Natural wines are attracting a lot of attention at present from both the press and wine drinkers looking for a genuinely healthy option. Until recently organic was in fashion, which subsequently gave way to biodynamic.

So if we were already drinking genuinely healthy organic biodynamic wines, why has this latest style of natural wines appeared?

The truth is perhaps not what we would like to hear! Put simply we weren’t drinking healthy wines in the first place. Organic status was originally developed with all the right motives, to provide us with healthy well made wines with minimal additives. Unfortunately organic status became a victim of it’s own success, and was subsequently hijacked by the global wine companies who saw it as a powerful marketing tool.  In the EU wines are labelled as “wine produced from organically grown grapes” and it is ONLY THE GRAPE GROWING which is certified as organic. During the actual winemaking process chemicals are permitted to be added including large quantities of harmful preservatives including sulphites. So these big companies simply buy in some cheap organically grown grapes then vinify them, add a large dash of chemicals, then market them as “organic”!

Even biodynamic wines are permitted to add up to 90 mg/l of sulphur, so these wines are no healthier than any other. So the “natural wine” movement was born. Ethical producers who wanted to make wines with minmal intervention and virtually no added chemicals, sugars or synthetic yeasts. However there is no official legal status for natural wines, and there is no set of rules for what qualifies and what doesn’t.

Now would you believe the very same global wine companies who peddled their inferior wines  using the terms organic and biodynamic, are now objecting to the natural wine movement saying as there is no regulation, anything could be put into these wines! Now that is the pot calling the kettle black!

Clearly they are concerned that the natural wine movement may take trade away from them, as they know that these wines cannot be mass produced in their own factories on a commercial scale.

Are natural wines any good?

I have just attended the UK’s first natural wine fare in Borough Market this weekend where I tasted over 100 wines, cherry picking what I was told were the best. And my conclusion sadly is “no” – many that were at the fare are not good! But on the other hand I have tasted a few natural wines recently which are very good indeed.  It seems this natural wine fare was organised by a small group of specialist UK importers featuring producers who they already represent. As with all types of wine, it is not always the best examples that are marketed in the UK. I personally thought these wines were very poor taste wise, and as a wine lover I simply wouldn’t want to drink them. I wish I could truthfully say different as I’m a big fan of wines made properly without chemicals.

Most natural wines (but by no means all) are pretty poor in taste (but are healthy). Most are very sensitive and prone to storage problems. And they’re nearly all VERY expensive. At present most producers tend to be idealists (some are way out hippies!) looking to produce as natural a product as possible rather than a wine designed to suit the UK palate. I did find one sulphur free red which was decent, but cost an astronimcal £19 plus VAT per bottle to buy trade! Including VAT on the sales price it would have to retail for upward of £30.

However there is one natural wine producer who is fantastic, making top class affordable wines.

Domaine Viret in the Rhone Valley – you may remember them from the Oz and James episode where Oz called their wines cosmic nectar? Philippe Viret has had 3 red wines listed in the Rhone top 100 and his white, La Coudee D’Or, was voted the best white wine in the Rhone Valley by food and wine critic Michael Bretton. This is up against all wines, not just other natural ones!

Philippe has his own system called cosmoculture which surpasses biodynamic. Everything on the vineyard is completely natural without any form of chemical whatsoever. His wines are frankly delicious and extremely good for you – drinking good red wine EVERY DAY in moderation is actually extremely beneficial healthwise. Read about the many benefits including prevention of cancer and vascular disease here.

Philippe’s wines are available in the UK through www.goodwineonline.co.uk and are very competitively priced – certainly when compared to other natural wines! They start below £10 per bottle, with some of Philippe’s extremely rare 1999s and 2000 vintages costing around £35. That’s basically the same price as any decent Chateauneuf.

If you want to try natural wines I strongly recommend trying Domaine Viret wines. Quite simply they are some of the very best available, and the best value. I have also tried a few excellent natural wines from tiny producers in the Rhone and Languedoc regions, but these are made in such miniscule amounts (some only 500 bottles!) that they are not commercially available, only sold to friends and family.

Just on another note, I also tried the highly publicised Stellar organics “no added sulphur” range from South Africa including their brand new Pinotage, at the London International Wine Fare. They were hideous! We tried the Merlot and Cab Sauv too, and all 3 were undrinkable! I was highly amused as trade photographers like to slink through the crowd taking clandestine snaps of people tasting, and one guy got me just as I tasted the Merlot and virtually spat it straight back out. I wonder if that picture will make it into any of the glossies? 

Just because a wine doesn’t have sulphur added doesn’t make it “natural”. It is just as much about the use of natural rather than artificail strains of yeast, and the addition of other substances including sugars. Don’t believe these Stellar wines are remotely natural – they are not!

Trying to produce wines with no sulphur on an industrial scale (so they can be retailed at comparable prices to wines containing sulphur) just does not work. Stellar Organics is all the proof we need of that! I wouldn’t bath my cat in it (although it tastes like somebody else already has!).