In our Ask the Sommelier series, we put your wine-related questions to top sommeliers. In this instalment, sommelier at London’s Aulis, Charles Carron Brown explains all things natural wine.
‘I’ve noticed a real boom in natural wine at some of my favourite wine shops and among my friends, but it feels like something inaccessible for a more old-school drinker like myself. I’ve never really tried any ‘funky’ wines, so I’d like to know a bit more about the natural winemaking process, as well as if there are any of these wines that I could start out with.’
Steve from Cornwall, UK
Sommelier Charles Carron Brown responds:
‘Natural wine is a form of viticulture and winemaking where there is minimal manipulation, both in the vineyard and within the winemaking practices. It’s more of a concept than a rigidly defined term. Many producers use organic or biodynamic farming practices – like not using pesticides, cultivating good biodiversity in the vineyard, and handpicking grapes instead of using machinery – but aren’t certified organic, so you’d say that these wines fall under the ‘natural wine’ category. In a nutshell, natural wine is unadulterated fermented grape juice, with as little human intervention as possible.
‘In the vineyard, it’s all about using minimal intervention, or even going down the route of regenerative viticulture, with a general interest in looking after and giving back to the land on which the vines are grown. But without the strict rules of biodynamic or organic winemaking, producers have some more flexibility to create the style of wine that they feel represents the place in which its grown, and what they want to get from the land. For example, being a certified biodynamic winemaker includes following the biodynamic farming calendar for three years, which not all producers aiming to make more ‘natural’ wines want or are able to do.
To a lot of people, natural wine smells and tastes like a West Country cider
‘As in biodynamic and organic winemaking, additives that would adulterate the ‘natural’ flavour of the grapes aren’t added in natural wine. However, you’ll find sulphites for preserving purposes in some bottles. Because there’s no criteria for the amount of sulphites needed for a wine not to be classified as ‘natural’, winemakers can choose to add them or not during the winemaking process, depending on personal preference. Usually, naturally occurring yeasts that are found in the fruit are preferred, instead of adding them in during fermentation.
‘There are some preconceptions about the style of natural wine. To a lot of people, it smells and tastes like a West Country cider, and many are incredibly leftfield and are very funky, with yeasty flavours that are certainly not for everybody. Because of the minimal-intervention approach, lots of natural wines aren’t clarified and so they might look cloudy, funky and have sediment, but it’s important to keep an open mind, as lots of these wines are fresh and vibrant. One such wine is Clement Baraut’s Herbes Folles – a fresh, mineral wine with lots of green acidity. They can also be bone dry, sweet and everything in-between, just like non-natural wines. For people apprehensive about trying it, I’d say just give it a go, because natural wines are as diverse as their non-natural counterparts.
‘Natural winemaking is definitely a trend, and trends come and go, but I don’t think I see this one going anywhere anytime soon. It comes as part of the general shift in consumers becoming very conscious about where their food comes from, what goes into it, and the story behind it. With the general focus of natural winemakers being on the land on which the vines are grown, and celebrating the natural state of the grapes, the interest in natural wine is only, well, natural.
‘The interest in natural wine is particularly strong among younger wine drinkers, with the power of social media apps like Instagram having a big impact for the natural wine sector. Instagram is an amazing tool for showcasing producers with these stories and a passion for winemaking, so I think that plays a part in the rising popularity, too. I also think younger people are more interested in buying one higher-quality bottle of wine with an interesting look, feel and story to share with friends, rather than a case.’
Interview by Louella Berryman