This is a post that is probably going to introduce many of you to a trend that is very new, and yet as old as the hills. It’s become a pet subject of mine lately. My efforts to take eating and drinking back to no-brainer basics has seen me head here. Ditto my efforts to get back to a more basic, robust, real way of life.

Image via Pinterest
Image via Pinterest

I’m hoping by the time you get to the bottom you’ll be equally intrigued. So do natural wine enthusiasts Mike Bennie, a wine journo and organiser of natural wine events, including the Sydney Rootstock festival, and Richard Harkham, Hunter Valley natural winemaker and the producer of this natural wine documentary, who I’ve co-opted to pipe in with their pithy insights along the way. OK, let’s pop a cork…

What is natural wine?

Good question, no straight-forward answer. I’d describe it as “minimally fiddled with”. Or the equivalent of using pure rosehip oil as a moisturiser (one ingredient, no fuss, no added bits), or of using a glug of olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice as your salad dressing…get the drift?
It’s keeping things as simple as possible and as close to the ancient practice of squashing some hand-picked grapes in a vat.

Mike adds that it’s a bit of an umbrella term that can describe completely unadorned wines (quite literally hand-picked and squashed grapes) from biodynamic vineyards made with minimal intervention and put to bottle without sulphur. But it can also include wines a bit further up the fiddled-with spectrum – wines from sustainably farmed vineyards with some sulphur addition used to get wine to bottle. As a rule natural wines include most or all of the following tenets: sustainable and organic and/or biodynamic viticulture, hand-picking of grapes, no heavy machinery, low new oak usage (if at all), natural fermentation, no chemical or winemaking product additions, minimal (or no) sulphur use.

Richard sees natural wine as being like a naked body (“You can see all the blemishes”) and points out two interesting factoids:

  • 1. This vagueness as to what constitutes a natural wine causes lots of arguments within the “movement”. [Indeed, note some of the conjecture in the emerging comments below – Sarah.]
  • 2. The modern natural wine “movement” began as a backlash to the science and technology that’s led to a loss of identity and personality in wine.

Why natural wine?

There are a few things that appeal to me.

* It simplifies. It cuts out tools and processes and infrastructure. Less things mean less carbon miles.

* It eliminates or minimises the use of 58 additives currently legal in winemaking. Which means less hangovers and toxicness. Says Richard: “Adjustment such as adding acids, tannins, and enzymes, or adjusting colour are not the vibe in natural wine circles. Add nothing to your wine throughout vinification and your wine’s personality will be pure and honest to its place and time.”

* And in doing so, it means wine makers have to rely on high quality fruit (in the absence of intervention to make up for low-grade stuff). It means the grapes have to be cared for super well, to ensure they don’t attract disease. Says Richard, “There is no room for error. The grapes all need to be handpicked, the winery needs to be completely clean and sterile as the little bit of microbial infection will make the wine go bad and your winemaking needs to be spot on as there is no recourse.”

* From a philosophical standpoint, it brings less perfection to the equation. I love the “gamble” of trying a natural wine – you don’t know what you’re going to get because the wine maker hasn’t added stuff to ensure consistency. Having less perfection is very free-ing…it leads to life being more of a fun experiment and forces us to back off from disappointment.

* Also, it gets us down and grubby and organic with our food. Natural wines tend to be an “organic” experience. Like eating a rustic damper around a campfire. Or a hearty roast on a farm where the beast was killed the day before. Says Mike, “It brings winemaking and wine growing closer to nature.”

Natural wines might lack finesse, but I think less finesses is what we all seek these days.

* Mike adds that it brings a greater interest in the provenance of wine. And in sustainable practices. “It’s like knowing your eggs are free range, or your meat is organic and free range; wine should be sourced in the same way if you are eating or thinking this way.” Nice one!

* It gets us soulful and real. Richard made this lovely point: “We believe wine is alive and is a living being, we are sick of soulless wines manipulated and worked to the maximum. Let’s go back to nature, let’s forget about what science and numbers say, let’s go by taste and feel.”

