Your complete beginner's guide to natural wines
Hey there, it's Ronn!
If you're anything like me, a large part of your life revolves around wines (and consuming them). Whether you're drinking for fun or from a connoisseur's point of view, there is so much we can understand about wine. No, really — it's quite a handful.
While conventional wines have been a staple for many throughout the world for a long time, we now see a surge in popularity for natural wines. Although not an entirely new creation, natural wines have become quite trendy in the past few years — including here in Malaysia.
We know that natural wine is just an ancestral way of making wine; but there's more to it. To truly get to know more, I had the help of Meng How and Gerald Chua of PURO KL. The co-founders of the natural wine bar in REXKL spoke about all things natural wine, from its definition to the differences from conventional wine.
Can you first define natural wine?
In its purest form, it is wine made from unadulterated fermented grape juice and nothing else. Nothing is added, nothing is removed. Natural wines are not purposely fashioned into a particular organoleptic profile through chemical or technical manipulations. Rather, they are made to fully express the varietal characteristics, and the sense of place and time (or terroir). When a winegrower wants to make a wine in its most sincere and earnest form, with very minimal interventions during the growing and making, the result is a natural wine.
What is the difference between natural wine and conventional/regular wine?
Both kinds of wine are made to be enjoyed. The underlying difference is the philosophical approach. Ironically, natural wine is a conventional wine that is actually new. People have in fact been making fermented grape juice without additives for thousands of years. On the other hand, your conventional or regular wine is less than a century old. Technological advances are the most influential factor in this change, where they allow the human to exert more control over the winemaking.
In the I98Os, a IOO-point wine rating system was (in)famously adopted by a very authoritative wine critic. While his rating system guided consumers to discern their wines, some winemakers became fixated to create wines to suit a certain palate. The heavy hand of manipulation, either chemically using additives or technologically, resulted in the homogenisation of good wines. While these conventional wines taste rounded, polished, and somewhat all uniform, natural wines are unpredictable, provoking, and divisive as it challenges the norms.
Do natural, organic, and biodynamic wines all mean the same?
Organic and biodynamic are the methodologies employed in wine growing. Essentially, both are sustainable practices in growing the grapes and making the wine. The use of agrochemicals, such as pesticides and herbicides, and GMOs are abstained in both practices. Besides not using agrochemicals in the vineyards like organic viticulture, biodynamic considers other factors which are homeopathic and astrological. Homeopathic treatments to the soil which include the use of compost prepared using biodynamic principles are essential.
One of such preparation is code-named BD500 where cow manure are stuffed into cow horns prior to being buried in the soil over the winter. These preparations are then dug up, diluted, and sprayed onto the soils to heal and vitalise. In addition, biodynamic winegrowers not only observe the rhythms and cycles of the moon, but also that of the stars, sun and planets, as they believe this wider cosmos influence the development and growth of the vines.
Natural wine is fundamentally a product of a winegrower’s winemaking philosophy. And that is to make a wine which is vibrant and alive, showing personality, hinting on its provenance, and evoking emotions. The use of grapes cultivated using organic or biodynamic farming is almost always a precursor for making natural wines.
How about aging? Can natural wines age and do they have a different shelf life?
As opposed to most conventional wines, natural wines either contain only a tiny fraction of added sulphites or none. For natural wines, a minuscule amount of sulphur is only added during bottling to stabilise the wine and prevent microbial spoilage. However, the wine remains highly sensitive to adverse transportation and storage conditions. Stability of these natural wines can be enhanced with higher acidity as it creates an environment unwelcome to microbes. The provenance of the grapes is also a very important determinant of the wine’s aging potential. While many of these natural wines are destined to be enjoyed young, natural wines from seasoned producers such as Radikon, La Stoppa, can be aged for years.
Is there certification for natural wine?
A milestone was reached in March 2020 when the French officialdom, INAO, formally established Vin methode nature as the official labelling term for natural wines with 12 rules which winegrowers need to abide to use this label. This is as close as to an official certification thus far.
What are your thoughts on natural wine’s surge in popularity?
It seems like natural wines is a subset of a hot topic in a larger context like healthy living, environmentalism, and artisanal crafts. It can also be as simple as a case of FOMO as natural wines have acquired a hipster cachet over the past few years. Natural wines have garnered the interests of many young, non-matured drinkers. Consumers are also more conscious of where the products they drink or eat come from. This is not only because of health, but also the environment. So, when it comes to drinking wines, many of these consumers would advocate natural wine as their choice of wines.
One other novelty of natural wines is the deep respect for traditions by the winegrowers, as they rejected hi-tech winemaking methods adopted by their conventional counterparts. This gives rise to the notion of natural wine being an artisanal craft — a handmade wine. All in all, these varied reasons are possibly why natural wines are becoming popular.
