Tim James: On the continuing emergence of natural wines

By , 6 September 2016



Natural wineIt was the most unusual line-up I’ve experienced at one of the big final Platter’s tastings. (For those who don’t know, this event has in recent years evolved into one where a number of three-person panels blind-taste the many hundreds of wines that have been nominated for more than four stars.) This small category was entitled “Alternative whites”, and consisted of nine wines, ranging in colour from fairly standard mid-straw, through golden-orange to pretty dark old-gold. Far from all brilliantly clear, a few downright hazy.

There’d never before been such a category, but such is the proliferation of such wines in the Cape in recent years that it was clearly necessary this year – given the patent unfairness (and silliness) of putting alongside more standard stuff a blend of chenin, viognier & muscat that had macerated on its skins in clay amphorae for 7 months. Etc.

Unfortunately, one or two producers of such avant-garde wines don’t submit their wines to Platter, but most do and it’s an excellent and rewarding challenge to the Platter’s tasters (not all of whom get around a great deal, it must be admitted) to deal with wines that in some cases stray wildly from the established norms of excellence and style.

And I was surprised and delighted this year that there were many more than I knew about. It was almost invariably a privilege and a pleasure to taste them – and even more to drink them, which is the big advantage for the Platter’s home taster, a privilege denied those going to “tastings” or judging competitions.

Snapshot brevity is a severe limitation that applies to the final blind Platter’s tasting too, of course – and I’m nearly as sceptical of that as I am of all big tastings, though the methodology is evolving and it seems to me that it’s getting to be as good as possible. For one thing, the judging panel, once its members have made their own rating of the wine, takes into account the score given by the “home taster” – who had the opportunity to linger over the wine and come to a more lengthily considered opinion; and this can affect on the panel’s deliberations about a final score.

Another innovation this year was to break up the large categories in such a way as to give the palate a rest. So, my nine Alternative Whites came between two sessions of shiraz with 25 wines in each (the panel continued with the other 36 shiraz candidates next day!).Quite apart from time off while the new wines were being poured, it was a marvellous break from tannic young shirazes, often oaked and alcoholic, to sample these interesting whites.

I’ve strayed more than I intended from the “alternative” theme. I’ll conclude by reverting to the pleasure of getting to actually live a bit with sample wines. It’s true that there are few such bottles that I drain to the last drop. One such this year was, extraordinarily, a muscat de Frontignan from Kyle Dunn, who formerly worked with Adi Badenhorst but now concentrates on his own Skinny Legs range (some brilliantly “alternative” packaging too). It’s called Special Rendition 2014 and was a two-week whole-bunch ferment and then a few years in old oak barrels; it’s bone-dry, mineral-stoney, and even rather austere, despite the varietally typical grapey introduction. Especially with food it’s fascinating and marvellous – if you like that sort of thing (probably pretty dreadful if you don’t), but I have no idea if and where and at what price you might find it.

  • Tim James is founder of Grape.co.za and contributes to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.



6 comment(s)

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    Tim James | 7 September 2016

    The headline wasn’t mine, but I think it’s fine. Firstly because I was mostly concerned to applaud the strengthening of the avant-garde in Cape Wine. Also because for me, and I suspect for most people, skin contact for white wine is indeed (so I reluctantly disagree with David) a valid association with the “natural wine” movement – the idea being to intervene as little as possible during vinification, and this could well include whole-bunch fermentation.

      David Clarke | 7 September 2016

      For most people, I would agree with you, Tim. But that doesn’t make it so. You can have skin-contact wines that are natural, and skin-contact wines that are not. The reverse is true. When the juice/wine is pressed has no impact on it being natural. Totally agree about their being an association, but I think on this website we should aim to get things right. A really small thing, but one I am passionate about.

      Love the piece by the way – it was an interesting line up!

    David Clarke | 6 September 2016

    Just a reminder to whomever wrote the headline:

    Technique of skin contact has nothing to do with “natural”.

      Christian | 7 September 2016

      Hi David, You are of course entirely correct but equally calling the category “alternative whites” doesn’t seem appropriate either – an alternative white would surely be something made from a less mainstream variety like Gruner Veltliner or Harslevelu. I suppose the correct headline should have made reference to “orange wine”.

      LePlonk | 7 September 2016

      Well, interestingly enough, now that someone has kindly taken it upon themselves to petition SAWIS to allow certification of “orange” wines, it is now something we can export. But whoever did it, went a half hog too far (to include the whole, geddit), and now an Orange wine in SA needs to have less than 30 parts total Sulphur (a natural wine thing).

      I’m not really sure the two should have anything to do with each other (skin contact and low sulphur). But this basically forces produces making orange wines to export what will 6/10 times be unstable wines.

      In short, in an SA context, at the moment, an orange wine IS a “naturally” made wine. For better or worse.

        Kwispedoor | 7 September 2016

        Good point, LePlonk. Some wines are inherently more stable than others, but it is not the sole domain of either orange or so-called “natural” wines.

        The more I drink older wines that were very good in their youth and also promised a good future, the more I am concerned about the fashion of adding less and less sulphur. One is too often left bitterly disappointed with spoilage of some kind.

        I suppose some of this can be laid at the door of the fallacy that sulphur causes a hangover headache, but serious producers should be much more concerned about how their wines will hold up as it matures. It’s okay if you don’t make super-stable wine and don’t filter much, but then you need to protect the wine (and your reputation). That goes double for wines that have to endure the rigours of a trip across the ocean.

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