Every generation has its zeitgeist wine. For my parents’ generation, it was richly proportioned, oak-driven white wines made from chardonnay, and full-flavoured, high alcohol, broad-shouldered red wines made from shiraz and cabernet. As I entered the wine industry, I saw it embrace aromatic white wines made from sauvignon blanc and riesling, and lighter, more restrained red wines made from pinot noir.
Excitingly, there are tons of new ways wines are being made. Comparing the number of grape varieties and different wine styles of the past to the wine industry of today is like comparing the amount of songs on a vinyl record to the catalogue of music available on iTunes. There is no doubt that this explosion in diversity comes down to a revolution in the way we eat and a new generation of wine drinkers who are more curious, better educated and more discerning about value than ever before.
Interestingly, some winemakers are reaching back into the past to revive old techniques. These techniques not only introduce new and exciting textures and tastes, but also open up possibilities for food compatibility. Some of the techniques that are influencing the wines you are drinking today include the following:
‘Pét nat’ is nothing new. In fact, it’s probably one of the oldest methods of making wine known to humankind. Another name for this technique of winemaking is méthode ancestrale, and it’s used to describe a wine that’s bottled before primary fermentation is completed, without adding any secondary yeasts or sugars.
Essentially, the pét nat method halts the fermentation, retaining bubbles but reducing alcohol and creating a unique texture. Wines made this way are super affordable and they rank high on the drinkability scale, due to their more textural nature. They’re not pretty wines, but they’re not meant to be. Rather, pét nats are often unfiltered and cloudy, with a wide range of bubble sizes due to the use of more localised and natural yeasts in their production. They’re rustic and simple, with a freshness and full, grape-y flavours and they represent exceptional value on a wine list.
Today’s wine drinkers see sparkling wine as a less serious wine – more casual, celebratory and fun. The retail versions of this type of wine are prosecco and moscato, while the restaurant version is pét nat. Prosecco and moscato are fruity, frothy wines and, in the case of moscato, can often be quite perfumed and sweet. Pét nats are more wine-like and carry more of the variety and region’s signature taste, texture, flavour and aroma.
A real interest in oxidised wines has emerged over the last decade and these have helped reset popular ideas around taste and flavour. By exposing a wine in a slow, controlled way to oxygen (during the winemaking and maturation process), you not only alter the colour of the wine but also the aroma and taste. In the high-volume, brand-driven wine arena, a wine’s quality has traditionally been judged on the pristine quality of its fruit and attractive aromas. Oxidised wine was always seen as “faulty”. But from a basic taste perspective, these wines are riddled with that elusive fifth taste called umami, which in a wine translates to an earthy, savoury and mouthwatering quality. This umami quality is why oxidised wines found such a willing home in wine bars and restaurants, long before the rest of the wine market cottoned onto them. They’re just so good with food!
At a molecular level, contact with oxygen causes substances to change or degrade. This includes wine. A badly oxidised wine is one that’s suffered from too much oxygen exposure and it loses all brightness of colour and flavour – it may even turn brownish. I remember the first time I saw that famous, iron-rich, red soil of South Australia’s Coonawarra wine region. The reddening or rusting of the soil was the effect of oxygen. Judicious, controlled oxygen exposure in the winemaking process is a way to deliberately move a wine away from being fruity to being more savoury, earthy and complex.
Contact with air is something that producers of commercial white wines avoid as it can dull aromatics and flavours in a category where simplicity and consistency are largely the goal. Why does this matter? For me, the answer is in the way that white wines with oxidative character respond to food. Imagine you have two wines made from the same grape variety. Wine A has been exposed to oxygen during winemaking, while Wine B has been protected from it. The pretty, fruity Wine B will require a lighter touch with food so as not to be overwhelmed by it. Wine A, with its oxidative character, will demand more complexity in a food match. It will really rise to the occasion when you throw more robustly flavoured food into the mix.
The idea of soaking juice and skin together to impart colour to wine is one of the world’s oldest winemaking techniques. Until recently, though, this was a process almost exclusively used for making red wine. During the red winemaking process, this mixture of soaked flesh and skin is pressed, after a time, to extract tannins. However, where skin contact is really becoming relevant for modern wine drinkers is actually in white wine. The skins of white grapes not only give additional colour to white wine but also introduce tannins – although not in the same concentration as you’ll find in red wines. As well as a tannic hit, that skin contact also adds a textural and savoury aspect to white wines that traditionally we haven’t seen before.
