Natural wine – what is it all about?

By Katia Valadeau
13th August 2019

Natural wines are fast becoming a very popular option in bars, off-licences and restaurants – but what really is a ‘natural wine’? 

I have a curious mind and I like to try new food and drinks so a couple of months back, I decided I would try and understand natural wines a bit better.

I kept seeing people throw words like “orange wines”, “bio-dynamic wines”, “skin contact wines” and I’ll be honest, it was a bit intimidating. I hate elitism in all forms, and I find that sometimes there can be a touch of snobbery about it.

So I did what I always do when I want to find out more about a drink, and I went to Ruth Deveney, owner of Deveney’s Off-Licence in Dundrum. Ruth is great at understanding her customers’ tastes and she is yet to recommend me something I’ve not enjoyed.

She suggested I start with a red wine and it was glorious. I’m not a wine critic so I don’t have the words to express what it was like, but what I can say is that I loved it and it was €22.00 very well spent.

Since then, I’ve tried a few bottles of red. Some I’ve liked and some I didn’t but, so far, none have been as good as the first one. A particular disappointment was the wine they make in Paris. I don’t even know, given the pollution there, how they can call it natural, or organic, or wine. It’s like vinegar. And I wanted to love it, as Paris is my home town.

For the purposes of this post, I thought I would try and ask several wine lovers for their opinion on all things wine and of course natural wines. Here’s the cast of this story:

Ruth Deveney, as per above, is the owner-manager of Deveney’s in Dundrum and my go-to person for take-away wines and good whiskey. Deveney’s is a small, but perfectly formed off-licence and I have recommended it again and again and will continue to do so. She does not push anything on anyone and has a genuine passion for what she sells.

Lisa Cope is the editor of All The Food and is a bit of a wine buff. She is extremely enthusiastic about wine.

Niamh Shield is a well established food writer and the first person I ever saw mention orange wines, so I had to reach out to her. Most of her writing can be found on her colourful blog.

Talha Pasha is the general manager of Michael’s of Mount Merrion. He is a member of the Irish Guild of Someliers and someone whose choices I trust, and whose advice I seek.

Shane Molony is the General Manager of Riba in Stillorgan, a beloved neighbourhood restaurant in Dublin south. Shane and I chat a lot about wines and food and the hospitality in Ireland. As a manager of a restaurant like Talha, he actively manages his wine list to ensure he offers the best possible value and range of choice to his customers.

Brian O’Caoimh is one of the owners of Loose Canon in Drury st. Loose Canon is a new wine bar in Dublin and people love it. It only sells natural wines and a selection of great cheeses. If you know your onions, by now, you will have made it your business to have eaten one of their gorgeous cheese toasties.

I asked these guys to tell me about what makes a great wine, what trend they have seen in the last year, natural wines and where to find great wines. Read on for their informed opinion.

Natural wines

Ruth talks about natural wines and explains that orange wines and skin contact wines are the same thing. A wine can have any amount of skin contact to be classed as an ‘Orange Wine’. Orange wine makers do not add sulphites as the skin contact and less action act as a stabiliser.

This is a very traditional method of wine making, that has been around for centuries. Orange wines are not nicknamed after their colour, the name actually relates to it being a hybrid of white and red wine, the freshness of a white but tannin of a red.

‘Organic wine’ is a regulated term.  The grapes are organically grown and contain no added sulphites, whereas, ‘organically grown’ is a term used in relation to the farming process but additional sulphites can be added during the production process.

“Bio Dynamic” is a process that predates ‘organic’ farming by about 2 decades. It also takes place without chemicals but takes ‘Organic farming’ a step further. The concept is related to the ecosystem of a vineyard and takes lunar cycles and astrological influences into account.

It’s also based on ‘giving back’ what you’ve ‘taken away’ from the land, making it a very sustainable process. It’s not just farming related though, bio dynamic wine making does not use common practices such as yeast addition or adjustment in the acidity of a wine. Bio dynamic wines are not certified by the government but by an independent body.

No sulphites, pesticides, or lab yeasts

Brian says that leaving taste aside, he finds it hard to argue the case for drinking conventional wine that is coming from a vineyard that uses pesticides, coming from a cellar that adds chemicals including high levels of sulphites to the wine to balance and ‘correct’ the flavour, and adds laboratory yeasts to ferment the grape juice.