Richard is passionate on this point: “My ultimate aim is to give you a clear connection in its purest form to the grapes, yeast, root, leaf, soil, rain, sunlight, stones, hail, wind, and all the events that happened in the year before, preserved in a bottle that can be taken anywhere in the world but will always take you back to its place of origin. Every time you add an artificial flavour you mask one of the natural flavours of the land and the soil.” Love this.

* It’s sustainable. It promotes practices that give back to the earth and don’t detract.

Organic vs natural?

Not all natural wines are organic or biodynamic. A natural wine is simply a wine that has been encouraged to change the state of the fruit on the vine to a liquid in the bottle – through wild yeasts to encourage that transformation – no additions or manipulations, and with minimal handling or interference in the winery.

The Wine Idealist added his thoughts in the comments below on this: There are many wines that I would classify as being natural, yet have been grown from conventional (ie. chemical) vineyards. Of course, there winegrowers are striving towards organics, and may use some biodynamic principals, but the fruit is not always organic, or biodynamic.

The deal with sulphites (SO2)

For me, I find less sulphites in my wine means less crappy, gnawing feeling in the morning and also less waking up in the middle of the night. Apparently we are all allergic to sulphur. Richard cites this I-don’t-recommend-this-at-home experiment: if you put a teaspoon in a cup and mix it with water, it doesn’t matter who you are, you will cough, choke or splutter. It’s just that some of us are more allergic than others. Asthmatics can’t have any sulphur. Others get bad migraines, rashes or really bad hangovers.

Mike adds this sad addition: “The more sulphur used, the less able the wine is to show its full potential. Too much sulphur obscures fruit character and causes ‘reductive’ characters in which aroma and flavour are … depressed.”

This consideration from Richard is also interesting: “Sulphites are not bad per se , they come from the earth.” But he suggests reliance on them can mean a winemaker will allow mouldy grapes, unclean wineries or bad winemaking methods.

What about this orange wine business?

Yep, orange wines are, in fact, orange. They’re white wines that are fermented with the skin (white wines normally have their skins removed first) which sees them wind up an orangey colour. Why do such a thing? Well, as with red wine, it means theannin and other compounds can then lend character to the wine. Mike reckons, “they are usually very textural with light to firm chalky tannins, exotic perfumes and bright acidity. They can be very compelling wines driven by extracting all the ‘terroir’ information from grapes, and are particularly versatile with a breadth of foods.” There you go.

Orange winemaking is kind of on the “living in a yurt with a horse-drawn cart for transport” end of the spectrum.

As an FYI, Harkham wines is working on a “orange biblical wine project” right now where Semillon grapes are fermented in clay amphorae made to the same dimensions as ancient ones. “I am making this wine with no electricity like in ancient times as a green and anti-modernisation project”. Which makes a visit to his cellar door even more worthwhile, right?

Harkham wine cellar door
Harkham wine cellar door

As another FYI, his cellar door is open Mon-Fri by appointment and Sat-Sun from 10am-5pm.

Where and how to buy natural wines

Here’s a few tips I employ to scout out natural wines as often as possible. My approach is this: I want to support the industry and create demand!

* Every time I go out for dinner (here and overseas) I now ask if the restaurant has any natural wines by the glass (since I generally only drink one glass at a time). They might do, even if they don’t promote it.

* What I often find: staff are happy to even open a bottle from scratch and sell by the glass (if they don’t normally) because they are keen to sample it, too.

* I tend to choose restaurants that I now know have natural wines on the menu (from Australia and beyond):

