My Five Top Tips For Finding Natural Wine On A List
Or at least something that’s not going to have you feeling like you just smashed your head against a brick wall a thousand times the next morning…
Over the years, I’ve been to a lot of places where it’s been really difficult to get my hands on any natural wine when out for a meal. I’ve tried many tactics, some with success, others with less. Short of resigning yourself to drinking nothing but beer (which can be pull of head-pounding preservatives too, by the way), here’s a couple of strategies that pay off when you’re on the hunt for something to go with your meal, sans regret the next day.
1. Make friends with the sommelier or waiter.
These guys are here to help you, not hinder you. Sure, every now and then, you get some stuffy old codger who hopes that by confusing you with defunct wine terms and technical descriptions, it will somehow make them good at their job, but the reality is, most somm’s these days are young, enthusiastic individuals who are curious and actually get out into the vineyard a lot. Many of them are even making their own wine. Even if they don’t have a huge selection or a natural section on the list, they should be able to steer you towards something made with a little bit more care. These are probably the wines that they’ll be most excited about as well.
2. Preferentially choose small producers.
Small producers may be a little bit more obscure, so you need to be willing to step out of your comfort zone but if you approach it with the right mindset and choose well, it can be incredibly rewarding. Often, smaller producers are making wine for enjoyment, because it’s what they love, not because they’re out for world domination. Thus the level of care and attention to detail is a lot higher than with industrially-produced wines where the main aim is quantity and quality is barely given a second thought beyond meeting the marketing department’s pre-determined criteria. Most of the smaller wine producers that I know drink a lot of their own wines as well, so they take a lot of pride in their craft. They also tend to take better care of the environment, because they either live on the land they’re farming or spend a lot of time there.
3. Don’t get sucked in by marketing jargon.
If a wine is marketed as organic, natural or cloudy, it’s probably been made by a larger company in a natural style then plastered with words that the marketing department have determined will help it sell. And for god’s sake, don’t be sucked in by gold medal stickers all over a bottle; these wines have been judged for entirely different criteria to what you’re after. We natural winemakers are fey creatures; we’re often shy about overtly saying that our wines are natural because the Australian wine media has put the term through the ringer so much over the past few years. If a wine has a hand-drawn picture or a cute story on the label, it’s far more likely to be natural. Google natural wine labels and you’ll see the kind of thing I mean.
We don’t like to boast our accomplishments all over our packaging either; 99% of the people that I work with might be pleased when they get a good result but believe that the product more than speaks for itself.
4. Check for fining agents.
In Australia, wines are required by law to state whether or not they contain SO2 and fining agents because of the dangerous adverse reactions that some people have to them. If you see “may contain traces of” egg white, milk products, fish or nuts anywhere on there, you know it’s been fined and a lot of the nutritious bits have been taken out. You still won’t know if it’s been filtered, but filtering removes significantly less than the fining process, so the wine will (hopefully) contain less sulphur because it’s still rich in natural antioxidants, plus it’s an indication of the winemakers approach to additions and manipulations more generally.
5. If in doubt, go international.
Much as it pains me to say this, international wines are often a much better bet than Australian wines. The Australian wine industry has, unfortunately, become so firmly enmeshed in the industrial paradigm that the majority of wines continue to be made prescriptively; chemicals are sprayed in the vineyard like they’re going out of fashion and people are still afraid to change because they’ve been told this is the only way to be successful by university professors whose jobs and research are funded by large chemical companies.
France, Spain, Italy and some of the eastern European countries have teetered on the edge of industrialisation for years but have never fully succumbed, and there’s some real gems to be found that represent value for money without any side effects. After all, wine is a big part of everyday culture in many of these countries, so people there are incredibly discerning. Plus the modern natural wine movement started in France over forty years ago, and more than thirty years ago in Italy. There’s been some fantastic, incredible value wines coming out of Spain the last few years as well.
The natural wine scene in Australia has really only been gaining momentum in the last few years, so some of the knowledge is still seeping its way into the mainstream. We’re getting there slowly but for now, internationals are generally a safer option when you're looking for wines made naturally with minimal intervention.
And that’s it! I hope that you find all of these tips helpful when you’re out and about looking for something delicious to drink. Enjoy!