The grape debate: Setting the record straight on natural wine

Panelist Neil McGuigan previously claimed that natural wine was a 'grape-based alcoholic beverage' and 'not really wine'.
Panelist Neil McGuigan previously claimed that natural wine was a 'grape-based alcoholic beverage' and 'not really wine'. Photo: Alamy

Why has there been such a significant rise the popularity of natural wine? And how does the conventional wine industry respond to this growing thirst?

Forget the comeback of chardonnay or the rise of brosé, the biggest wine trend of the past 10 years has been around so called natural wine. Although natural wine is a very small fraction of Australia's total wine production, conversations surrounding this new (but actually very old) frontier of wine are myriad in newspapers, bottle shops, restaurants, pubs and wine fairs around the country. And the noise is not dying. If anything, it is getting louder

The panel (pictured from left): Neil McGuigan, Banjo Harris Plane, Peter Bourne, Giovanni Paradiso, Nick Hildebrandt and ...
The panel (pictured from left): Neil McGuigan, Banjo Harris Plane, Peter Bourne, Giovanni Paradiso, Nick Hildebrandt and Chris Morrison in conversation at Monopole. Photo: Christopher Pearce

Low-intervention wines are all over the wine lists at Australia's best restaurants, and natural-wine-focused festivals such as Rootstock, Mental Notes and Soulfour Wine are attracting sell-out crowds.

But natural wine is a divisive subject. At a German wine fair in March, Hunter Valley winemaker and industry leader Neil McGuigan claimed that natural wine was a "grape-based alcoholic beverage" and "not really wine" when speaking to online news service The Shout. Michael McMahon threw shade on naturals at a Vittoria Legends lunch in December. "The wines my sommeliers now bring me as natural wines would have been thrown out [of competitions] because of wine faults," the Catalina restaurateur said to Good Food and a room of his contemporaries. "Who wants to drink cloudy, oxidised, overly acidic or badly made wine?"

Alternatively, when Norwegian sommelier Mads Kleppe was in Sydney for Noma Australia, he suggested that term natural wine should be abolished. Conventional wine containing synthetic additives, he said, should be referred to as "unnatural wine" instead.

I think wine is wine and you are either able or unable to make a good one.

Dr Irina Santiago-Brown

So why all the brouhaha on both sides of the fence? Why has there been such a significant rise in the popularity of natural wine? And how does the conventional wine industry respond to this growing natural thirst?

Good Food gathered some of the best wine minds, movers and shakers in Australia to discuss all this and more at Monopole bar and restaurant in Sydney.

The most pertinent question first:

Advertisement

Just what the hell is natural wine anyway?

Nick Hildebrandt: I don't think there is a definition and that's the biggest problem. My opinion might be different to yours, which might be different to the person at the table next to you.

Chris Morrison: I see natural wine as no chemicals, no mechanics, no industrialisation process. Wine from the vineyard to the bottle with the least amount of interference and manipulation.

Nick Hildebrandt: For me, some of the great wines of the world, like Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, are fairly natural – probably more natural than some of the wine made by natural guys in the Adelaide Hills. There's no additives and only a tiny bit of sulphur, yet they're not considered to be natural.

Natural-wine-focused festivals such as Rootstock are attracting sell-out crowds.
Natural-wine-focused festivals such as Rootstock are attracting sell-out crowds. Photo: Supplied

Dr Irina Santiago-Brown: At my winery we make what a lot of what people call natural wine.However, we don't call ourselves natural winemakers. We simply make wine fermented with no commercial yeasts and we don't correct our wines with additives. I'm a bit conflicted with the label natural wine. I think wine is wine and you are either able or unable to make a good one.

Giovanni Paradiso: It's like saying something is "punk". It's a term the mainstream can run with. Unfortunately, a lot of people say 'if it's natural wine then it's not going to be good. It's too funky. It's too weird.' But, the term has arrived and it's going to be hard to get rid of.

