Two tribes: Conventional vs natural wine in Australia

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Drinks: Drinks, Wines
Location: Australia

Nowhere is the battle between ‘scientific’ and ‘natural’ winemaking more intense than in Australia. Jamie Goode packs his crash helmet and heads down under to explore the clash between science and non-intervention


The natural wine movement has always been polarising. With its origins firmly in the Old World wine cultures of France and Italy, this loose alliance of producers has spread and achieved a global influence. Nowhere is it more polarising, though, than in the heartland of technical winemaking – Australia.

Here, a strong, vocal and highly visible entourage of natural winemakers has emerged – and they’ve had an impact that outweighs their size or economic significance. They’ve also gotten up the noses of some large winery owners, such as Neil McGuigan.

At ProWein in March this year, McGuigan was quizzed about natural wine by a reporter of online drinks news outlet The Shout. ‘It’s not really wine’ was his response, describing it as a ‘grape-based beverage’ and adding ‘I cannot support it at all’. Fighting talk!

Technical proficiency
Australia’s commercial success as a wine industry has been built on the foundations of technical proficiency. Back in the 1970s, the emergence of reductive winemaking techniques such as stainless steel tanks with refrigeration, the use of inert gases to protect against oxygen and working with selected cultured yeasts made it possible to produce clean, fruit-driven wines even in the warmest of climates.

One of the influential wine consultants of the time was one-time Hardy’s winemaker Brian Croser, who together with Tony Jordan formed the Oenotech consultancy. Later, Croser started winery Petaluma (which was subsequently bought out by Lion Nathan) and most recently Tapanappa.

Croser thinks that the most important distinction that needs to be made is not between natural wine and technical wine, but between fine wines and technical wines. And he’s not much of a fan of either natural or technical wines.

‘The technical proficiency of the Australian wine industry has certainly allowed the branded commodity producers to dominate the markets with well-made and affordable wines to the detriment of the image of Australian fine wines. These are standardised wines,’ he says.

He eschews the term ‘natural’, describing them as ‘accidental wines’, and pointing out that most of the country’s winemakers have a deep understanding of wine chemistry and microbiology.

‘Most Australian fine wine makers have been trying to minimise amelioration and intervention for decades now and long before the advent of the accidental wine makers,’ Croser says. ‘The arrival of the accidental wine makers has probably strengthened their ambition to avoid the sort of sensory results that the accidental wine makers achieve.’

What upsets Croser most about natural winemakers is that by describing themselves thus, they imply that everyone else is unnatural. ‘How dare they appropriate the term natural, implying all other wine is not natural?’ he says. ‘How dare they appropriate the term authentic, implying all others are lacking authenticity of origins and or process?’

The scientist
Wes Pearson is a scientist with the Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI) which also makes boutique wines under his label Dodgy Brothers.

Pearson agrees that a good understanding of wine science has been at the heart of Australia’s success.

‘I think that technically sound wines are very much a part of our identity as a wine-producing country,’ he says. ‘Where this has helped us as an exporter of wine is in the under AUS$20 (£11) per bottle market, as consumers at those price points can bank on the fact that they are getting a clean, consistent, well-made product.’

Pearson cites two big technological steps that have helped in this regard. First, there was the closure trial run by the AWRI in the late 1990s that encouraged the widespread adoption of screwcaps to avoid taint and oxidation issues. Later, the research and education work on Brettanomyces in the 2000s helped dramatically reduce the incidence of this microbial off-flavour in red wines.

But the main contribution, he argues, has been made by the oenology course at Roseworthy College, which led to today’s Adelaide University and Charles Sturt University programmes.

What is natural wine?

One of the problems with natural wine is that it is a category without a definition or certification. If you want to call your wine natural, you can. Generally, though, the natural wine movement is a loose alignment of producers who share a common way of working. They generally farm organically or biodynamically; they add nothing to their wines save for a bit of sulphur dioxide post-fermentation (and some do away with added sulphites altogether); they choose not to fine or filter; they tend to favour alternative forms of elevage such as large format oak, terracotta amphorae and concrete eggs or tanks rather than small oak (new oak is generally frowned upon).
And picking early to achieve modest alcohol levels is usually favoured over later picking and riper fruit flavours.

‘They really stress technical winemaking combined with an excellent hands-on component that gives students the foundational knowledge to go out into [the]industry and make very sound and precise wines,’ he says.

The natural wine guy
Mike Bennie is an influential Australian wine writer who’s also well known for his distinctive dress sense (usually a black t-shirt, shorts and a baseball cap). Bennie has been a champion of natural wine in Australia and was one of the small team behind the Rootstock Sydney festival, a gathering of natural and authentic wines that ran for several years until its last edition in 2017.

He’s appreciative of the contribution that applied wine science has made, but fears that it may have straitjacketed the industry, stopping the emergence of really interesting wines.

‘I think it has been formidable in fine-tuning Australia’s wine offering, particularly in a global, mass-market sense,’ says Bennie. ‘It has provided the world with high-quality, low-price wines of consistency and approachability.’

But there’s a flipside. ‘An overarching adherence to science has also perhaps been Australia’s undoing in terms of image and diversity,’ he claims. To a worrying extent, Australian wine has become synonymous with correctness and uniformity.

Bennie agrees that there’s a divide between the mainstream technical winemakers and those who would badge themselves as natural. ‘There are definitely those from the technical side who dismiss wines from the natural camp before they’ve even tasted them,’ he says.

There’s also a jealousy problem, with the conventional majority feeling that the natural winegrowers get a disproportionate amount of attention. ‘There are haters on both sides,’ he says. ‘But I think that these two sides are becoming more closely intertwined than people realise, as the general wine community comes to the realisation that we all just make wine and that if we can get people interested in Australian wine of any genre, that’s a win.’