  • Fratelli Paradiso, Sydney NSW
  • Water Under Moon (Builders Arms), Melbourne VIC
  • Harkham Wine Cellar Door, Hunter Valley NSW
  • Gourmet Life, Sydney NSW
  • Chiswick Gardens, Sydney NSW
  • Ester, Sydney NSW
  • Four Seasons Hotel, Sydney NSW
  • Hickson’s Food & Wine, Sydney NSW
  • Icebergs Dining Room and Bar, Sydney NSW
  • Love, Tilly Devine, Sydney NSW
  • Monopole, Sydney NSW
  • Neighbourhood Wine, VIC
  • Peppers Mineral Springs Retreat, VIC
  • Seddon Wine Store, Melbourne VIC
  • Wildfire Restaurant, Sydney NSW
  • The Tilbury Hotel, Sydney NSW
  • 6 Mary Street, Sydney NSW
  • Balthazar Restaurant & Wine Bar, WA
  • Berowra Waters Inn, NSW
  • Bentley Bar, Sydney NSW
  • Bonds Corner Fine Wine, NSW
  • DRNKS, Sydney NSW
  • East Ocean Restaurant, Sydney NSW
  • The Bathers Pavilion, Sydney NSW
  • The George, QLD
  • North Bondi Fish, Sydney NSW
  • Vaucluse Cellars, Sydney NSW
  • The Oak Barrel, Sydney NSW
  • Australian Wine Centre, NSW
  • Aria, Sydney NSW
  • Billy Kwong, Sydney NSW
  • Five Way Cellars, Sydney NSW
  • Andrew Guard Fine Wines, NSW
  • Fix St James, Sydney NSW

If you want to learn more, look out for wine writers such as Mike Bennie (!), Max Allen , Daniel Honan (the wine idealist), Alice Fiering and Andrew Jefford. Also, check out DRNKS.com. I read about Joel on Broadsheet and I love what he’s doing. They specialise in natural, sustainable and organic wines, and they bring the drinks to you!

Here’s a wine I personally recommend: biodynamic red wine (completely sugar free) from Ben at Blind Corner.

Please add names of places that you know support natural wines in your neck…

Have your say, leave a comment.

  • ET

    Does anybody know any natural wine suppliers in Melbourne?

    • I’ll ask the boys to help with this one!

    • MikeBennie

      Hey ET, DRNKS.com is national and online, and as for suppliers, do you mean wholesalers of ‘natural wine’ or retailers? In Melbourne, City Wine Shop, Blackhearts & Sparrows, Harry & Frankies are some names that come to mind. I would also go drink at Clever Polly’s wine bar so you can ‘taste before you buy’ so to speak – they have an awesome range.

  • Felicity

    Just bought a case of half bottles from wild fox wines. Biodynamic and preservative free. Really great wines and the half bottle is perfect for only a couple of glasses!

    • Jem

      I totally agree, so yummy!!

  • Di

    toxicness?

  • Great read! Sulphites in wine/cider/beer are the worst! Have learnt to avoid them, far from my binge drinking younger days where my allergy to sulphites would cause such horrible gut upset that I would pass out in a nightclub bathroom from gut pain before the alcohol even kicked in (good friends are a savior).

    Live and learn!

    I had totally written off being able to drink wine (in moderation, now I’m older and wiser) but learning about natural wines gives me hope, I never knew such a thing existed!

  • The Wine Idealist

    Great post! It’s awesome to see the spread of communication on this subject… one thing though.

    NOT ALL natural wines are organic, or biodynamic. A natural wine is simply a wine has been encouraged to change the state of the fruit on the vine to a liquid in the bottle, through wild yeasts to encourage that transformation, no additions or manipulations, minimal handling and interference in the winery. There are many wines that I would classify as being natural, yet have been grown from conventional (ie. chemical) vineyards. Of course, there winegrowers are striving towards organics, and may use some biodynamic principals, but the fruit is not always organic, or biodynamic. See the definitions page on my website for more details.

    Thanks for the plug at the end of the post! Nice to be counted amongst such great company! X

    • Thanks for this clarification. Adds to the clusterf*cky issues with defining it! I’ll amend to reflect the above.

      • MikeBennie

        I would humbly suggest that common tenets of ‘natural wine’ suggest that the vineyards for natural wines would be farmed organically or biodynamically (or beyond this, have never had any chemicals used in the viticulture at all). ‘Striving towards organics’ means chemical intervention in vineyards occurs at some point. The most important thing is transparency from vineyard to bottle, the reflection of a less-interfered with ‘terroir’ – the vineyard is always most important, not the practice of ‘change the state of fruit on the vine to liquid in the bottle’. It shouldn’t be about the process, this comes after growing amazing, delicious, naturally healthy fruit.