Peter Bourne: I was hosting a wine tasting with 12 people last week and one lady said 'look, this is a probably a really dumb question, but what is natural wine?'. Then everyone else chimed in and said 'yes, we don't understand it either'. Consumers are confused by these labels such as natural, organic and biodynamic and don't understand how some things are about the vineyard and some are about the winemaking. And then we have skin-contact wines …

Dr Irina Santiago-Brown and Neil McGuigan.
Dr Irina Santiago-Brown and Neil McGuigan. Photo: Christopher Pearce

Banjo Harris Plane: I think that's a different conversation as there are plenty of conventional wineries using various degrees of skin-contact, whether they're organic or not. (See glossary.)

Dr Irina Santiago-Brown: Are all natural wines made from organic or biodynamic grapes? No, but they should be. Perhaps there should be, unfortunately, an industry standard for natural winemaking.

Unfair dismissal

Neil McGuigan: Yeast and bacteria do a fantastic job of converting sugar to alcohol, but the winemaker should be controlling them so they don't create faulty characteristics. Funkiness is fine – let's embrace it – but not faults like brettanomyces and volatile acidity. (See glossary.)

"Millennials in 2030 are going to be spending more money on wine than any other age group." Bar Liberty in Fitzroy, ...
"Millennials in 2030 are going to be spending more money on wine than any other age group." Bar Liberty in Fitzroy, co-owned by Banjo Harris Plane. Photo: Joe Armao

Nick Hildebrandt: You can talk about the faults in natural wine, but there's a lot of really bad winemaking in conventional wine too. If you look at some of the wine from Bordeaux in the 1980s, they have brettanomyces and other faults but they don't seem to cop any flak.

Neil McGuigan: Well, I wouldn't go that far …

Banjo Harris Plane: But any criticism of those wines is within a tight circle of the industry. Natural wine seems to cop it from all fronts.

Peter Bourne: Banjo, before you were born I used to do Burgundy tastings on Cleveland Street and I would stand there pouring one in three bottles down the drain. Some of the wines were absolutely rank, but we knew they were coming from great sites. It was the winemaking that was the problem.

Banjo Harris Plane: But Burgundy didn't get slated as a whole because of those individual wines, did it? If you look at the broader range of natural wines, it seems those natural winemakers who do make wines riddled with brett and volatile acidity are the examples slated across all natural wines.

Neil McGuigan: That's a fair point.

Banjo Harris Plane: There are many winemakers who make wine without added sulphur and with a long elevage (the French term for the progression of wine between fermentation and bottling) so the wines are very harmonious. They release them after three years and their wines are very clean, yet these are not slated as stereotypical natural wines.

Embracing imperfection

Neil McGuigan: But still, what we don't want is wine faults. We want to make wines that are appropriate and fault-free. That is what has given Australia the global reputation it has.

Banjo Harris Plane: I'm not a winemaker, but I know people who make wine in a low-interference kind of way. I would purport that they don't come at it from the same angle you do, Neil.

They come at it saying 'I'm going to make this wine with the least amount of interference possible. I'm not going to use anything synthetic on the vineyard where I work, and I'm going to take the greatest care that I can. The wine that is in the bottle at the end of the day is the wine as it is. If you don't find it palatable but someone else does, I'm happy with that because I'm comfortable within myself that I've made it in a non-interventionist kind of way.

These winemakers are not concerned about whether or not their wine is representative of the Australian wine scene or provides enjoyment to a broad palette of people. Their concern is an agricultural one and a self-centred belief that they've done the right thing. That vision doesn't align with what you put forward, regarding all of us not wanting to have faulty wine.

Neil McGuigan: Well, we'll just have to agree to disagree.

Nick Hildebrandt: Some people want faulty wine. There's a market for it. We have customers that will ask us for the filthiest wine we have. They say, 'nah, that one's too clean, I want more funk'.

The youth of today

Dr Irina-Santiago Brown: I'm not a fan of faulty wines in general, but I accept the idea that a lot of people, especially younger drinkers, start to drink these wines because they're more connected with sour tastes or because they're beer drinkers. And sometimes when pairing with food they can work beautifully.

