Natural, orange, and amphora wines – busting the myths

I would have hoped by now all these issues concerning natural, orange and amphora wines were clear, but quite regularly I come across someone online who has failed to grasp the facts. Normally that person is someone who doesn’t like these wines – it is just that they are a bit hazy about what they don’t like, and why. Yesterday, Someone Who Should Know Better apparently conflated natural and orange wines in his disdain for stuff he didn’t like, and that provided the final push to me to try and put a few things straight.

Natural wines are often criticised for not being clearly defined. OK, In a way it is a fair criticism, but the broad concept of natural wine is generally understood regardless. Also, even if natural wines were defined and certified, as Demeter does for biodynamics wines for example, would that really mean much to consumers? How many know, even in outline, what Demeter’s rules are? I did read them several years ago, and for me there were quite a lot of surprises. Anyway, for the record, the broad concept for natural wine is: the viticulture is organic or biodynamic, though not necessary certified as such; fermentation takes place without inoculation of bought-in yeasts; minimal or no use of sulphur; minimal or no fining and filtration; no other additives. People argue about some of the details, but that is basically it.

Natural wines do not all taste weird or faulty. It is true that some might, and such wines may be controversial – depending on the extent of the weirdness, they may be regarded as more or less attractive by different people. But some natural wines taste completely clean, horses remaining unfrightened. Everyone is entitled to their opinions about specific wines, but why write off a whole category of wine just because someone has called them natural?

Amphora wines are simply made, partly or entirely, in an amphora. And that is that, apart from to mention that the term amphora is usually incorrectly used used to cover all types of clay jar (but that is pedantry, not myth-busting). So amphora wines are not necessarily natural, and natural wines are certainly not necessarily made in amphora. Neither is an amphora wine necessarily oxidised. Of course, like any other wine, it may be oxidised, but it is perfectly possible to seal the neck of an amphora to exclude oxygen, and the porosity of clay will not inevitably result in oxidation. Oh, and while on the subject, amphora wines are not necessarily orange either. The amphora is just the vessel, like a barrel or stainless steel tank, and wines of all colours can be made in any vessel.

Orange wines get their colour from the skin-maceration of white grapes, by which I mean those usually used for white wine – their colour will actually be green, golden or very slightly pink. Badly oxidised white wines are also orange, but orange wines as a category are not oxidised. In fact the tannins in orange wines tend to protect against oxidation, and consequently they often taste very fresh and vigorous. By now I hope it is hardly worth saying, but orange wines are not necessarily natural, and natural wines are not necessarily orange. That Someone Who Should Know Better – the one that prompted this post – was wrong.

Some wines from Vinnaturo

They first caught my eye at love + labour’s natural wine tasting at Salut Wines the other week. There were several nondescript pouches of wines sitting on one small table, and it was largely that low-key presentation that piqued my interest. As you might perhaps expect from an importer called Vinnaturo, all these wines are natural – at least organic, and using “low intervention” winemaking. They are all packaged by the company in bag-in-box, bag without box, or keg, with the intention of reducing CO₂ emissions from transportation and keeping costs down. Bag alone is currently how they sell most wines.

I shall leave it to others to consider how appropriate it is for natural wines to be packaged in plastic, but it is fine by me. I do however wonder if the presentation could benefit from being more standardised. The three wines I bought after the tasting had slightly different bags, different labels (click to enlarge the picture and read them), and different label positions. I like the idea of simple design, but this was close to just looking like no one cared. The same applied to the way they were delivered. They came in three separate boxes padded out with mountains of plastic chips and bubblewrap. Any one of the boxes would probably have been large enough to hold all three pouches, and the largest of the three boxes certainly would. The smaller boxes were very flimsy, one with a side torn open, and the tape holding the lid of the larger box was coming off. Doubtless most of the packing was reused, so not contributing further to landfill, and the pouches actually arrived in good condition, but it nevertheless did not give a great impression. For natural wines at least, I believe the presentation of the wines in bag is a USP, and I suppose all I am really saying is that a lot more could be made of it. Perhaps the on-trade is their biggest customer, and they do not care about such things?

