Peo­ple’s pur­suit of prove­nance and their dis­dain for syn­thetic ad­di­tives have led to re­newed in­ter­est in nat­u­ral wines

The Peak (Hong Kong) - - Contents - DE­BRA MEIBURG

Chem­i­cals, de­spite be­ing part of our ev­ery­day lives, have a bad rep­u­ta­tion. When it comes to wine, the added preser­va­tive sul­phur diox­ide (SO2) cops the blame—rightly or wrongly— for that foggy morn­ing-af­ter headache. Feed­ing off our ob­ses­sion with healthy liv­ing, nat­u­ral wine­mak­ers favour low-in­ter­ven­tion, where or­ganic grapes are the stars of the glass. Nat­u­ral wine­mak­ing es­chews added chem­i­cals, re­ly­ing sim­ply on the re­ac­tions that oc­cur dur­ing fer­men­ta­tion that re­sult in char­ac­ter­ful wines.

Nat­u­ral wine is not a modern phe­nom­e­non, though; it is an an­cient one. Thou­sands of years ago, the ear­li­est wine­mak­ers in Europe, the Near East, the Mid­dle East, and even China, fer­mented grape juice into wine in clay am­phorae and qvevri. But the modern day nat­u­ral wine move­ment in Paris, Lon­don and New York was born in France. A gen­er­a­tion of wine­mak­ers, in­spired by the 1950s work of wine­maker and teacher Jules Chau­vet, have em­braced nat­u­ral wine, and their ideas and pas­sion have ex­cited young, ad­ven­tur­ous wine lovers, es­pe­cially peo­ple with or­ganic lean­ings.

Kenichi Ohashi MW, the au­thor of Ja­pan’s 2004 nat­u­ral wine book Vin Na­turel, tasted Mar­cel Lapierre’s Beau­jo­lais wine in 1999 and be­came ob­sessed, even­tu­ally dis­cov­er­ing it was Lapierre’s lack of SO2, un­til the point of bot­tling, which left the wine with a fruity ex­u­ber­ance he loved.”

Ohashi ob­serves, “[Nat­u­ral wine drinkers] are non-con­ser­va­tive, young mil­len­ni­als. They ap­pre­ci­ate pro­duc­ers’ sto­ries—sus­tain­able, small-scale, non-so2 wine­mak­ing—and of course, they love the taste.”

Aus­tralian wine critic and colum­nist, Max Allen, be­lieves pas­sion for nat­u­ral wine is rooted in the sus­tain­abil­ity move­ment. “Nat­u­ral wine kicked off as a re­ac­tion against the per­ceived in­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion of wine,” he wrote. Allen de­fines nat­u­ral wine as made with grapes (prefer­ably or­ganic or bio­dy­namic) that are grown with a min­i­mum of sprays and with noth­ing added in the cel­lar ex­cept a small amount of preser­va­tive (sul­phur diox­ide) at bot­tling—“just wine,” he states.

But nat­u­ral wine is a di­vi­sive topic and not ev­ery­body is a fan. The stripped down, un­pro­cessed, low-in­ter­ven­tion ethos is the wine world’s equiv­a­lent of folk mu­sic. Per­haps be­cause it has no pre­cise def­i­ni­tion, tra­di­tion­al­ists con­sider nat­u­ral wine a cloudy, enig­matic, al­ter­nate uni­verse. “’Nat­u­ral’ is a phi­los­o­phy or an ethic, not a con­crete, reg­u­lated con­cept such as or­ganic and bio­dy­namic,” Si­mon Woolf wrote in Meininger’s Wine Busi­ness In­ter­na­tional.

Maybe nat­u­ral wine is best de­fined by what it’s not, or what it lacks: lit­tle to no added chem­i­cals. SO2 is the only ad­di­tive used, if at all, and nat­u­ral wine should av­er­age less than 30mg of SO2 per litre for reds and less than 40mg /l for whites, spec­i­fies France’s As­so­ci­a­tion des Vins Na­turels.

When it comes to buy­ing de­ci­sions, peo­ple shouldn’t be lim­ited to just one as­pect of wine’s pro­duc­tion, coun­sels Amanda Long­worth, for­mer head of mar­ket­ing and wine ser­vices at Berry Bros. & Rudd (BBR) Hong Kong, which car­ries bio­dy­namic (as op­posed to nat­u­ral) wines. “The bio­dy­namic an­gle is a sup­port­ing story, rather than be­ing a driver in BBR’S buy­ing de­ci­sion process,” she ex­plains.