  • for anyone looking for some “lo-fi” wines on the Northside of
    the bridge, we have a great range most varieties and always happy to help, talk
    and taste you through these fantastic wines .. pop on into Bonds
    Cnr 395 Sailors Bay rd Northbridge or next week on http://www.bondscnr.com

  • also definatley worth checking out Fix St James in Sydney city.. awsome wine list and the man in the know when it come to all things funky

    • ah yes, I’ll add to the list if they def serve naturals.

  • Napoleon

    Orange wines as in those from the Orange wine region right?

    Also, here’s someone looking at actual data on sulphites in wine http://winefolly.com/tutorial/sulfites-in-wine/ I don’t imagine you eat or drink anything on this list given your natural life style but it’s still good for some perspective.

    You know what gives me headaches after a few wine? It’s the alcohol 😉

  • Chris

    Great article, but I think the ‘experiment in a cup’ demonstration of So2 is misleading.
    Our certifcation (Biodynamic) allows 20mg/L of So2 in the finished wine; the 5g (teaspoon) Richard suggests dissolving in a cup of water is sufficient sulfur for us to treat 250L of wine.
    That’s a little like demonstrating the danger of excess water consumption by drowning somebody – technically accurate but excessively extreme.

    • I know what you mean…I think it’s to illustrate EVERYONE is allergic…but it’s a matter of degree.

  • Lancashire Wine School

    Good article, though I don’t fully agree with the section on sulphites, you could say the same about alcohol!

  • Jacki

    I’m from the northern rivers in NSW. Any bottleshops u know of in the Byron Shire that carry natural wines?

    • hmmmm, wouldn’t be surprised if Harvest in Newrybar does.

  • The Wine Idealist

    Get to Clever Polly’s and Harry & Frankie’s.

  • Tom

    In Melbourne; Clever Polly’s, can’t go past it. One Pallet and Living Wines have great imported selections that are available online, best to subscribe to their mailing list and get them as they release them, check out their websites. Happy drinking 🙂

    • Tom

      And Persillade too, plenty of other restaurants and bars have natural selections on their lists, just hound the sommelier about them!

  • Kristy Dillon

    La Cantina in the King Valley, North East Victoria is amazing! http://www.lacantinakingvalley.com.au
    You can buy online. No hangovers with these #TriedAndTested

  • Mark

    121 BC, 10 William St, Momofuku Seiobo, Wine Library in Sydney. Check out Town Mouse, Neighbourhood, Persillade in Melbourne. Enoteca 1889 in Brisbane. Been drinking ‘natural’ wines for a few years now and it’s great to see a rise in popularity…they are everywhere! Bottoms up!

  • Jem

    Dan Murphys has a organic wine section, I like a Cockatoo Ridge red they sell there and also Wild Fox Wines are so so delicious! I get really bad hangovers from wine preservatives so I stick with organic or biodynamic wines with no preversatives.

    • sandi

      would you tell me where the George restaurant
      is in Queensland I cant find it listed

  • Jon Harris

    Any thoughts on SO2GO Sarah?
    http://so2go.com.au/about-so2go/so2go-and-sulphur/
    It supposedly reduces/removes the sulphites on a drink by drink basis, resulting in better flavour and less toxciness… haven’t tried it myself yet.

    Of course adding yet another additive to remove previously added additives is not ideal at all!!!! But it could prove an effective ‘occasional’ solution…

  • annaoutram

    I would love a list of natural wines available in Tasmania! Are they available in bottleshops or do you have to go direct to the vineyards?

  • Liv

    Any natural wine in Canberra?

  • Selina

    Can you buy them online at all??!

  • another one for Sydneys north shore, Wilcox bar and resturant in cammeray as small but good range

  • Daniel L

    Bravo ! One of the best written articles ever about natural wine! I am so happy that more and more people sharing the same passion about natural wine and more natural life in general… Thank you very much for writing this post ! I was there at Rootstock festival in January ( on the day two ) and I was absolutely mesmerised with the variety of orange wines 🙂 Also, had a nice opportunity to meet great local natural wine maker Richard Harkham . His Shiraz is fabulous wine !

