called minimal intervention.
First cab off the rank was a bottle of ‘Fresh Juice’ Pinot Noir from Stoney Rise, in the Tamar Valley, Tasmania. Mike had procured this bottle straight from the fermentation tank, while he was visiting there last week, and brought it along as an example of the most natural state a natural wine can be in..
Looking more like the cloudy mist of guava juice, than the refined elegance of a Pinot Noir, this ‘wine’ was wine in its most naked and simplest form – fermenting grape juice. A hurried burst of sweetness and crunch and not much else. Most definitely delicious, but requiring a little more encouragement in order for it to begin to resemble that elegant, silken, siren of nobility and class. It was, however, the perfect introduction for our conversation about natural wine.
Next up was a fan favorite, a wine that was born in the Hunter Valley, moved to the city, and matured in big ceramic eggs with the encouragement of a man in pink hot pants.
Dandy In The Clos ‘Birds No Boundaries’, 2011, a white wine (mostly Semillon) conceived of by ‘Sydney’s silver surfer’, the late Sam Hughes, Australian natural wine’s original provocateur. This bright straw colored beauty deceives the discerning drinker with its age, looking much much older than its vintage would suggest. Honey and lemon are trapped and funneled upwards at the passive direction of the glass, where subtle floral and hay rest and resonate within the complex olfactory sectors of my nose. A slightly lifted acidic hum sizzles upon the tongue leaving traces of green apple and possibly pear, but definitely, most certainly, yum!
The third pour came from Jauma Yalma Chenin Blanc, 2012. James Erskine turned to wine making, after he quit being a sommelier, pretty much on the same day he was awarded the Australian industry’s top prize. He then went and set up shop in an abandoned apple packing shed in South Australia’s McLaren Vale, a region not terribly know for it’s bright and acidic Chenin Blanc’s.
This one however was eager to impress, firstly with it’s soft hay colored robe, bright citrus spice of yeasty lemon and orange, and a juicy viscous texture. It burned bright with a controlled version of VA (volatile acidity), otherwise known as acetic acid, which is usually considered a wine fault, and in excessive levels can overpower the wine with derivative smells of vinegar. Almost everyone was surprised at the wine’s robust aroma, but seemed to enjoy the challenge it presented to them, as Mike continued his passionate narration on natural wine.
As questions about organic versus biodynamic were thrown up from the inquisitors at the table, Mike answered back with aplomb, as he bounced around the the room with obvious eagerness for the topic at hand.
‘Natural wine making is all about taking a lo-fi approach to what you’re doing to the fruit’.
At this stage of the evening, Mike reached for the foil wrapped ‘shame wine’ in order to compare and contrast these minimal interventionist wines with one that shouldn’t really exist in the first place.
Vintage 2011 was the second wettest year (since records began) in Australian history. In South Australia, there were very low yields of good quality fruit, with the bulk of it succumbing to the effects of mould and mildew. When you are exporting vast amounts of wine around the world, because you operate your winery like a Coca Cola factory – making your wines to a recipe, rather than responding to the season you’ve just experienced – you need to keep up with demand, and sometimes the fruit just isn’t there to let you do that. So, in order to maintain those vast quantities you’ve aspired to, you need to reach out to other regions to supply the fruit, and in doing so, you take the first step to smudging the snapshot of that particular year’s vintage.
The ‘shame wine’ was one of those wines that was born out of that wet 2011 season. Whilst it certainly wasn’t an un-drinkable wine, consisting of a strong dusty peppered palate of jammy black current and earth, it lacked any personality, character or charm. It merely sat flat in the mouth and lumped it’s way down the back of my throat, where it no doubt found itself separated from the rest of the preceding wines, as they continued to mingle and party on in one part of my stomach, while it sat sullen in the corner with the appropriate cone shaped hat on.
Having firmly planted our feet into the possibility of taste that is inherent to natural wines, the jolt back to convention and recipe was as stark and apparent as the sun that sits in the sky, and helps gift us these natural wonders of the wine world.
So, we needed something that would blow us out of our formulaic funk and send us scatter shot into the sky, reaching back up towards the heights and possibilities of these natural wines.
How about a wine born out from the foothills of an active volcano, where fertile soils are rich in cooled mountain magma, and the last sizable eruption occurred in February 2012?
That is the site of Frank Cornelissen vineyards on the slopes of Mt Etna, in Italy, where they have been making the Contandino Rosso; a blend of local red varietals, including Nerello Mascalese, Allicante, and Minella Nera, which was buried in amphora, and includes no added sulphur whatsoever.
Raspberry and Roquefort define this wine with a vivid interplay of sweet juiciness and crunchy nuttiness. The colour is of a washed out red cherry, cloudiness, beautifully murky, as if the lava was literally contained within the glass. Dry gripping tannins stormed their way onto the back of my mouth and left almost as quickly as they arrived, leaving an afterglow of cindered red fruit and charred pine nuts.
‘This is as close as you’ll get to licking a lava flow!’, exclaimed Mike.
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Throughout the course of the evening we tasted many more wines, including Harkham Preservative Free Chardonnay 2012 from the Hunter Valley (NSW), Sato Pinot Gris 2011 from Central Otago, New Zealand, Shobbrok Nouveau Mourverdre 2011 from the Barossa Valley (SA), and a bottle of Domaine St Nicloas Gammes En May 2011, from the Loire Valley, France.
Every single one of them was a brilliant and shining example of the limitless differences and potential for what can be achieved if you just let the wine and region speak for itself.
Mike, clearly a passionate and enthusiastic voice for the natural wine world, was able to provide the spark for a discussion that carried on late into the evening. It was natural wine that, rather than divide and conquer, actually did what wine should do, which is bring people together, encourage communication and promote that most privileged of all human pleasures… being alive!
D// – The Wine Idealist
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*Many thanks to Kate Walsh for providing such a wonderful space to hold such a great evening. I’ll be on the look out for your new store coming soon!