Giovanni Paradiso: I was just at the [natural wine-focused] Spring Tasting event in London where there was a couple of thousand people and most of them were under 30. It was great to see young people properly engaging with winemakers and understanding where the wine was coming from. It's not something that you just grab off a shelf in BWS based on price point. The price becomes irrelevant. It becomes a connection between the winemaker and consumer. There's a new world of people out there discovering these wines and they'll go on to drinking lots of other things.

Nick Hildebrandt: A lot of these young natural winemakers have made wine cool. They've brought it to a whole lot of people who wouldn't usually drink wine and they've made it fun. I think that's fantastic.

Peter Bourne: Absolutely. A lot of these wines are fresh and light and accessible. If you look at Tom Shobbrook's Poolside syrah, it's straight-down-the-throat terrific. They're not always wines I want to sit down and contemplate, but sometimes they're just what I'm looking for.

There is power in a union

Chris Morrison: We couldn't have had this conversation 20 years ago, and that's probably the most exciting thing about the industry right now. All of these wines have a place, but how that structure looks in the future is going to come down to more conversations like this. For people like Neil and Banjo to be able to sit in a room and say 'What can I take from you? What can you take from me?'.

Millennials in 2030 are going to be spending more money on wine than any other age group. They're going to be driving the industry for the next 30 or 40 years. They might not be driving it right now but you can't ignore them.

Nick Hildebrandt: I think conventional and natural wine will merge in the future. All the good things of natural winemaking and all the good things of conventional winemaking will meet in the middle.

Neil McGuigan: It's already happening. We're taught at college that the smallest amount of interference you can do, the better for the wine. Every time you add something you're also taking something out. We must go out and continue to talk up the Australian wine industry. We're all part of it and we need to be harmonious and kicking the ball together.

Peter Bourne: The consumer is king with all of this. Why do we want to separate people into two camps? That's such divisive rubbish. To put someone in a little box and say 'This is the wine you must have. This is the wine you must enjoy.' We all want to introduce more people to wine and we all want them to have a great time drinking it.

Conclusion

Callan Boys: 

The wine world is in a state of flux like it never has been before. Casual wine drinkers can't have enough clarity and balanced discussion to clear up the confusion surrounding all things natural, organic and biodynamic.

It was a terrific afternoon for me, as the Fairfax food and drink writer, to host this roundtable. What's the takeaway from it all? Get out there and try new things. Talk to your sommelier, chat to your bottle shop attendant, ask questions to winemakers at wine shows. But, above all, taste things for yourself. Shake off the shackles of what you should like and focus instead on what you do like. Natural wine has come a long way in a short time and the quality of what is on offer is changing fast.

An industry working together is stronger than one working apart. Let's drink, then, to conversation and good times. I think we can all agree that's what wine's all about.

Meet the panel

Peter Bourne Wine writer, educator and retailer with more than 40 years experience in the industry.

Banjo Harris Plane Wine importer, sommelier, co-owner of Bar Liberty in Melbourne, and co-founder of GROW Assembly, a series of talks that aim to educate and inspire the next group of hospitality leaders.

Nick Hildebrandt Sommelier and co-owner of Sydney restaurants Bentley, Monopole, Cirrus and Yellow. Hildebrandt is a two-time recipient of The Good Food Guide Sommelier of the Year award.

Neil McGuigan Chief winemaker at McGuigan Wines and chief executive of wine company Australian Vintage, which owns brands such as Tempus Two, Nepenthe and Passion Pop. McGuigan has been awarded International Winemaker of the Year four times at the International Wine and Spirits Competition in London.

Chris Morrison Author of This Is Not a Wine Guide, sommelier and hospitality consultant currently working with Qantas Epiqure.

Giovanni Paradiso Co-founder and restaurateur of Fratelli Paradiso Sydney, Fratelli Paradiso Tokyo and 10 William Street, Sydney.

Dr Irina Santiago-Brown Grapegrower and winemaker at Inkwell Wines, McLaren Vale. Santiago-Brown developed the first sustainability program for grape growers, Sustainable Australia Winegrowing (SAW), and was named Viticulturist of the Year at the Australian Women in Wine Awards 2015.

See our natural wine glossary here