Natural. Lo-fi. Minimal intervention. Whatever you call this oft-misunderstood branch of wine, it’s dominating the conversation globally. Visit a good wine bar in San Francisco, London, Paris, Copenhagen or Tokyo and the menu will list at least a handful of natural labels. The same is true here. Chances are, you’ve drunk something natural without even knowing it.
In this country, we can mostly thank Rootstock Sydney festival for bringing these wines into the public consciousness. It was a genuine shock in June when founders Giorgio de Maria, Mike Bennie and James Hird announced the end of what some fans called “wine Christmas”. They also cancelled Rootstock Tokyo, which was to debut in November.
Between 2013 and 2017, Rootstock was the de facto summit for the country’s most progressive winemakers (and plenty from offshore, too). It drew thousands of attendees ready to taste, talk and learn. But apart from anything else, it was just a damn good party. “It was one of the best festivals,” says Anton van Klopper, who makes wine in the Adelaide Hills, under the Lucy Margaux label. He’s often considered the godfather of the Australian natural wine movement. “Some of the others around the world, like Raw, were quite expensive. Rootstock was not-for-profit; it helped build change.”
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Winemaking is commonly represented as a pure, agrarian process. In practice, it’s often more like manufacturing. In Australia, more than 50 organic and non-organic chemicals can legally be added to wine without being disclosed on the label. Isinglass, for example, is a more technical name for fish guts. The fining agent binds to particles suspended in wine and gives the final product a clear, appealing look. Egg whites and polyvinyl polypyrrolidone (a water-soluble polymer) are two alternatives. Other additives may be used to alter colour, texture, flavour, acidity and foaminess. Wine can also be treated mechanically, using centrifuges and reverse osmosis machines. In its first two years, Rootstock aimed to highlight producers that don’t use these machines or compounds – with the exception of sulphur dioxide, which occurs naturally in wine and may also be added as a preservative. “It put into the limelight Australian producers mostly working in a good manner,” says Liz Carey, co-organiser of Soulfor Wine, a younger, Rootstock-like festival held annually in Melbourne.
In 2015, Rootstock looked beyond wineries and started to consider vineyards. The festival published a manifesto, part of which banned non-organic fruit – that farmed using synthetic pesticides and fertilisers. The following year, the trouble started. “I did audits,” Bennie says. “I was actually ringing viticulturists and asking them, independently of the winemakers, how they were farming their vineyards. I caught a few people out and had to remove wines.”
When Rootstock started, natural wine was still something of an oddity – a hippie indulgence dismissed by much of the mainstream. And many people still see it that way: a scam, a fallacy, a Luddite fantasy. But by 2016, it had accumulated enough cultural capital that previously apathetic producers wanted to join in. “You have no idea how many people called me saying they will fit in the manifesto,” de Maria says. “And it was quite strict.” That was perhaps the first year that certain winemakers started to resent being left out. “They add a tiny bit of sulphur or there's just one herbicide spray [and they feel], ‘That's close enough’,” van Klopper says. “I guess that's what's started to fuel the unfriendliness between parties.”
Though van Klopper is a pioneer in this space, Lucy Margaux wines only became sulphur-free two years ago. You need a fair amount of skill to make wines this way – and without any of the other 50-plus additives permitted in wine, for that matter. “It's not just a choice,” van Klopper says. Most producers aren’t capable of it just yet, as they’ve only ever been taught to make wine the industrial way. Organic grapes are also extraordinarily hard to buy – verging on impossible – unless you own a vineyard and choose to farm that way. Van Klopper says it took him 10 years to learn how to grow without chemicals.
For most new and existing producers keen to break into natural wine, these hurdles put organic, additive-free wines out of reach. But it didn’t stop some from claiming – deceitfully or otherwise – they should be included at Rootstock, where their work could be tasted by hundreds of influential sommeliers and buyers. “As the festival has evolved, so too has the ‘natural wine’ scene,” Rootstock said in a statement regarding its closure. “It has broadened its umbrella, wonderfully, but in some cases nefariously. Philosophically this has led to a discomfort regarding some of the more underhanded elements occurring in natural wine, as marketing potentially overtakes its original essence. With an event of this scale, it is difficult to keep all the parties happy (including ourselves!).” This wasn’t the sole reason for cancelling Rootstock, though. The festival’s sheer scope demanded huge amounts of time from the trio – de Maria in particular – and they never received any outside financial support.
Bennie says cynicism around Rootstock’s demise is “unnecessary”. He’s proud of the revolution it sparked. “Not just for other small, artisan producers. Bigger companies are now using elements of natural wine or looking to their farming and questioning their practices. Rootstock is as big as anything that's happened in the last 25 years of Australian wine.”
Christian McCabe travels to a number of international wine festivals to source stock for his Melbourne wine bar, Embla. In his experience, the most businesslike festivals tend to survive, while those that start with overt ideologies or develop them over time, like Rootstock, seem to fizzle out after a few years. “It’s a real loss. Hopefully there's something else that keeps the culture together,” he says. McCabe hopes that whatever the next platform is, it’s not too hung up on rules. “If you go creating a whole lot of rules and exclusive groups – whether the criteria are valid or not – you just wind up with what we had before, which was a pretty boring wine industry pumping out commodity stuff.”
This tension between natural and not natural isn’t unique to Rootstock. Regardless of what you call natural wine, no country in the world has a legal definition for it. That’s led to a lot of confusion for drinkers, who perhaps think that natural wine is always funky, stinky or cloudy (it’s not – it can just as often taste gentler than conventionally made wine).
