By James Atkinson
Amid continued enthusiasm for 'natural' wine, a debate between wine commentators including Huon Hooke and Nick Stock once again demonstrated that exactly what constitutes 'natural' is vague and requires clearer definition.
Broadly speaking, the panel at the 'Natural Wine – Talks and Thoughts' seminar, held as part of Crave Sydney International Food Festival (CSIFF), agreed that 'natural' wines are those produced from biodynamic or organic fruit, with minimal intervention in the winery.
But just what constitutes 'minimal' intervention was up for debate. Hooke and wine importer Andrew Guard both declared that the addition of sulphur is acceptable and maybe even essential.
"You can't make a clean wine, not one that will stay clean and fresh anyway, without a touch of sulphur," Hooke said.
"Sulphur's in for me but there are some people that absolutely consider that natural wines shouldn't be made with sulphur," added Guard.
The purist on the panel, Richard Harkham, of the Hunter Valley's Harkham Winery, countered that sulphur-free wine "displays natural viscosity and aromas".
"Every bottle brings an element of surprise which I personally love," he said.
Harkham said wines with additives cannot truly express terroir, but Hooke said wine cannot express terroir unless it is clean and fault-free.
All wine is natural to some extent, added Hooke, "it's just that some are more natural than others".
"If you had wine that was completely natural, it would just be a dirty puddle on the floor where a bunch of grapes sat and rotted for awhile," he said.
"There is manipulation at every level – you would not be able to get a grape vine to produce grapes if you didn't manipulate the vine, for a start."
He said the word 'natural' is "fraught and should be rephrased".
As the 45-minute session drew to a close, a question from a puzzled audience member asking the panel to again clarify their definition of 'natural' perhaps illustrated his point.
Natural wine is nothing new: Brown Brothers
Brown Brothers' Katherine Brown reminded the audience that natural winemaking is hardly new.
"Back in 1889, my great grandfather was playing around with some grapes in his back shed to make our commercial vintage," she said.
"Of course at that stage he had no yeast, the yeast would have come from the grapes. He wouldn't have had any tartaric acid. He wouldn't have had any chemicals to put out on the grapes."
"It's the old becoming new again."
The MC of the session, Nick Stock, was optimistic that the natural wine movement is beginning to move past the "dogma" that has plagued its recent resurgence.
"Because of such an enthusiastic willingness to want to do less and 'take your hands off the wheel', some people seem to be excusing plainly unenjoyable, faulty wine, on the basis of the philosophy behind its production outweighs the end result," he said.