While in whinge mode, could I also say I would appreciate vintage information on their website? This does exist on some of the labels, and I would appreciate knowing the vintage, if only so that if I reorder I know I am getting the same wine. I was also looking in vain for best-before dates and advice on how long the bags last after opening. Unless things have improved vastly in the last few years, I know deterioration over a period of months can be an issue with this technology.

Anyway, let’s now get down to the important business – the wines themselves.

At the tasting, I tried all five of the Vinnaturo wines on show. Afterwards bought two of the ones I liked best, and additionally their skin-contact Trebbiano as I thought that sounded interesting. The prices given below are for the 1.5 litre bags I bought. Unless I say otherwise, assume they were tasted after pouring from my wine fridge at 12ºC. Also a quick reminder that my star ratings are for enjoyment at the time of tasting or drinking. Reassuringly, I scored the red wines the same in both locations: the love + labour tasting, and drinking at home. It does not always work out that way!

Vinnaturo, #6, Trebbiano, Skin Contact, IGT Toscana Bianco, Biodynamic, Cosimo Maria Masini, San Miniato (Pisa) Italy, 2016, 12.5%, £22.00
The Vinnaturo website says “straw, earth, floral, apricot, delicate.” My tasting note begs to differ. Medium pale orangey caramel colour. Intense tangy smell of sherry-like oxidation. Possibly an walnut nuttiness. Highish acidty. Bone dry. Low but detectable astringecy. Aromatics as nose. Good but mono-dimensional length. Drink now. Not too unpleasant if you want a simple low-alcohol sherry-like experience. Amontillado I think. Little of the phenolic character and astringency that I woud normally associate with skin-contact wines. I tried later straight out of a normal fridge – it had a very subdued nose, and seemed a little more astringent and refreshing. If it were sold as a “normal” wine I would return it as faulty, but given the usual slack accorded to natural wines I would more politely say it is too dominated by the oxidation **

Vinnaturo, #9, Trepat, Catalonia, Spain, NV, 11.0%, £20.00
This one is supposed to be “wild, without being too crazy” according to the website, and the description is pretty spot on.  Medium pale crimson, with violet edge. Intense and fresh on the nose, and bretty in a band-aid sort of way. Blackberry fruit. Highish acidity, and low but detectable astringency. Intense aromatics very much as nose, but with the sharp blackberry fruit being a lot more dominant. refreshing to the last.  Sharp and bitter finish. An excellent food wine that is difficult to tire of. For me this is the epitome of natural wine. Traditionalist still would not like it, but I could drink a lot *****

Vinnaturo, #4, Tempranillo, Fermented and aged in amphora, Dionysus Agricultura Biologica, Castilla La Mancha, Spain, 2016, 13.5%, £20.00
Spicy and dark but still juice on the website for this one. I’m not sure what still juice means, but yes it is spicy and dark.  Medium ruby colour.  On the nose, medium intense dark fruit with a slightly sweet effect, a fresh slightly vegetal quality, and a touch of spice.  Medium acidity. Medium high astringency, and a tannic bitterness with the dark spicy fruit still showing through. And the fruit comes out more as the wine warms. Bitter finish.  This is altogether a much more serious wine, and if it were in bottle I would say it needed another 5 years or so to show its best. You don’t have to be into natural wine to like this one ****

So, a couple of wines I liked, including one I liked a lot, and one I didn’t like, which could easily be the outcome for a selection of three wines from any merchant. But Vinnaturo is very different in terms of image, and in the way it packages its wines. And despite my niggles, I still have a good feeling about their general approach, and I wish them luck, and hope to see them grow and succeed. Will I buy from them again? I think so – I would really love more of that Trepat.