Twenty years ago, the pinnacle of fashion for an Austrian winegrower was to release his or her premium red blend, aged in expensive new French oak. But times have changed – new oak is no longer regarded as being on the cutting edge.
Producers these days are more likely to pour you their ‘Orange wine’, or a special cuvée made without added sulphur – a ‘Natural wine’ perhaps. They might also use terms such as ‘raw wine’, ‘skin contact’ or the German adjective «maischevergoren».
Natural wine, together with raw wine, is the broadest of these new categories and has become increasingly popular over the last decade to refer to wine that has been produced with as little intervention from the winegrower as possible.
In Austria, only organic estates are allowed to sell turbid Landwein with oxidative notes as “natural wine”. This applies equally to wines labelled with the broader designation of origin of “Österreich”. These wines are not allowed to undergo any enriching processes to increase their natural alcohol content (abv), nor can they be sweetened. They must not be treated with any wine additives, with the exception of bentonite (E558) and sulphuric acid (E513); the maximum permitted sulphuric acid content is 70 mg/l (including the analytical tolerance). Labelling the wine as “Naturwein” is not allowed.
The basic concept
The natural wine movement started in France in the 1980s, when Jules Chauvet and Jacques Néauport began their research and experimentation into how to make wine without the use of the anti-oxidant and preservative sulphur dioxide. Since then, vin nature has blossomed into a diverse yet global counter-culture movement, fighting against homogenisation, industrialisation and the culture of Parker points that dominated the 1990s and 2000s.
The natural wine movement started in France in the 1980s when Jules Chauvet and Jacques Néauport began their research and experimentation into how to make wine without the use of anti-oxidants and the preservative, sulphur dioxide. Since then, vin nature has blossomed into a multi-faceted, global counter-culture movement, fighting against homogenisation, industrialisation and the culture of Parker points that dominated the 1990s and 2000s.
So what does this say about the liquid in the bottle? Most would agree that the idea of natural wine means the following:
- organic or biodynamic viticulture – whether certified or not
- hand-harvested grapes
- spontaneous fermentation, without the use of added yeast or laboratory-grown yeasts
- no must additives or adjustment, i.e. no acidulation, no chaptalisation and no adding of yeast nutrients or enzymes
- no heavy manipulation of the wine, e.g. using a spinning cone, reverse osmosis, micro-oxygenation or cryo-extraction
- no filtration
- no fining
- no addition (or minimal amounts) of sulphur dioxide
The definition above was adopted by Decanter magazine for a panel tasting of natural wines held in January 2017.
Natural wine also has its more ardent supporters, who insist on the following:
Further attempts at definition
While there is no single definition, a number of growers’ associations and other organisations have made attempts to classify and certify producers on a voluntary basis. Rawfair, which is fast becoming one of the world’s leading natural wine trade fairs, has a strict charter of quality criteria for wines being presented, including an upper limit of 70 mg/l of sulphur dioxide. This corresponds to less than half the amount allowed in standard dry wines under EU law.
Growers’ organisations are numerous and all have slightly differing rules when it comes to natural wine – some stricter, some more lenient. These organisations include the French group Renaissance des appellations (Return to Terroir), the Italian organisation Triple A (both of which count multiple Austrian wineries among their members) and another Italian organisation ViniVeri (which has many international members but currently no Austrian wineries).
Consistency across the vineyard and the cellar
A valid question at this point would be: “Isn’t it enough to be certified organic and/or biodynamic”? The answer is complex, but mainly centres around the fact that these wine-growing methods don’t control every aspect of the vinification process, although they do specify lower total sulphur dioxide limits than for conventional wines.
A producer may be certified organic and use outstanding – perhaps even biodynamically-grown – grapes, but then use more conventional methods in the cellar. It could well be argued that this can lead to misinterpretation by the consumer, who sees the biodynamic symbol on the bottle and expects a more “natural” product than an industrial one. The natural wine movement addresses this issue by recognising that the actual wine production process is just as important as the growing of the grapes, i.e. methods used for processing the grapes and wine in the cellar should be as natural as possible.
American writer and journalist Alice Feiring and UK-based Master of Wine Isabelle Legeron are two of the highest-profile supporters and ambassadors of the natural wine movement. Both of them talk of natural wines as being “alive” in a way that industrially produced wines cannot be. “Fine natural wines are vibrant and alive, and show excitingly diverse personalities that are full of emotion,” explains Legeron.
