Day 28: Natural wines and an epic afternoon tea

Today was another one of those can-this-possibly-be-school-because-it’s-just-all-so-good Wednesdays which Ballymaloe do so well.

A quick cake demo, followed by a morning of wine tasting, followed by lunch, followed by an epic demonstration of all things Afternoon Tea. Led by Rory and supported heroically by Pam, Tracie and Emer, there was no teeny tiny cake we didn’t cover.

But first of all; this happened. On a lunchtime wander for fresh air on Wednesday I came upon those piglets. And their mama. Many pictures and videos were taken. I’ll just share these two:

7 little cuties
You don’t want to mess with this mama pig.

Wine tasting this week was all about natural wines. I loved this class. A lot. Colm and French wine merchant Pascal Bossignol took us through this lecture. In between tasting 6 wonderful wines we had some incredibly interesting discussion on biodynamic and organic wines, now most often called natural wines.

My favourite was the nosso, made in Rueda in northern Spain

Natural wines are called so because these are made with minimal interference to the fermentation and wine making process. A lot (but not all) natural wines will be organic (although definitions of organic are grey) and some also biodynamic.

Winemakers may use any number of different chemicals or substances as part of their wine-making, including synthetic herbicides, pesticides, fungicides and fertilizers. Once grapes are harvested, other techniques or additives may be included. These may be used for a number of reasons, but they’re mainly to ensure stability, longevity and consistency. All of which are important to wine makers when large volumes of wine are needed from every vintage. Winemakers have to ensure they can produce enough wine to supply their customers and if that customer is a supermarket or a restaurant chain, they need volume. Not only that, they need volume that will be consistently recognisable as their wine. Some of the chemicals they use may be toxic, but they kill the bugs and certain bacteria and ensure the vines (and the wine) stay safe.

Sulphur is one of the most common additives to wine. It’s a preservative, so used to ensure the wine keeps well. Sulphur occurs naturally during fermentation but a lot of winemakers add extra sulphur. This might not seem like a big deal, but wine is one of the only products we consume that doesn’t have to have the ingredients (and volume of those ingredients) listed on the label. So it’s not necessarily that additives like sulphur is used; it’s just that we as drinkers don’t know how much. As humans we can be affected by too much sulphur – so surely we have a right to know how much of it we’re consuming?Consider the different between a dried apricot preserved with sulphur (bright orange and soft) and one without (chewier and brown). There’s no denying sulphur changes the colour, texture and (some might say) taste of the apricot – so it’s doing the same to wine. Ever wondered why cheap wine gives you such a bad hangover?

Tasting and note taking

So a natural wine maker takes a different approach. Rather than wanting every bottle and every vintage to exhibit the same traits and taste the same, they choose minimal interference. No chemicals. No sprays. The wine will be an authentic taste of that region, the climate, the weather, the soil, the bacteria – the moment it was made. With it’s lower chemical content it’s got to better for us. And as Colm to rightly said:

“It’s the magic of wine that you can travel and taste the world just by opening a bottle”

It sounds great right? Why wouldn’t everyone make wine this way? Well, because it’s more unpredictable. There’s more risk and less certainty. While some years ‘the moment’ might be wonderful, other years might not be so. This comes tricky territory when committing to make large volumes of wine. Hence why chemicals and other techniques are called in. With the unpredictability of Mother Nature, natural wines just can’t be produced at a global scale. By its very nature natural wines are boutique, they’re locally grown and locally consumed.  Or fairly locally. You’ll see natural wines on many restaurant wine lists now. There’s even wine bars in London and Paris which are dedicated to natural wines. But the wines will be on the list until they run out. Vintages are small and one thing that’s guaranteed about a natural wine is that the next vintage won’t taste the same as last years. It will taste of whatever happened that year on the vineyard, of the soil, the weather and the decisions of the winemaker about when to harvest and how long to ferment etc.

Colm skyping in a wine maker from Bodegas Menade to our lecture to tell us about how they make their natural wine

What’s also really interesting is that there’s minimal regulation around what can be called a natural wine. Unlike the organic label which has pretty strict (if not always consistent) criteria, the term natural can be applied pretty loosely. This is slightly scary as a consumer to think a producer may recognise the trend for more natural wines and use natural purely as a marketing tool. Just like we might be more inclined to buy a craft or boutique beer, some of us might pick up a bottle of a natural wine thinking we’re getting something better but without there being any certainty of it.

So what can we do? Read labels. Look for organic certification. Or, if they’re within distance go and check out any local producers and see how their wine is made. Check out the sulphur contents. Natural wine producers will state they have low sulphurs.

And what do natural wines taste like? In one word – fresh. (Delicious too, but fresh really stood out) They’re often picked slightly earlier and can have lower alcohol contents than other wines.

My interest is totally piqued! I felt really inspired by these couple of hours and can’t wait to find out a lot more about this kind of wine making. (Which is not just an excuse to drink more wine I promise)

Rather than talk through the afternoon tea demonstration – I’ll let my pictures to the talking. Needless to say I went for a long run that night.

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