In terms of taste, he tells us that you are seldom limited. Since you can get anything from textbook executions of appellation wines to more bright and wild younger wines. So why not drink natural wines?

Trying your first natural wine

I asked him what advice he would give to people who wanted to start drinking natural wines and here is what he had to say:

“If someone has never tried a natural wine, and now wants too see what they are like, I would probably not focus on the ‘natural’ aspect of the whole experience but instead focus on what kind of wine they like in general.

“If a person is into chilled light red Gamay I would find them a Beaujolais from one of the top natural wine producers in that region. Start off with what you like anyway. And then after that you can experiment and go off piste.

“But at the start, it is important to see how clinical natural wine making has become, and break away from the misconception that all natural wines are funky and inaccessible.

“Contrastingly, if someone comes in looking for a lively wine, I will find them a lively wine in the style that they like and show them how interesting wines can be when they are one the more vibrant end of the natural spectrum.

“In terms of food pairing, natural wines go with everything that conventional wines go with. However if you get an orange or ‘skin contact’ wine, it is likely to pair with absolutely anything. Orange wine is the sommeliers get out of jail card for difficult food pairings!”

An alternative to mass production

Lisa tells us that she loves natural wines, and that it’s exciting to see more people in Ireland discover them – they have been huge in cities like New York, London and Paris for years now.

She feels that natural wines, much like our return to farm to fork and artisanal food production, are very much part of a backlash against globalisation and mass production. Natural wine is the same concept when it comes to wine making.

The skill is in the vineyard

Cope explains that natural wines are generally wines which are not only made using organic grapes and bio-dynamic growing principles, but also have no chemical (or otherwise) manipulation in the winery. The grapes are left to ferment into wine and it’s bottled, often with no or very little sulphur.

This means the grapes have to be pristine, and all of the winemaker’s work is done in the vineyard. Mistakes cannot be corrected later on like they can be in commercial wineries. A winemaker who can make delicious natural wine is as skillful as it gets.

Lisa finds that some older generations have a complete block about natural wine, categorising them all as faulty, which is not true. Maybe when they first became fashionable (again) a few decades ago, there were more faulty ones doing the rounds, but there are so many on the Irish market which are incredible examples of hugely talented winemakers.

Yes there are natural wines which have faults, she says, but there is good and bad in every category of every product.

Small batches and fewer hangovers

She further explains that if you’re someone who likes buying a whole organic chicken from the person who reared it, rather than off a supermarket conveyor belt, natural wine is probably for you.

These are small production wines, made by hand, generally by a person whose whole life is dedicated to this one purpose. And the lack of chemicals and general messing about with what should be a natural product, undoubtedly results in less of (or no) hangover.

This is debatable, but from her perspective, she says that she can share a bottle of natural wine with someone and wake up the next day feeling like she’s had nothing to drink. Yet, if she drank half a bottle of mass produced supermarket wine she would feel awful.

There’s no comparison, and it’s very hard to go back once you’ve been bitten by the natural wine bug. She also believes that what we put into our bodies is of huge importance. It makes no sense to her that people might go off to a farm and buy fresh, organic vegetables, and only buy Irish, responsibly reared meat, then fill their body full of sterile, chemically enhanced wine.

Of course, she admits that everything isn’t black and white. Not all supermarket wines are bad, and not all natural wines are good, but as a general rule they are her preference, and the ones that she finds far more interesting to taste and discuss.

Look for people, not labels

Finally she warns that we should also be aware of winemakers and wineries jumping on the natural bandwagon. A truly natural wine will never say that it’s natural on the label – this is why you have to get to know someone in a wine shop or restaurant that you trust to make recommendations.

This is generally the way that the winemaker’s father and grandfather made wine, they don’t know any different. “Natural” to them is not a marketing tool, it’s just the way they’ve always done it.

Shane explains that a trip to Loose Cannon a while back completely opened his eyes to the very exciting world of natural wine. Since that visit he has started to read and taste and subsequently he has started buying some natural wines to list at RIBA, as he wants interested customers to experience them too.

Molony goes on to say that natural wine production is often talked of as a ‘movement’ or as something on the fringe. In his opinion, the best way to see natural wine, is as part of a larger movement towards greater transparency in what we consume, whether it be free-range Irish chickens, fair-trade coffee, or craft beers.