This category of wine is the subject of much debate, with some wine critics and experts claiming that it is merely a way of forgiving potential faults in a wine. Fans of natural wine don’t see anything wrong with a turbid wine, or wines with noticeable sediment – a circumstance that would be enough to have a wine removed from the shelves of most supermarkets, where aesthetic conformity and flawlessness are the norm.
Natural wines can sometimes contain higher levels of Brettanomyces or more volatile acids than conventional producers would normally accept. Whether these factors “work” in a specific wine is partly a question of individual taste. Brettanomyces, for instance, is considered to be a key component, albeit an unrecognised one, in many of the world’s most renowned red wines.
Orange wine is often confused with natural wine, and the two terms are sometimes erroneously considered to be synonymous. Whereas natural wine refers to a broad category – or, rather, a special ideology – orange wine refers simply to a wine production technique.
The name “orange wine” was coined by UK wine importer David A. Harvey in 2004, and has since been accepted as the established way to describe white wines produced with extended skin contact/skin maceration (“extended” can mean days, weeks or months).
A question of colour?
Just as rosé wine describes a wine made from red wine grapes with very little skin contact, an orange wine is a wine made from white wine grapes with extended skin contact during fermentation. This has led to orange wine sometimes being defined as “the fourth colour of wine” or as “a white wine made as if it were a red”.
Austrian Wine Law allows turbid Landwein with oxidative notes to be sold on the market, provided it is labelled as “Orangewein” or “orangewine”. This provision may also be applied to wine with an indication of grape variety and vintage and without a more specific designation of origin than “Österreich”, as well as to wine without indication of grape variety and vintage and without a more specific designation of origin than “Österreich”.
The technique of extended skin contact primarily became an established practice in the former Austro-Hungarian part of the Adriatic region, corresponding today to the Italian region of Friuli and the Slovenian region of Goriška Brda. The use of extended periods of skin maceration during wine production has been common in these regions for centuries, as confirmed by a Slovenian wine-growing manual from 1844. Its author, the priest Matija Vertovec, recommends a maceration period between 7 and 30 days for both red and white grapes.
Leaving white grapes with their skins on – and in some cases even their stems – is an even older practice in the republic of Georgia, where the technique of making wine in qvevri (large amphora-like vessels that are buried in the ground up to their necks) dates back around 8,000 years. We could argue, therefore, that the Georgian wines made from white grapes in a qvevri are the original orange wines. Here, skin contact can last as long as nine months.
Orange wine is a fascinating hybrid between red and white, with some of the structure and tannins that we would normally expect only in red wine, but also with the freshness and fruit from the white grapes. The extended skin contact brings up a smorgasbord of unusual flavours, from over-ripe or bruised garden fruits to herbs, hay and notes of chamomile.
It is a common misconception that orange wines are oxidised, no doubt due to their colour, which can span anything from a light ambery gold to a deep rusty brown. However, oxidation is rarely the desired outcome. Winegrowers specialised in this style of wine usually ensure that their vats remain closed and top them up once fermentation is complete, in order to prevent oxidation.
Since 2005, a large number of Austrian wine producers have been trying their hand at orange wine. Some make their orange wine in the traditional Friulian/Slovenian manner – wild yeast fermentation, no temperature controls and minimal use of sulphur – whilst others use the extended skin contact technique within a more conventional or “modern” production process, in order to add a little spiciness to their white wines. This is where confusion sets in: some orange wines can therefore also be classed as natural wines, while others might not necessarily fit that definition.
A final misconception is that orange wines are always made in clay amphoras or similar vessels. Whilst this is true of the Georgian tradition, most of the recognised experts of orange wine in Friuli and Slovenia use open-top wooden fermentation vessels.
A promising niche product
Although natural wine and orange wine may both be niche products, they still prove to be exciting additions to the portfolio of many wineries. In some cases, these wines even turn out to be the ones that winegrowers are the most passionate about. Meanwhile, this type of wine has sparked great interest among many Austrian winegrowers, the best of whom are now producing some of the most fascinating, characterful wines, enriching both the Austrian wine sector and the wider market.
Author: Simon J. Woolf