    I am looking forward to visit his winery up there in the Pokolbin soon, but meanwhile, I am getting Harkham wine from Vaucluse Cellars… The workshop about wine storage was great too and from now on, I won’t miss the opportunity to be present on Rootstock Festival for the full length… 🙂

    There are still many more natural wines to experience and hope that bigger variety will be more available in many more cellars and restaurants around country soon…
    Again, thank You for your great passion and ability to spread a beautiful word about the best things in life !

  • Travis Tausend

    Nice post. In South Australia you can get natural wines @ Cork Wine Cafe who serve nothing but.

  • in brisbane i head to Craft Wine + Beer in Red Hill. they know their stuff about wine and stock natural wine that is locally made. they also make their own natural wine too. a bunch of very knowledgeable staff that are friendly and really helpful.

  • trish

    i’m off to five way cellars right now, maybe I can have a glass of wine without developing a migraine…!!

  • Renee

    thanks for this post Sarah (and The Wine Idealist)! I found and enjoy a natural wine but didn’t really understand what it meant – except to say I feel much better drinking it, physically & otherwise!

  • DavidMDriscoll

    Biodynamic? Modern witch-craft!

    Just look up biodynamic agriculture in wikipedia – homeopathy and burying a cow skull in a field – please!

  • Crystal

    Yes thanks for asking about Melbourne suppliers – only one and that’s in Seddon. I’ve had to give up drinking commercial wines, even the really expensive ones because of the sulphites generally. I occasionally can’t resist a good red or a cool fresh white but then spend the rest of the evening coping with a fiercely runny nose and plugged up sinuses. Would love to come back to the land of the living and enjoy raising a glass or two at the end (or middle) of the day.

  • Amy Landry

    I’m with you on this one Sarah!

    I’m not a big drinker at all. But when I do I absolutely consider how natural my wine is. As a lifelong asthmatic, on medication daily for 28 years (until I weened myself off through Ayurveda and pranayama), I have always been diligant with minimising sulphites specifically!

    I’d love to recommend trying http://www.botobolar.com – they’re from Mudgee, are certified organic, and have preservative free wines. In fact they’re Australia’s oldest Organic vineyard. Their wines can be purchased at some large liquor stores, like Dan Murphys, as well as direct of course. Worth a drive up that way for sure!

  • Maria

    Thx so much -I have been after this for a year for our restaurant in Glebe. Alfie and Hetty can be added to your list in next few weeks. 🙂

  • Katie

    How about any “natural wines” grown in or around WA state (I’m in Spokane- a short distance from Yakima, Walla, Walla, Columbia Valley, Okanagan in BC, etc.)? How would these labels/titles translate into American organic/biodynamic lingo? Or are they the same?

  • Sabina

    In regards organic or biodynamic:

    My local independently run vino shop in Williamstown (Vic) – Montys of Williamstown at 44 Thompson street have a great organic range – and I like to support the small businesses rather than Liquorland etc. Yarraville cellars do also as well as the Seddon one. Organic wholefoods on Smith St, Fitzroy have an organic wine range.

    Or via the net to anywhere in Oz http://www.organicwine.com.au/ – mixed 12 organic cleanskins starting at $138

    Restaurants include Yongs Green Food on Brunswick St, Fitzroy for divine biodynamic wine and great organic food.

    Basically I encourage you to ask at your local wine shop; the more consumer requests the more they will decide to stock.

    I love organic wine. You can feel the life energy, the spirit in the wine. When I drink regular wine now it tastes ‘dead’ energetically, its quite distinct.

  • LV

    What about in Tassie?

    • ARH

      Check out http://www.livingwines.com.au – Roger and Sue can sort you out with some stunning french varietals. They’re incredibly knowledgeable and there’s a lot to read on their website about both wine and food.
      Also, Garagistes in Murray Street in Hobart focusses their wine list on organic and biodynamic wines.
      Hope this helps! x