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Back to basics, natural wine

Both ended up in the natural wine in New Zealand partly by accident. Wong had been a law student but discovered during a summer clerkship he was terrible at it. He’s now one of only 13 Masters of Wine in the country while Perlman, originally from California, had been in New Zealand for a vintage when she met a man and fell in love.

Wong says we’re currently in the second wave of a natural wine movement. The first, in the early 2010s, petered out after a few years only to re-emerge in 2015.

Indigenous yeast was responsible for all wine making until scientific and technological advances altered the practice.

Wong says most wine is produced cleanly and carefully with inoculated yeasts which are selected from a catalogue, and are grown to enhance certain flavour profiles.

Oak, another factor eschewed by natural wine makers, is also used to extract certain characteristics. Perlman says many reds, and often chardonnays, are often manipulated to a more central flavour profile by the use of oak and oak chips.

“Natural wine is a little more bare bones, this rawness from the land, of the grape and of the tradition,” she says.

The modern natural wine movement started out of France. A small number of people are allergic to sulphur, which is used to clean wine, and one of these people had the misfortune of being married to a wine-maker so he opted to make wine the natural way, without sulphur, that she would be able to drink. Since then the scope of the movement has widened hugely.

“It’ about trying to get back to the roots of wine making and wine growing,” says Wong. “Quite a bit of it is a rebellion against industrial wine making which has been growing since about the 1980s and 90s.”

However, he says, industrial wine making isn’t all bad: “A lot of the clean, beautiful and fruity wine you find on retail and supermarket shelves is due to these advances in wine making technology that allow us to make wine reliably, cleanly, and that tastes like a variety, that tastes like a certain place.”

“But in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it became to homogenous, with global critics applying a very standardised palate to these wines.”

Perlman says it also grew out of a frustration with industrial farming practices.

“Regions that have become hotbeds of natural wine like Beaujolais, it was a backlash to bringing in a lot of chemicals that more or less turned the region into an unusable place. A lot of it started with farming there.”

Finally, there was an appeal for consumers: “from the drinker's point of view, its about transparency. You have everything you need to know about this wine very quickly, which is a very romantic idea for us. You can look at this wine and you can understand this person who made it, their passion, their respect for the soil, their respect for the land and the wine.”

Wong says a good analogy is music: “There’s a massive industry around the creation of pop music, there’s a lot of technology that goes into things lot auto-tuning and that sort of stuff. But there’s always going to be a group of people that rail against that and like something raw and unplugged. A lot of natural wines is like going to a live performance. It’s not going to be the same every time, but it’s going to be an experience.”

For consumers ready to dip their toes into natural wine, Perlman says they can start with a variety they already know.

“It’s not going to be much of a departure, you can still shop for the kind of wine you want. It’s not all orange wines… There are ways of easing in that are not shocks to the system, they’re just delicious red wines from the regions we’re familiar with and grapes we’re familiar with.”

Natural wine makers, in New Zealand and abroad, tend to be ones who were already in the organic or biodynamic space, they say.

Wong says that, while natural wine making doesn’t have to result in a specific flavour profile, it can if it’s done badly. “It can lead into that amorphous group of faulty tasting, cloudy, fizzy, mead/cider tasting like wine.”

However, he says that there is an archetype for natural wine.

“Something that doesn’t have sulphur, or very little sulphur, is going to taste brighter, more stark, and probably a lot more forward than wine that has had sulphur. Switching to wine without sulphur is like realising you’ve had sunglasses on the whole time and you take them off and everything’s really bright and in your eyes and it takes a while to adjust, but it’s up to you how you view the world.”

For people interested in giving it a go, both say Wellington has a strong scene with some wine bars that showcase natural wines.

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