Vegan. Natural. Biodynamic. Orange. Wine is full of trendy buzz-words at the moment. Darren Smith is here to help you separate your whole-bunch from your half-cocked, as we run through a selection of the most common ones
1 - Natural
The daddy of them all. We’re all agreed by now that the biggest wine industry schism of the past 10-20 years has been between ‘natural’ and ‘conventional’ wines - between ‘industrial’ wine producers and the ever-expanding group of “artisanal” ones who believe industrial methods have stripped wine of its soul.
‘Natural wine’ is essentially a misnomer – wine is made by humans, after all; it doesn’t occur spontaneously. But even putting such pedantry aside, ‘natural’ should only apply to wines that have been made without any interventions – wines which have been spontaneously fermented, unfined and unfiltered, and to which no tannins, enzymes, vitamins, sugars, acids or – most importantly – SO2 has been added. We should remember that only a vanishingly small percentage of wines are made with no SO2 additions. Perhaps the only solution is to rename the category ‘Natural-ish Wine’.
Ultimately the umbrella term doesn’t matter so much. It’s when natural wine language takes an ideological turn that we get into a buzzwordy mess: raw, wild, pure, real, honest - these are very appealing descriptions that will turn the heads of the idealistic, health-conscious wino-about-town.
But they do co-opt language in a way that seems fairly dubious. After all, there are plenty of wine producers out there who work carefully with minimal intervention and who would be allowed a certain amount of justified indignation by being categorised outside this group. ‘My wine is not real, is not honest?’ Most terroir-focused wine producers strive for that and always have.
2 - Organic/biodynamic
It’s becoming more and more important to be clear to consumers about whether a wine is organic, biodynamic or natural. Consumers routinely conflate these categories, and somms are sufficiently uninformed or unsure about them for the ambiguity to continue.
See Ronan Sayburn MS’s take on organic and biodynamic here.
In the EU at least, organic is not the same as natural. Even in certified organic wine, the EU permits more than 50 different additives and processing aids - several of them non-organic (it’s different in the US, where if a wine is labelled 100% organic it is basically natural – even sulphites are not permitted).
‘Biodynamic’ tends to be more reliable than ‘organic’ since biodynamic vineyards meet the requirements of organic certification, but then have additional criteria. But certification can be expensive, so many winegrowers opt to implement biodynamic practices without becoming certified, or pick and choose, meaning they don’t meet all certification criteria.
Then there’s the issue of transnational certifying bodies with discretionary rules depending on which country you’re in – eg, Demeter Germany permitting commercial yeast and DAP where every other Demeter ‘branch’ prohibits it.
But for all the ambiguity, biodynamics is booming. Thirty years ago, there were perhaps fewer than 50 wine producers in the world working this way. Now you see bars serving only biodynamic wines – and the punters can’t get enough of it.
3 - Wholebunch
It’s hot in Burgundy, the Rhone Valley, New Zealand, Australia, with Pinot, Grenache, Tempranillo – you name it... wholebunch is even de rigueur in Bordeaux.
Before the advent of crusher-destemmers, wholebunch would have been the norm rather than the exception, but it’s not historical authenticity that’s driving the current trend – rather a pursuit of freshness (adding stems to the must reduces sugar concentration, ultimately lowering alcohol) and complexity. The key seems to be using carefully sorted bunches in order to avoid green or muddy flavours in the finished wine.
A great example of where it works is with a thoughtful, experienced winemaker like Sue Bell in Coonawarra, says Nik Darlington of Red Squirrel Wines. ‘She uses a lot of whole-bunch fermentation on her Wrattonbully Shiraz,’ he adds, ‘bringing a beautiful freshness to the wine that belies its South Australian origins and takes people by surprise.’
4 - Orange
No longer a sideshow, orange wine is here to stay; although ‘skin contact’ would seem a more sensible umbrella term since some wines are several shades shy of orange. It’s also important to acknowledge this: just because a wine is orange does not mean it is natural.
As Simon Woolf, author of The Amber Revolution - the first book specialising in orange wines – explains: ‘Orange wine describes a technique - fermenting white grapes together with their skins - whereas natural wine describes a much broader philosophy that includes all styles of wine, from sparkling to white to red and of course orange.
‘Where it gets confusing is that 99% of all growers who are willed to make orange wine tend to be those operating at the natural end of the spectrum - but it doesn't always hold true. Chapel Down's Orange Bacchus, for example, was filtered, fined and sulphured, not really fitting the profile of a natural wine.’
This is frequently a mistake made not just by punters but by seasoned wine professionals. Be sure that you make that distinction.
Years ago there were fewer than 50 biodynamic wine producers in the world. Now you see bars serving only biodynamic wines – and the punters can’t get enough of it.
5 - Old vine/pre-phylloxera/ungrafted
Ah the romance of the gnarly, 200-year-old, pre-phylloxera heritage vine, grinding out ambrosial little grape bunches like blood from a stone to make wine as profound as history itself. This, alas, is an oversimplification.
Old vines are 'not necessary and not sufficient' for making good wine, says star Rhone producer Eric Texier. For some varieties, yes, old vines are preferable– eg Grenache; for others, Roussanne for example, it makes no difference. Often terms like vieilles vignes and Alte Reben are pure marketing fluff.