He feels that if see it in this light it is not something on the fringe, but something many of us are interested in, even if we don’t know it. And if we don’t know it, it is probably because, as a body of consumers, we haven’t been provided with the information we need to empower us to gain that knowledge.

Labelling

Shane argues that there needs to be stricter labelling laws. He believes that people should know what ingredients are added to a wine (particularly fining agents) so that they can make a more informed decision at the buying stage.

Progress has been made with this in relation to sulphites. Consumers might want to know if wine has been processed with animals or egg gelatin, and this should certainly be on the bottle.

Niamh defines natural wines as a low intervention wine where no pesticides have been used and where the winemaker focuses on helping the grape develop as best it can, in a natural way and then making the best wine with that. A wine that expresses the terroir (where it grows). It is fermented juice with maybe some sulphites added to preserve and that is it.

Dairy-free wine

Many assume that all wines are just fermented grapes but many have lots of additives which are not required to be declared on the bottle. Did you know that not all wines are dairy free for example? (They do now need to declare allergens on the bottle at least).

So for people with dietary restrictions they are easier too. Lots of cheaper big brand wines are full of sugar too. Natural wines are real for Niamh and she loves them. The taste of the grape, the place and time in the glass.

Flavour and variety

She cares deeply about the ingredients that she cooks with and tries to use the best she can. The same applies to wine. Niamh believes that natural wines are varied and interesting. They do come in for a lot of criticism because some can be faulty, but not all conventional wines are good too.

Niamh thinks that you like flavour and variety, natural wines are for you. They offer an option without additives and a purer expression.

As for me, well it’s simple. I’m mostly concerned about taste. If Ruth hands me a bottle and says “Kat, you’re going to love that!”, that’s what I’ll be drinking. I won’t even think about what’s in it. I will trust that she will give me quality, to my taste, at my budget.

The wine list – Dublin

According to Lisa Cope, Loose Canon is the best place in Dublin to try natural wines by the glass. Everything in there is natural.

Piglet has lots of natural wines too, and Variety Jones has one of the best natural wine lists in the city. Other places prioritising natural wines are Fish Shop (Benburb and Queen St), Greenman WinesHost in Ranelagh, Michael’sand Little Mike’s in Mount Merrion, 64 Wine in Glasthule, First Draft Coffee & Wine and Gertrude.

Niamh agrees with Lisa and recommends Green Man Wines in Dublin as it has a lovely selection and is a gorgeous space. The food looks good too although she have yet to eat there.

The Real Wine Fair has been and gone this year but she thinks you look out for it in future. She always goes to the London one and feels that it is a fab way to explore natural wines of all price points and develop your knowledge of them and buy some to take home.

Shane explains that a local restaurants wine list, you can expect organic and natural wines to carry a higher price-tag. Generally speaking, a conventional winery looks to produce 8-10 tonnes per acre, while a natural winemaker is happy with 3-4 tonnes per acre. There will be less use of machinery in vineyard maintenance and harvest. So a premium is to be expected.

He also talks about what you can expect taste-wise. He says that there is no doubt that natural wines expand the flavour spectrum for wines. You can expect some clean and fruity wines, and some wild and funky wines (the latter style tends to be the wines that come up for criticism).

Natural wines don’t fit so neatly into the boxes of red, white and rose either. If a winemaker lets nature bring a grape to bottle it is never going to fit into three categories – so expect wines that are not quite rosés, or not quite reds, and may be orange from skin contact, or foggy and unfiltered.

This is nature’s way and it makes for an interesting journey. Natural wine is all about open-mindedness – leave your expectations at the door!

Currently, you can find the following wines on the list in Riba:

  • Octavio Rube Bianco is a Cortese and Timirasso blend – unfiltered and unfined
  • Feints from Ruth Lewandowski  its not a rose and not a red, but an incredible experience – by the glass using Coravin €14.
  • Aroa Le Naturel is a zero sulphites grenache blend from the Navarra region– labelling laws have resulted in a heightened awareness with customers about sulphites in their wine and people are very keen to opt for wines with less or no sulphites – by the glass €6.50

Thumbnail Image by Jill Wellington from Pixabay

Share Article