Even people within the industry have varied definitions. Purists say natural wine must be made with organic or biodynamic grapes; be fermented with wild and not lab-grown yeasts; have no additives; and not be filtered, pumped or otherwise mechanically manipulated. Others are happy with a small amount of sulphur or some filtration. Then there’s the issue of whether the grapes are picked by hand or by machine.
“It's extraordinarily vague,” says Campbell Burton, another organiser of Melbourne’s Soulfor Wine. “I know what I think it is. Someone else will have a different definition.” For this reason, he says lots of savvy producers have quit using the term altogether. For other winemakers, the looseness of the term is an easy way to boost their cred, much like how bakeries can claim to make “Australia’s best pies” – how do you measure or prove “best”? “Unfortunately the word ‘natural’ has become a marketing tool,” Carey says. She prefers the terms “organically farmed” and “minimal intervention”.
But for purists, even these phrases are too vague and allow unscrupulous makers to bypass the unwritten rules. Sam Vinciullo is a grape-grower and winemaker with 17 acres in Cowaramup, near Margaret River. He’s made huge sacrifices for what he believes in. Although his wines are completely sold out, he says he’s almost closed his business five times this year due to cash-flow issues. Last winter he lived in a tent at Si Vintners, a nearby winery. And before that, he got ripped off at a winery near Etna, Italy, and lost his life savings.
“Because there's no legal definition, there are guys that buy chemically farmed fruit, get it contract made [by someone else] and then tell people they’re natural. It’s a joke,” he says. “In the Australian wine scene, the people that are farming all their grapes themselves and adding nothing to it, I can count on one hand.”
Making wines like this isn’t a phase or a marketing pitch for Vinciullo. It’s a way of life. He has a 20 to 30 year plan for his property, which involves transitioning to permaculture, rather than the monoculture it is now. At present, his wines are made with nothing but his own organic grapes and the wild yeasts that live on the skins. They’re not fined, filtered or even pumped. He siphons everything manually, using buckets. “Only I touch my wine,” he says protectively, as if talking about his body. “My friends think I’m a bit crazy. But I’d rather not make the money – live on the streets or whatever – than compromise.” (He’s the Howard Roark of wine, essentially.)
This zealous approach seems to be working. Sam Vinciullo wines are a fixture on the lists at Australia’s top restaurants, including Ester in Sydney, Embla in Melbourne and Franklin in Hobart. Further afield, you can find them at Restaurant Relae (Copenhagen) and The Four Horsemen (New York), among others.
Even Vinciullo, though, admits his ascetic lifestyle isn’t an option for everyone. “I'm single, I've just got a dog. I can tough it out,” he says. De Maria has seen this attitude at the more hardcore organic wineries in Italy and France, where he regularly travels to buy wines for his import business, Giorgio de Maria Fun Wines. “If they have a bad vintage they don't just buy shit grapes [from elsewhere] to put something else out,” he says. “You can't ask people to do that, but for these people there's no other way. They'd rather be poor.”
That’s not to say the more natural a wine is, the better it is. There are lacklustre wines on both sides of the fence. The important thing, everyone agrees, is to bring some much-needed transparency to the industry, so consumers can understand what they’re drinking. “There's a shift – people want to know where things have come from,” Carey says. “And we're not just talking about wine. Within restaurants, people like to know what the breed of beef is, and who the farmer is.”
As things are, winemakers have no legal obligation to divulge what’s in their wine. The exception to this is sulphur, which must be declared with the words, “Preservative 220 (sulphur) added” or similar. And yet, there’s no requirement to say how much sulphur is in a wine (measured in parts per million), which has led to many labels stating, “minimal sulphur added”. This gets under Vinciullo’s skin. “What's minimal sulphur?” he says. “Why don't you put the number on the bottle? It's your choice to add sulphur. Don't be ashamed of how much you put in. You put it into your body.”
The obvious question here: why doesn’t the wine industry (and beer and spirits industries, for that matter) have to play by the same rules as everyone else? Every other packaged food and drink product in Australia must list its ingredients and nutritional content – a practice nobody can deny the usefulness or safety value of. Food Standards Australia New Zealand has the unsatisfying answer: “Alcoholic beverages are exempt from ingredient labelling because the ingredients used in the manufacture of alcoholic beverages are ‘substantially transformed’ during fermentation. Therefore providing a list of ingredients is unlikely to provide useful information for consumers. This approach aligns with international regulations, such as Codex Alimentarius standards.”
Bennie has a different take: “The alcohol lobby is extraordinarily strong. If you think about the most powerful wine and booze companies and how much of the market they corner, and how they much they contribute to taxation and therefore to revenue … ”
Where to from here, then? Changes to ingredient labelling laws could be decades away, if they happen at all. And as we’ve seen with the organic fruit and veggie movement, an independent certification process can be prohibitively expensive for small producers, who are often the most eager parties to follow these practices. “Which is why a lot of people farm organically or using biodynamic practices, but don't seek certification,” Carey says. “It's the same in Europe.” She’d like to see an online database that lists exactly what’s in each wine. France – the cradle of the natural wine movement – already has two such websites, Vins Naturels and Les Vins SAINS, but they’re fairly elitist and more focused on keeping non-conforming wines out than providing information for would-be consumers.
For now, the best you can do is find a restaurant, bottle shop or importer you trust, and ask lots of questions. Outside of that, look for labels that explicitly state “no added sulphur”, “no additives”, “unfined”, “unfiltered” and so on. Producers may not be obligated to say what’s in their wine, but they can’t call it something it’s not. And if all else fails, ask the producer directly. “I get weird little emails all the time,” van Klopper says. “People will email me and say, ‘Is your fruit organic?’ or ‘Do you add any sulphur?’ It's easy to communicate with anyone these days.”