My first few experiences with very naturally made wine were epiphanies of purity. It was like tasting wine for the first time with no filters on: pure hedonistic, unbridled organoleptic pleasure!" recalls wine consultant, Stephen Wong, one of a growing number of wine professionals so wowed by what has become known as "natural wine" that we'll likely see more of this trend on our shores.
It's a somewhat controversial new category that's created a schism in the wine world. Even its existence is disputed, given the nebulousness of the term and its current lack of legal definition.
However, it's generally understood that natural wines are made from organically grown grapes and avoid interventionalist winemaking practices such as adding sugars, cultured yeasts and acidity, and little or none of the widely used preservative, sulphur dioxide (SO2).
At Pyramid Valley, one of just a handful of local producers whose wines could be considered such, Claudia Weersing, prefers to describe her wines as containing "no additives: not just no sulphur, but none of the 610 additives permitted in wine".
A phrase that I personally like is "nothing added, nothing taken away", coined by the US natural wine advocate, Alice Feiring.
Many of those of this mindset consider additives and excessive manipulation of a wine by its maker erodes the sense of place from a wine. In the great examples I've enjoyed, there does appear to be a clarity that lets this individuality shine through.
Frank Cornelissen, who makes intriguing wines from a slope on Sicily's volcanic Mt Etna, takes natural winegrowing a step further than most, considering even biodynamics as unnecessary tinkering.
Waipara winemaker, Crater Rim's Theo Coles, was so "blown away" by Cornelissen's wines, he's now importing them.
"I have always preferred wines that are minimally manipulated and felt compelled by producers who work hard in the vines to produce fruit that is in balance and therefore needs very little winemaking intervention, but Cornelissen challenged my winemaking ideas," says Coles, who favours the descriptor "lo-fi wines".
The main importer of natural wines to New Zealand is another respected winemaker, Framingham's Andrew Hedley, although he prefers to call the wines in the Oh So Pretty portfolio he brings in with his partner Debra "interesting" over "natural".
"We initially wanted to liven up the New Zealand wine scene by bringing in wines from little-known regions and varieties," he explains. "We added some slightly more off-beat wines that fit under the 'natural' heading, then once we started, we began to get requests for wines that people had tried on their travels which they'd found inspirational that aren't available here, which were mostly 'natural'."
Rather than considering them "interesting", others view natural wines with suspicion, citing the faults that such a hands-off approach can cause. I found on my recent trip through the burgeoning natural wine bar scene in London, where I tried some truly fascinating wines, as well as one with a definite whiff of pigsty, that natural wines range from the sublime to the undrinkable. However, I've found very little mediocrity as the producers that get it right seem to take their wines to thrilling levels.
"To be able to produce a wine with almost no intervention and it is still site-driven and free of faults takes extreme skill," notes Coles. "These people are the most talented winemakers."
Says Wong: "Bad examples of natural wine are, in my opinion, no worse than the bad examples of conventional wine: I wouldn't drink either." He carefully selects the wines he puts on the lists he's created for the likes of the Golden Dawn bar in Ponsonby.
"The wines I've listed have proved to be of real interest to my customers; the staff are fascinated by them and I've found them to be of high quality and possessing real character, especially as a counterpoint to the more commercial styles available," he notes. "Because they're so individual, I've listed more and more of them."
Call them natural or lo-fi, love them or hate them, I predict you'll be seeing more of them in the future.
Cornelissen Contadina No 9 Rosso, Etna, Sicily 2011 - $45
Cornelissen's entry-level wine is an enthrallingly edgy blend of local varieties, which layers fresh notes of red fruits, umeboshi plum and blood orange, with perfumed florals, pepper and mineral. (From decantwine.co.nz.)
Sato Central Otago Pinot Noir 2011 - $53.90
Rising Central natural wine star, Yoshi Sato makes this gossamer-textured pinot from organic vineyards, adding little or no sulphur. Its fresh red cherry and raspberry fruit is infused with nuances of rose and cinnamon over a fine, stony undercurrent. (From greatlittlevineyards.com.)
Frantz Saumon, Mineral +, Montlouis/Loire 2011 - $39.65
Mineral by name and intensely minerally by nature, this exhilaratingly fresh and pure organic chenin blanc made with minimal sulphur has notes of honey and blossom that lead to a long, dry, minerally crescendo. (From regionalwines.co.nz.)