One oft-cited benefit of the natural wine movement is that, while it’s small and niche, it has caused those working more conventionally to question how they work. But is this natural contagion overestimated?

Croser doesn’t think they’ve had much positive impact outside of their niche. ‘The “quirky” as you call them are insignificant to the overall evolution and commerce of “conventional” fine wine, the latter being based on the true innovation of the past 50 years of establishing new cooler climate regions, working out which varieties are the best and refining incrementally the viticulture and winemaking. It is a serious mismatch of endeavour and importance to compare them in the same breath.’

He does, however, concede that the elevation of natural wine has been useful to counterbalance ‘the overwhelming image of Australia as an industrialised winemaker’.

Wes Pearson is more sympathetic to this idea. ‘I’m not sure I would say that natural producers have solely shifted the mainstream to produce more that way – I think there are a few other factors in play, but they’ve definitely played a role.’

He thinks the chasm between traditional and natural is shrinking. ‘Ten years ago, it was one or the other. Nowadays you can still find producers who occupy the ends of the scale, but the middle is now dotted with producers – some very large – who have incorporated some of the ideas or philosophies of low-intervention producers.’

As a scientist and a boutique winemaker, what’s his approach? ‘I don’t think I can ever shut the scientist completely off, but I certainly take a bit of a different approach when I’m in the winery.’

And he has incorporated some low intervention/natural aspects into his winemaking. ‘What drives it for me is knowing what exactly I’m trying to deliver to the people that buy my wines,’ he says. ‘For the most part my goal is to make wines that speak of place, not winemaking or style. So for me that means less intervention in the winery for sure. But that is more about getting the picking date right so you don’t have to add anything in the winery, and less about a hands off approach just for the sake of being hands off.’

He’s also careful not to go too far in the natural direction, since, as he puts it, ‘A wine full of volatile acidity, aldehyde or Brett doesn’t speak of the place it came from, it speaks of winemaking decisions.’

For Bennie, the main impact of natural wine has been to make some of the more established, conservative wine scene draw ranks, while at the same time they’ve attempted to undermine public interest in the Rootstock Sydney cohort of wine producers.

‘The catch-cry of “fault” is a regular broadcast,’ he says, but ‘many of the more conventional wine producers have also begun to question their practices, and in some cases change or release experimental wines, or use some of the approaches to add layers to the winemaking suite available’.

To understand the picture requires an observer to segment the market. ‘The actual percentage of volume of wine produced in Australia dwarfs the output of the avant-garde wine scene,’ reports Bennie. But just as supermarkets sell far more food than trendy farmer’s markets, and fast food restaurants feed a lot more people than those focusing on locally sourced and foraged ingredients, the existence of the low-intervention natural wine producers is adding some stardust to the overall Australian wine offering.

And image matters. Critter-labelled, sugared-up commodity red wines have cemented Australia’s reputation for making the wine equivalent of fast food, and this is an image that takes time to undo. It’s the quirky and left-of-field low intervention wines, made and enthusiastically marketed by interesting people, that are giving Australian wine some of its mojo back.

I’ll leave the final words to Bennie. ‘The loud voice of natural wine in Australia and its increasing, dramatic presence in on- and off-premise venues, has made awareness about winemaking practice and farming ideology a focused conversation in the broader wine community,’ he says. ‘You’re never going to convince the old school that these wines have merit. But I feel that the next generation of wine leaders understand that inclusivity is the way forward.’

The natural

Ochota Barrels Fugazi Grenache, McLaren Vale

Taras and Amber Ochota make some beautiful, sensitive wines from the Adelaide Hills and McLaren Vale: this is a perfumed, elegant expression of Grenache. 
£20.90, Indigo Wine, 020 7733 8391

 

 

 

 

Shobbrook Tommy Field, Barossa Valley

Tom Shobbrook is making some brilliant wines from the Barossa, a region not normally associated with natural, elegant wines. This is a smashable Shiraz made largely by whole cluster fermentation, with freshness and drinkability.
£19.84, The Winemakers Club, 020 7236 2936

 

 

 

 

 

Bill Downie Petit Verdot, Riverland

Bill Downie makes stunning Pinots from his Gippsland base, but they sell out quickly. So it’s great that he’s working with biodynamically farmed Riverland fruit to make characterful, natural wines like this intense, gutsy but pretty Petit Verdot, which is affordable and delicious.
£12.04, Liberty Wines, 020 7720 5350
 

 

 

 

The conventional

Tolpuddle Chardonnay, Tasmania

A serious, expressive Chardonnay made by Shaw & Smith’s Tasmanian outpost, Tolpuddle. This shows why people are getting excited about Tasmania again.
£28.80, Liberty Wines, 020 7720 5350

 

 

 

 

Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier, Canberra District

Tim Kirk has established a stellar reputation for this cool-climate gem. It’s now regarded as one of Australia’s finest wines, and ages beautifully.
£53.95, Liberty Wines, 020 7720 5350

 

 

 

 

10 Minutes by Tractor McCutcheon Pinot Noir, Mornington Peninsula

One of the leading wineries in the Mornington Peninsula, making elegant Pinot Noirs from a number of sites. The recent addition of Sandro Mosele as chief winemaker will only improve wines that are already very fine.
£39.80, Bancroft Wines, 020 7232 5440

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With a core team that includes Chris Losh, Miranda Fitzgerald, Laura Foster, Holly Motion and Isabella Sullivan, plus an impressive roster of columnist bartenders, sommeliers and specialist journalists, Imbibe collectively boasts hundreds of years of on-trade drinks industry experience and knowledge.

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