Skin contact is what’s behind the orange wines that are proliferating currently; these wines are getting their name from the slightly orange hue they receive from skin maceration. As someone who is trying to sell you the idea that food and wine are a single conversation, I will openly say I love the idea of skin contact. It gives white wines more body and texture but at the same time makes them more flexible and responsive to food. White wines with skin contact will have a slightly deeper blush colour than regular whites and feel drier in your mouth, due to the presence of low-level tannins. If you are new to these sorts of wines, it helps if they are decanted and served with food.
The term “natural wine” has no real legal definition. It’s more an idea and a philosophical approach to winemaking, so it’s not something that you’ll necessarily see on a wine label. It’s an ethos that says the earth and the vine deserve respect, and is a recognition that the winemaker has only a temporary assignment, where the earth is concerned.
Natural winemaking is as much about what you don’t do to a wine as what you do do to it. It’s a more bespoke approach, rather than one that tries to make wines that appeal to a broad commercial base. (A wine being natural doesn’t reduce your chance of a hangover, either, in case you were wondering.)
What we mean by natural wine is wine as it was originally made over 8,000 years ago – before chemicals and additives and well before the excessive manipulation of wine through winemaking became popular. Intervention in the making or maturation of a wine allows a winemaker to achieve a critical balance between vineyard, variety and winemaker in the wine. A natural wine will be less polished; it may even have a few rough edges and a greater amount of texture than what you are used to. It’s bound to have more complexity coming from a greater influence of oxygen and skins. It may even have some characteristics that could be potentially dismissed as faults. However, it’s important not to label these as such.
I look at natural wines this way, via a food analogy. There was a time when we only celebrated luxury cuts of an animal, such as the eye fillet (tenderloin) of beef, the loin of pork, the backstrap (fillet) of lamb, the breast of a chicken. Secondary meats like cheeks, tails, offal (variety meats) and tough braising cuts were eschewed – especially when you dined out. But now every bit of an animal or bird is championed. Natural wines are part of this same mentality. They show that not all of wines qualities are found in the grape itself, it’s the stems, stalks, seeds that can add real depth of flavour. They’re a bit primal-tasting and different from what we’re used to, and maybe even inelegant at times. But they deserve acceptance for their unique characteristics and the thought that goes into making them. The texture, smells and tastes we turn our nose up at today could well become the accepted character of the everyday wine we drink in the very near future.
This is an even more primal approach to winemaking, especially when applied to light- and medium-bodied red wines. Making wines this way boosts texture and mouthfeel, without adding elements like overt flavours of oak. Whole bunch winemaking is where winemakers include the entire grape bunch, including stalks, in the winemaking and don’t filter out these parts until the grape juice is ready for fermentation to become wine. Conventional winemaking wisdom has it that only the grape variety holds the key to the right sort of refined flavour a wine should have. But lately, growers and winemakers are looking beyond the ultimate ripe grape berry and to the entire grape bunch as a source of not just aroma and taste, but texture and mouthfeel, too.
Again, this has clear parallels to what’s happening in food, where there’s a real reluctance to waste anything. In previous decades, menus tended to showcase only the pristine, aesthetically pleasing, perfectly portioned versions of meat, seafood, poultry and produce. There was, to my mind, an air of excess to this.
The new tradition being written by contemporary chefs is to celebrate produce in its entirety, seeing bones, tendons, skin, organs and fats as important sources of texture and flavour. Not only is this approach more sustainable and respectful, it’s also one that unlocks incredible amounts of texture and flavour. Think of a beautifully made meat-based stock and you’ll know instantly what I mean. Skin, bones, connective tissue and bits of meat – it all goes into the pot with water and, over the course of a few hours, is rendered into something incredible. There’s real texture from collagen and elastin, and lip-smacking flavour from bones, marrow, fat and meat.
So it is with whole bunch wines, where extra tannins are released from the stalks and skins. These tannins are softer, more savoury and more malleable. They are not the big, blocky, sweet and cumbersome tannins from heavy handed new oak or high extraction. (Extraction is the process of pressing the mix of skin, seed and/or stalks. This is a red wine-making technique, as white grapes have their juice and skins separated prior to the wine going through fermentation.) This process will extract more tannins that could overpower and dominate a dish. When used in judicious measure, solids like skins, stalks and seeds can add layers of tannin that unwind spectacularly with food.