“Per­son­ally, I find nat­u­ral wines can be very in­ter­est­ing … There are very high-qual­ity ex­am­ples that come from Slove­nia and Ge­or­gia where am­phora or qvevri con­tinue wine­mak­ing tra­di­tions that ex­tend back thou­sands of years. How­ever, there are large risks that are taken with nat­u­ral wines, of­ten los­ing va­ri­etal char­ac­ter and show­ing clear, un­pleas­ant faults,” Long­worth rea­sons.

Ohashi con­cedes that nat­u­ral wine has its faults, but when it is per­fect, it is “like Zen— min­eral wa­ter through the vine.”


If all the talk about liv­ing clean, shun­ning syn­thet­ics and go­ing nat­u­ral makes you want to scream “hippy!”, think again. In Ja­pan, where Asia’s nat­u­ral wine move­ment took hold early and in­tensely, Ohashi says drinkers are young pro­fes­sion­als who ap­pre­ci­ate—and can af­ford—great qual­ity food and wine with­out com­pro­mis­ing on healthy in­gre­di­ents. There, the trend is an­chored in strong on-trade sales, where it is sup­ported by “su­per keen nat­u­ral

wine im­porters” and an “am­bi­tious group of som­me­liers.”

The same can be said in Hong Kong: La Ca­bane a Vin, which op­er­ates a wine shop and, more re­cently, a French bistro, was one of the city’s first nat­u­ral wine im­porters. Co-founded by Cris­to­bal Huneeus and Karim Had­jadj, La Ca­bane’s clien­tele are young, af­flu­ent “wine geeks” com­prised of “in­ter­na­tional Hongkongers and cu­ri­ous lo­cals.”

While on-trade leads Ja­pan’s nat­u­ral wine move­ment, off-trade is pop­u­lar in Hong Kong too, with La Ca­bane re­port­ing strong growth at its wine shop. “The nat­u­ral wine trend is def­i­nitely here, even if it re­mains a niche,” the pair agrees.

La Ca­bane’s wine list, which fea­tures wines by Philippe Bornard and Lucy Mar­gaux Vine­yards, is 70 per cent French, but grow­ing more in­ter­na­tional by the month. “We started with about 20 wine­mak­ers, pri­mar­ily from France’s Loire Val­ley and Beau­jo­lais, and we have now in­creased to nearly 120 wine­mak­ers from all over the world”, in­clud­ing South Aus­tralia’s Ade­laide Hills and Barossa Val­ley, Ge­or­gia and New Zealand.

On a re­cent trip to South Aus­tralia, wine writer Ronny Lau dis­cov­ered a new gen­er­a­tion of young wine­grow­ers and wine­mak­ers who are putting a nat­u­ral spin on the his­tor­i­cal re­gion’s wine­mak­ing tra­di­tions.

“In the Barossa Val­ley, Josh Pfeif­fer at Whistler Wines has turned his fa­ther Martin’s wine­mak­ing phi­los­o­phy around, con­vert­ing Whistler’s vine­yards to bio­dy­namic and mak­ing wines in a dif­fer­ent style,” Lau ob­served. “Tom Shob­brook, a win­ner of the Gourmet Trav­eller Wine ‘Young Wine­maker of the Year’ award, has been mak­ing his fam­ily’s Shob­brook Wines Barossa Shi­raz in ce­ramic mag­num fer­menters for years.”

Lau is con­vinced of the move­ment’s po­ten­tial in Hong Kong but warns drinkers against div­ing straight in. “The taste of nat­u­ral wine is quite dif­fer­ent from con­ven­tional wines,” he cau­tions, “con­sumers need more ex­pla­na­tion.”

In 2015, La Ca­bane held a small nat­u­ral wine event to help ed­u­cate peo­ple called ‘3 Days in the Vines’, which hosted around 15 non­in­ter­ven­tion­ist wine­mak­ers. An­other is be­ing planned. “Hope­fully, in the near fu­ture, Hong Kong can en­joy its own nat­u­ral wine fes­ti­val sim­i­lar to Root­stock in Syd­ney, Fes­tivin in Ja­pan, La Dive in Sau­mur, or RAW in Lon­don,” Huneeus hints.

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