What is Natural?

At what point can a wine be labelled as ‘natural’? Max Allen investigates a new range of wines from the Purbrick family.
Max Allen
Photography by shantanu starick

As regular readers know, I’m all for transparency in wine. I believe that if a grower or maker makes a claim about their vineyard practice, winemaking methods, or what’s in the bottle they’re selling, they should be able to back it up.

So, when I received a press release about “a new natural wine label” called Minimum being launched by Alister Purbrick, CEO and head winemaker of Tahbilk in central Victoria in partnership with his son and daughter-in-law, Matt and Lentil Purbrick, I was keen to find out more.

Tahbilk has already ticked a few green boxes over the years: the estate boasts an impressive wetlands regeneration project, and is a registered carbon zero winery.

But Minimum takes things further. The grapes for the three wines in the range – a 2018 chardonnay, a rosé and a red blend of sangiovese and shiraz – come from a 50-hectare vineyard that’s in conversion to organic farming. The brand has partnered with an organisation that plants a tree for every dozen bottles sold, ensuring the wines effectively sequester more carbon than they produce.

And the Purbricks have laid out their approach to wine production in a “manifesto” in which the word “natural” appears eleven times, and the emphasis is on “intervening as little as necessary”. All very on-trend, and in keeping with Matt and Lentil’s background as vegie growers, authors and sustainability advocates under their Grown & Gathered brand.

When I asked Matt Purbrick for more detail about how the Minimum wines are produced, he was commendably transparent and candid in his answers. He wanted to make it clear, for example, that the first-release wines (a chardonnay and a red blend from 2018 and a rosé from 2019) were made from grapes in their second and third year of conversion to organics, and that the first fully certified organic wines would be made in 2020.

And in response to my question about the use of the term “minimum sulphur” in the new brand’s marketing material, he said that although he keeps the wines on lees for as long as possible to minimise the need for sulphur, he always adds a little at bottling.

“We wish we could say ‘no sulphur’,” Matt told me, “but experience has taught us that a little goes a long way towards protecting our wines through the less-than-perfect storage conditions they often experience between the bottling line and glass. As with all parts of the winemaking process, we are on a constant quest to ‘find the minimum’, so this may go even lower in the future.”

So far, so good – and very much in line with what most consumers and industry folk would consider a “natural winemaking” philosophy: organic grapes, minimal sulphur.

But Matt also told me that while some of the 2018 and 2019 ferments were spontaneous, he did inoculate with commercial cultured yeast (albeit certified organic cultured yeast, and two barrels for the rosé used wild yeast); that the chardonnay and a component of the rosé were fined; and that all the wines were filtered. He also said that he added some enzyme to the ferments to maximise yeast health, and he made small acid and tannin adjustments.

All of this is standard practice in most Australian wineries, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with it. And, as I say, it’s great that Matt is willing to be so up-front about what he does in the cellar. But I don’t think it passes the pub test of what constitutes natural winemaking: fining, filtration, and the addition of cultured yeasts, acid, tannin and enzymes are all anathema to the natural crowd.

I think the marketing team for Minimum might have over-egged the pudding somewhat with their enthusiastic use of the word ‘natural’. As Matt Purbrick himself says, ridgy-didge natural winemaking – no adds, no filtration, no sulphur – is at this stage more of an aspiration than the reality with the brand.

“We are constantly learning and with each vintage hope to decrease the adjustments,” he told me. “Like with the sulphur, it’s all about finding the minimum, and dancing the dance with each ferment. We’ve been so pleased with the wines so far and the healthier the vines get, the better results we’re seeing in the winery. These are exciting beginnings.”