The 1990s gave natural wines a bad name but, as Jeni Port discovers, local vignerons have upped their game, producing textural drops that are turning heads abroad
The growing season in 2011 – the wettest and coldest in years across much of Australia – brought trouble for many a winemaker. But for Michael and Susan Papps, the owners of Yelland & Papps in the Barossa, it brought unexpected enlightenment. To avoid disease and the fight for ripeness usually associated with cold temperatures and drenching rains in the lead-up to harvest, the Papps decided to pick their crop early."
We looked at the wines we’d made and they were beautifully spicy and savoury," says Michael." They had so much complexity and structure that we actually fell in love with them." Thus their Second Take range was born. The young couple had stumbled upon a different way of thinking about wine, which led them deeper and deeper into alternative winemaking territory – the realms of natural, low-intervention, minimal-intervention and lo-fi wines.
A champion of natural styles, the American wine writer Alice Feiring prefers to describe drops produced using these techniques as “authentic”." For us," says Michael," it’s a less-is-more approach." Minimal intervention, probably the oldest form of winemaking, is enjoying a resurgence. From hipster wine bars in New York and Sydney to the bottle shops of Stockholm and London, they’re being heralded as a sustainable, environmentally responsible answer to a planet in trouble. Basically, the term indicates that nothing has been added to or taken away from the wine. In the vineyard, herbicides and pesticides are out. In the winery, wild yeasts kickstart fermentation rather than man-made cultured yeasts.
The most common response from those tasting low-intervention wines for the first time is, “It tastes alive.”
Minimal sulphur dioxide (preservative) is employed and additives are verboten, as is fining (to clarify and stabilise) and filtration (to remove solid particles)." Sustainable winemaking is not going to go away," says Alister Purbrick, a winemaker who might have once been called conventional." That’s simply because, in the western world, matters of the environment are becoming more and more front of mind." The Nagambie Lakes producer runs a 159-year-old, family-owned label, Tahbilk, and is embracing organic growing methods and vegan-friendly wines. In 2013, the winery gained carbon-neutral accreditation.
Together with his son, Matt, and daughter-in-law, Lentil, Alister is about to launch a minimal-intervention range called Minimum. Matt and Lentil, who advocate sustainable living through their books and website, Grown & Gathered (grownandgathered. com. au), designed the label and eco-friendly packaging, which includes corks rather than aluminium screw caps. But before the range came about, the vineyard and winery were converted to organic grape growing. Not only does it take three years to gain Australian Certified Organic accreditation, it took the Purbricks a while to get used to doing things differently."
Organic and minimal intervention is not a decision you take lightly," says Alister." When we were looking at it, the category was only just getting started in Australia. But it’s really skyrocketed across the United Kingdom, Scandinavia and America in the last two-and-a-half years." Indeed, Australian organic wine sales are reportedly growing at 54 per cent per year (admittedly that’s from a small base). Overseas, Europe is driving growth; according to drinks market analyst IWSR, it will account for 78 per cent of the global organic wine market by 2022. The most common response from those tasting natural or low intervention wines for the first time is," It tastes alive."
Savoury and textural, with less oak and funky, rustic fruit flavours, natural wines vary greatly, though the overall impression is similar. The look and taste is often distinctly different to the more elegant and precise wines many drinkers are accustomed to.
At Unico Zelo in the Adelaide Hills, Brendan and Laura Carter are promoting the textural and savoury component of their Italian grape varieties.
Texture, especially in white wines, will be a new experience for many." We can do various things with texture from a technical point of view," says Carter."
For instance, winemakers are only just starting to wake up to the benefits of skin contact [for white wine]." The Unico Zelo Fiano, one of their most successful releases, is widely celebrated for its waxy texture, something that would have been unknown 10 years ago. While there’s certainly a market for minimal-intervention wines, it’s been held back by a problem that has long plagued these styles. It’s to do with quality. The birth of the modern natural movement came about in Italy’s north-east, in the Friuli region, in the mid-1990s.
We can do various things with texture from a technical point of view... Winemakers are only just starting to wake up to the benefits of skin contact.
It was led by labels, like Radikon, Gravner and Schiopetto, that wanted to celebrate their region and its indigenous grapes and to develop their own styles rather than be slaves to the then-popular French methods. A decade or so ago, these styles were taken up with gusto by enthusiasts in Australia, many of them untrained in the art of making wine. The wines that resulted were often faulty and wound up tainting the category." We’ve all had heaps of them [faulty minimal-intervention wines] and I don’t understand why it has to be that way," says Joe Holyman of Stoney Rise in the Tamar Valley, who was part of the expert team that created the low-impact Brian 3 Pinots."
I’m not a trained winemaker but I can make wines without sulphur in them and that don’t have any faults." As many have come to discover, it’s actually hard to do little in the winery. The quality of the raw ingredient – the grapes – is essential, as is attention to detail. Plus, minimal-intervention wines end to perform poorly in conventional Australian wine shows and also when reviewed by well-known critics." Early on, we sent our Roussanne to [leading critic] James Halliday," explains Michael Papps."
He sent us an email to say, ‘I think something went wrong with your filtration process... There were lees in it. ’ We had to say, ‘That’s the way you’re meant to drink it! ’”Lees (dead yeast cells, grape seeds and pulp) are usually removed to make the wine appear clearer. At a wine show, judges are expected to score on colour (as well as aroma and flavour) and for this reason, low-intervention wines have been slow to infiltrate the show system. But at the progressive Limestone Coast Wine Show, chair Sarah Pidgeon and her committee are embracing new-wave wines."
I would say that the judges are actively looking for good examples of natural wines," says Pidgeon, a winemaker at Wynns Coonawarra Estate." Great wines will generally be rewarded by a modern judging panel that has been set with diversity of opinion in mind," she says." But natural or not, wines that have obvious faults, like high volatile acidity or oxidation, will probably not do well."
And with more experienced makers venturing down the minimal-intervention path, we can expect the quality of these drops to continue to improve, which is good news for discerning drinkers – and the planet.
A new language to learn
Indicates the wine has been grown and produced according to biodynamic principles influenced by the theories of Rudolf Steiner. These theories emphasise the health and balance of the soil and the role of celestial bodies and moon phases.
Minimal- and low-intervention:
Means less-harmful chemicals (or no harmful chemicals at all) have been used in the vineyard and during the fining and filtration process. A sustainable way to go.
A loose term with no legal definition, accreditation or otherwise. The winery may have adopted some biodynamic, low- or minimal intervention techniques.
Amber or skin-contact:
A white wine made like a red, using skin contact (where grape skins are macerated with the juice). Skins provide colour – from yellow to orange, brown and blush – in addition to texture and flavour. Something different to look at and taste.
Generally indicates the grapes have been grown free of – or with minimal – chemical intervention. The label can be loosely interpreted but serious makers aim for accreditation.
Short for Pétillant Naturel (French for ‘naturally sparkling’). These sparkling wines are bottled before they finish primary fermentation, retaining their lees and carbon dioxide. The result is fizzy, cloudy and slightly funky.
Vegan and vegetarian:
Wines produced without the use of animal products, both in the vineyard (fertiliser) and winery (traditionally egg whites or isinglass are used for fining).