Far more important than having old vines, Texier says, is having good massal selection to ensure you have the diversity of fruit to make your wine interesting and complex.
6 - Wild ferment
‘Spontaneous fermentation’ with ‘wild’ or ‘ambient’ yeasts has a certain allure to it. We all like a bit of wildness don’t we? Even if we don’t know quite what it means.
Much as industrial winemaking dominates the industry, it’s estimated that around 80% of winemaking is done via spontaneous fermentation. It is the most important element of vinification for your wine, Rhone natural-ish winemaker Eric Texier says. The natural microbial population that results from spontaneous fermentation gives each wine its special and unique personality.
It’s essential if you’re to distinguish tiny differences of terroir too, Texier adds, citing the lamentable example of Bordeaux, a region which he says has become devoid of a sense of place owing to its preference for cultivated yeasts.
7 - Vegan
When we think about the vegan credentials of wine, we usually think about the animal-based fining agents that can be used in the cellar. These days, among the most prevalent are isinglass (collagen from fish bladders), gelatin, casein (milk protein) and albumen (egg whites).
What complicates the issue is that there is no obligation for winemakers to state on their labels whether they've used animal products. ‘Unfined and unfiltered’ avoids doubt. ‘Organic’ certainly doesn’t. Neither does ‘biodynamic’.
Skip biodynamic wine if you are hard-core vegan.
Even if a biodynamic producer avoids using animal proteins to fine their wine, what about the cow horn manure used to make Preparation BD500, or the crushed egg shells often used in soil treatments?
'There is lots of discussion on the internet and some recommend skipping biodynamic wine if you are hard-core vegan unless you can feel comfortable that the whole process is humane,' says Wendy Tillman, viticulturist at the biodynamic Seresin estate in New Zealand.
For the record, the Vegan Society UK is non-committal on soil husbandry, which is not included in the Vegan Trademark criteria.
‘Being vegan is about trying to do your best to minimise animal suffering and choosing the vegan alternative as far as is possible and practicable,’ says Vegan Society spokesperson Dominika Piasecka.
8 - Volcanic
I’ve written a fair amount about ‘volcanic wines’ – not least for Imbibe – and am fascinated by volcanoes and volcanic regions. The wines can be thrilling too – mineral, powerful and sometimes smoky. But even I have to admit that here’s a buzz-concept which ought to be kept on a leash.
To have the sommelier world buzzing about wines from Etna or Santorini is great for mixing things up, but spare a thought for the poor wine drinker, and don’t let him/her be misled into thinking that there is a singular quality which they will consistently find in all volcanic wines (the crap that’s spouted about vulcanicity, wines tasting of the volcano or somehow of volcanic ash, wines imbued with the volcano’s power and fieriness of the volcano).
As the volcanic wine specialist John Szabo MS freely admits, there is not one ‘volcanic wine’; there are many ‘volcanic wines’ with different attributes depending on other aspects of terroir and winemaking. Don’t define a category by soil type, in other words – unless you’re also going to do the same for limestone or schist, etc.
9 - Minerality
Minerality is a term fraught with misunderstanding. Many writers and somms have stopped using it. It covers everything from acidity to terroir to something else, something textural, a sort of weightless gravity to some, the sense of sucking a stone to others. It’s usually seen as a good thing but it’s a term that can explain away the dullness of a dull and neutral wine.
Minerality is different from other descriptors we have for wine – pineapple, hay, old leather, whatever – in that it is actually taken literally. We should be wary of that. Anyone who tries to sell you minerality as the impression of geology carries the heady whiff of bullscheisse.
Anyone who tries to sell you minerality as the impression of geology carries the heady whiff of bullscheisse.
The ‘flashpoint of misunderstanding’, says geologist professor Alex Maltman, is that geological minerals, the ones contained in vineyard rocks, are not the same thing as the nutrient minerals that vines use to grow. Most nutrient minerals come from humus in the topsoil; the minerals in the vineyard bedrock – minerals in the geological sense – are almost all compounds, and usually complex and insoluble ones at that.
In other words, these geological minerals are actually not available for the vine to take up. So whatever minerality is, it is not the literal taste of rocks.
10 - Amphora-aged
It’s the romance again, isn’t it? Amphorae, qvevris, tinajas, karasis – the perfume of history, the wisdom and mystery of the very old. Frank Cornelissen once put me in my place about amphorae, pointing out that they’re 'just a piece of cellar equipment, just like barriques, fiberglass, HDPE, stainless steel, peristaltic pumps, etc”, adding that “this is a technique and NOT religion.'
Perhaps a certain faddishness about amphorae has become a little more apparent in recent years, but the way amphorae have encouraged winemakers to experiment away from steel and wood, and look at the special properties of egg-shaped clay and concrete vessels, has made wine a lot more interesting than it otherwise would be.
Whether you believe in their sacred elemental power, think they give the best possible expression of terroir - as do producers like Giusto Occhipinti of COS in Sicily - or are simply an extra colour in the winemaker’s palette, they correlate with some phenomenally pure and profound wines.