Love it or hate it, natural wine is well and truly steering the bandwagon. Despite the fact there’s nothing new about it — it’s how wine was made for thousands of years — the sacred stuff has been resurrected thanks to humankind’s obsession with leading a more ‘organic’ existence.
Hospitality spoke to punk-rocker-turned-winemaker Taras Ochota from Ochota Barrels and SMH’s 2017 Sommelier of the Year Tim Watkins from Automata about the definition of natural wine, cuisine pairing and how venues can encourage diners to trade in their usual glass of Marlborough sauvignon blanc.
Defining the undefinable
Categorising natural wine is not an easy task due to the absence of guidelines and regulations. “There is no official classification for natural wine, and that’s been part of the issue with defining it,” says Watkins. “I define it as wines that have been made farmed organically and/or biodynamic ally and produced in a way that’s minimal or low intervention in terms of farming and the wine-making practice itself.”
For Ochota, taking the organic and biodynamic route from start to finish is the key to creating authentic natural wine. “To me, it is simply farming organically/biodynamically and not adding anything besides a bit of sulfur dioxide at bottling,” he says. “Natural wine festivals around the world generally have a limit of 40ppm and we add about 20ppm.”
From acidity to fizz and funk, natural wine has a fluid range of characteristics. “I find greener phenolics from picking early give the wine more energy and a nervous tension,” says Ochota. “I love drinks that make your mouth water for more … compact little bullets of tightly wound flavour drops that pulse your saliva glands. Some ‘faults’ in balance give a wine gorgeous character and interest. A bit of bretty barnyard and lifted ethyl acetate can be nice, too. But there is nothing nice or complementary about mousiness or sharp acetic characters in wine.”
A cloudy complexion can also be a giveaway of natural wine due to the absence of additives. “A lot of natural wines will be bottled without filtration, so they may be a little cloudy in colour,” says Watkins. But this isn’t always the case, and natural wine often aesthetically presents in the same manner as conventional varieties. “It’s difficult because there are some natural wines that wouldn’t be different from conventional wines people have enjoyed in the past.”
Because of the low-intervention method, there can be variations between bottles, which can be alarming for consumers who have always experienced wine that never falters in consistency. “With low-intervention wine making, the risk of wines having variation between bottle to bottle is greater,” says Watkins. “With natural wine, I’ll open a bottle and the same wine may taste a little bit different. In one rule of thought, it could be looked at as a fault, whereas for other people, it’s not better or worse — it’s different.”
The flavour profile of natural wine is also subject to alteration due to the lack of preservatives. “The philosophy with a lot of people in the natural wine community is that the wines are alive and will change quite frequently over time,” says Watkins. “With natural wines, this will occur within a year or a short timeframe. It won’t be bad or good, it will just have a different profile over time.”
On the flip side, natural wine doesn’t have the best reputation— especially among ‘purists’ who label it as unauthentic and a trend for millennials. Interestingly, a number of wineries have chosen dodge the term ‘natural’ due to the high volume of fault-heavy wines. “Romanée-Conti produces some of the most expensive natural wine in the world, but they would never advertise themselves as a winery making natural wine. But effectively, it is,” says Watkins.”
Ochota agrees. “There are so many wineries out there doing this, and have done so for years, but have chosen to not jump on the term ‘natural’ because they don’t want to be associated with the shocking examples that have been dumped out in the past few years,” he says. “These wines have now scared off even the more adventurous consumer. People still want to drink wines that are delicious and taste like wine and not the bottom of a mouse cage.”
Converting skeptical diners
One way to go about encouraging diners averse to natural wine is to avoid labelling it. Many diners have had a bad experience with organic, biodynamic or natural wine and tend to let a bad experience taint future choices. “Natural wine can be divisive and people love it or hate it,” says Watkins. “When I introduce people to wine at Automata, I introduce it as wine — I’ll never use the term ‘natural’. For me, the main thing is to get people feeling relaxed and open-minded.”
Creating a relationship between food and natural one is another method venues can prompt diners to try something out of the ordinary. “We offer a tasting menu at Automata, so I have an opportunity to do beverage pairing where I can use these drinks throughout and not have to sell them each one,” says Watkins. “I get people saying, ‘When I tried it, it was a bit strange, but when I had it with food, I realised how it works and it was interesting’.”
Understanding and having a conversation with the customer is key to gauging interest and determining how much or how little they need to know before making a beverage choice. “As a sommelier, it’s about reading your customers,” says Watkins. “I try not to overwhelm people with information beforehand as the receptors can close. If I’m giving someone something they’ve never tried before, I want the receptors to be as open as possible because that’s where I have the maximum chance of them having an enjoyable experience. So even if it’s just giving someone a taste and a bit of information and then going back and getting some feedback after they’ve tried it.”
In regard to wine matching, Watkins believes the only limitation is narrowmindedness. There’s no right or wrong cuisines when it comes to pairing natural wine with food, and a little education goes a long way. Some wines can have a fermented, beer taste, which lends itself well to cuisines with umami profiles. “At Automata, we have some influence from Korean and Japanese kitchens, so those cemented elements to the food work well with a lot of these wines” says Watkins. “Japan has become very excited about natural wine and it works well with their cuisine. There is a broad range of flavours between white, red and everything in between.”
Selecting natural wine
There’s no doubt natural wine has been creeping onto menus in recent years, and for venues selecting varieties, the process is no different to the norm. “I would never look any differently for natural wine as conventional wine — I just want wine that works with my menu,” says Watkins. “Sommeliers are excited about the increase in popularity and there’s certainly room for it. The smartest and most respected sommeliers have integrated it in a way that it’s not saying, ‘This is natural and this isn’t’. They’ve just put them in as different styles and having themselves and good wine teams that are able to sell and promote these wines in a way customers will enjoy.”
Just like conventional wine, there are natural wines designed to drink now and those created to age. But extra care should be taken to avoid damage to stock. “There are natural wines that last a long time, but because they’ve got fewer additives, you do have to take precautions in terms of keeping things at the right temperature and not moving stock around too much,” says Watkins. Taste can also fluctuate during transportation, and wine tasted in Europe can have a completely different flavour profile by the time it arrives in Australia. “Sometimes, importers will bring in a wine from Europe and they will let it sit in the warehouse for months and taste it until it’s ready.”
In an ideal world, all wine would be treated equally. And in reality, there’s room on a wine list for a few ‘unconventional’ varieties. Thanks to a surge in popularity and attention, natural winemakers are growing by the number and it’s only a matter of time before natural wine will be on the radar of the average consumer. So it makes good business sense to at least give it a red hot go.
Image credit: Vine Pair