How can a beginner to natural wines develop a palate, especially when natural wines are said to have unique flavours?
Natural wines can range from wild and funky to exceptionally alive and complex. But of course, there are also those normal in style. The funkiness of these natural wines may be off-putting to some, but thanks to their generally low alcohol content, they are very versatile and can be sipped on its own or be drank with meals. Rather than to develop a certain palate for natural wines, it is better for one to try all kinds of wine to expand one’s palate.
Drink side by side with a conventional wine of the same varietal, same region, same vintage, and experience this whole organoleptic journey for yourself. By doing so, you will be able to grasp the differences between a natural and conventional wine. It is not easy to categorise a natural wine’s flavor profile as the range in aroma and flavour is so great depending on the winemaker and the grapes used.
What should one look out for when buying them?
I would recommend doing some readings first. Find out more about these natural winegrowers and understand their winemaking and their wines. Natural wine is an extension of a winegrower’s philosophy. Most of the time, the stories of these natural winegrowers will grow on you. They are usually very small family-owned wineries, and you can find a lot of personal touches on their wines.
It is difficult to decipher anything much from the wine labels. As most of these natural winegrowers are somewhat renegades of a bureaucratic system, their wines are often classified as the lowest of class — a table wine per se. Hence, if you are hunting for an AOC (appellation d'origine contrôlée) or DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita), you may just miss these natural gems on the shelf.
Can you tell us more about PURO and what’s on offer at the wine bar?
PURO, for all intents and purposes, is a natural wine bar that wishes to redefine wine. Rather than serving wines that are rich, flawless, and correct, we seek out wines that are expressive, that are earthy, funky, and comes with visible sediments — that taste alive! We are not mainstream; we are revolutionary. If you are looking for a classy, refined wine experience with 90 pointers big, polished wines, we will disappoint you. However, if you are game for a unique trajectory of organoleptic experience, PURO is here to enthuse you. Open your mind, and we will open your senses.
Why specialise in sustainable and natural wines?
Natural wines are misunderstood, misconceived, or even missed by most people. It would not have been the case if there is a place where one can access these wines, explore them and learn about them. Both founders of PURO have worked some time in Malaysia’s wine industry to realise we are lacking such a wine place that offers IOO% sustainable and natural wines on the menu. Hence, PURO. At PURO, we do not only serve sustainable and natural wines for our customers to explore, but they can also learn about these wines from our friendly crew. We hope PURO can be a communal space where people can get together, talk, and discuss over sustainable and natural wines.
What would you recommend getting if one is interested to try natural wines at Puro?
At PURO, we have a very interesting wines by-the-glass programme. We offer 15 or more different sustainable and natural wines in all hues (whites, reds, orange, and rosé) by the glass. In this case, you can explore more wines without having to buy so many bottles and breaking the bank in doing so. This list of wines by-the-glass is regularly changed so that our customers get to try different wines every time they are at PURO. Our wines are also dispensed by the Coravin wine access system to ensure every pour is fresh. At the time of writing, PURO is probably the only one wine bar in Malaysia with such an extensive wines by-the-glass programme freshly dispensed by Coravin.
How about you? What is your go-to variant?
I would be thinking of a glou-glou (chuggable) say the Chat Rond Stone by Maison P-U-R. It is a gamay from Beaujolais. Served it slightly chilled and it sure can beat the heat out of a tropical evening in Malaysia. It is so fresh, so invigorating — so glou-glou.
Last but not least, how do you foresee the growth of natural wines in Malaysia?
The last couple of years saw more and more people asking for natural wines. While the understanding of natural wines may still be lacking, at least more are willing to explore and experiment beyond their usual glass of Barossa Shiraz. Buzzwords such as organic, biodynamic, natural, no sulphite, and pét-nat (Pétillant Naturel) are turning the heads of wine drinkers. These wines are now deservedly getting noticed, people are drinking them, and sharing stories about them on social media.
Wine importers are starting to bring these wines into Malaysia and restaurants are including one or two labels on their menu. We are still at the exploratory phase, and so, there is still ample room for growth. But will natural wines ever become mainstream one day? I don't think so and I hope it never will because mainstreaming means embracing a commercial proposition. Natural wine must not become a catchphrase but should remain virtuous and true to its value.
There you go! I sure learned a tremendous lot from PURO and I'm ready to start exploring my way around natural wines. Echoing PURO, it's all about trying and learning about different wines that are available. After all, there isn't a one-size-fits-all approach to wine consumption; be it natural or conventional.
I really do hope that this guide helps you on your wine-venture. Thank you so much for speaking to me, Meng How, Gerald, and PURO!
Address: REXKL, 80, Jalan Sultan, Kuala Lumpur