10 June 2022 / Sue Tolson
Confusion and controversy seem to surround the use of these terms, often resulting in heated debate. The biggest problem is that many people are unsure of what they actually mean, and certainly, there is no official definition for natural wine.
Let’s begin with organic. Organic wine, in the EU at least, basically means that the grapes have been grown without synthetic fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides, and lower levels of sulphites are permitted in the final wine. Seemingly simple, at least at face value; however, confusingly, organic wines are called bio wines in many countries, which leads to them being confused with biodynamic wines, which are not entirely the same as organic wines, although most biodynamic producers are in fact organic. Confusing, to say the least.
So, what are biodynamic wines? Put simplistically, in addition to organic viticulture, the grapes for these wines are cultivated based on a holistic system established nearly a century ago by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner. Activities in the vineyard revolve around a specific biodynamic astronomic calendar which dictates what should be done, or not, when. So, soil cultivation, sowing, planting and cellar work should be done in accordance with the planetary constellations, where possible. Moreover, each day is considered either a root, flower, leaf or fruit day, which is determined according to a combination of lunar cycles and astrological signs. Incidentally, wine is supposed to taste better on fruit and flower days! Moreover, the vines must be treated with biodynamically produced compost and biodynamic preparations. But we won’t go into that here! Like with organic winemakers, some are certified, and some simply apply the principles, perhaps with a view to gaining certification in the future. Increasing numbers of producers in Hungary are organic, but only a very small number have gone one step further and are biodynamic, including Wassmann Biodnynamic Wine in Villány, Pendits Biodynamic Estate in Tokaj, Bencze Estate in Badacsony and Kristinus Wine Estate on the southern shore of the Balaton.
Stefan and Márta Wille-Baumkauff from Pendits Winery
And what about natural wines? Well, while organics and biodynamics are generally more focussed on the cultivation of the grapes, natural winemaking is all about how the wine itself is made. As mentioned previously, there is no official definition of ‘natural wine’. Natural wine basically means wine that has been produced with little or no intervention, fermented spontaneously with natural yeast, contain no additives and only minute amounts of sulphites. They are usually bottled unfined and unfiltered, thus may be a little cloudy. Although producers don’t strictly speaking have to be organic or biodynamic to produce natural wines, they generally are, as producing a wine naturally, without intervention or additives is in line with the philosophy of such winemakers.
Natural wine is often where the controversy lies. Most people don’t expect their wines to be cloudy and maybe still with some yeasty or other unusual flavours. Many claim they are faulty wines, while proponents of the style enjoy this ‘funkiness’, just like those in the burgeoning craft beer scene. Natural wine is only just starting to catch on in Hungary, but there are several natural wine bars in Budapest, including Vino Piano and Marlou, and a handful of webshops where you can buy natural wine, such as Mitiszol (who also organise an annual natural wine tasting), Lees Brothers and DemiJohn Wine and Deli. As well as the previously mentioned biodynamic wineries, watch out for producers like Bott Cellar, Barta Winery and Pelle Cellar in Tokaj, Somlói Apátsági Pince and Somlói Vándor Pince on Somló, the Pósta Winery in Szekszárd and Bálint Losonci in the Mátra.
Vivien Ujvári from Barta Winery
Marianna and László Pelle from Pelle Cellar
A PDO for natural wines
A small group of wineries in the Sümeg area of the Balaton Highlands wine district came together to restore a historic Hungarian wine region and in 2021 became Europe’s second smallest appellation with only four wineries and eleven hectares of vineyards. What is particularly interesting about the Sümeg PDO is that wineries in the appellation have to be committed to strict organic viticulture and producing natural wines. A key driving force behind this is Mark Egly of Egly Winery, who also organised Natural Sümeg for the second time this year, with the aim of bringing together natural winemakers from the wider region.
Orange wines, often known as amber wines, are not made from oranges, as the name might suggest, but the name rather refers to their colour. They are white wines that are made like red wines. So, while modern white wines rarely have much skin contact before they are pressed and fermented, orange wines spend a certain amount of time macerating on their skins during, and maybe after, fermentation - from just a week or two, up to even a year or more in extreme cases. They are generally made in clay amphora, qvevri, tank or old oak as too much oak would mask the fruit expression. This ancient method of producing wine, closely associated with Georgia and qvevri, is also traditional in Friuli in north-eastern Italy and across the border in Slovenia. However, this style has become increasingly trendy, and small boutique winemakers are getting in on the game all over the world. And not only small producers, some big ones too. Recognising the popularity of the style, many large wineries have also added an orange wine to their range.
To the unsuspecting drinker, orange wines may seem a little strange. Their exotic spicy profile, often with peach, apricot and mandarin flavours and some tannic grip is quite different from what you normally expect from a wine made from white grapes. Most natural winemakers will often have at least one orange wine in their range, but some conventional wine producers are making them too. Pálffy Winery make an orange wine from Traminer, Kristinus Wine Estate have two orange blends and Pósta Winery one from Sauvignon Blanc. But keep your eyes peeled, as these are often small-batch wines and may not be made every year.
And to the final old new style. Pétillant naturel, or pet-nat for short, is a light sparkling wine produced using the méthode ancestrale originally used in Limoux in the south of France. Unlike traditional method sparkling wine, where a fully fermented base wine is produced before the secondary fermentation in bottle, pet-nats are bottled before completing their first fermentation, meaning they finish fermenting, with yeast and all, in the bottle they will be sold in. They are generally not disgorged or filtered, so are creamy, cloudy, softly fizzy and generally low in alcohol. They are lively, fun wines, yeasty and funky, perhaps a bit rustic and unpredictable as each bottle will go its own way and you don’t know where it will end up! Pet-nats are now starting to appear more often in Hungary too, generally made by natural wine makers or perhaps the younger, more experimental generation from conventional wineries. Bujdosó Winery have versions made from Királyléanyka and Riesling, while Attila Pálffy’s P.A.N.K. Pink and Normal with their funky labels have also proved a big hit. However, there are more and more to discover!
Ferenc and Ferkó Bujdosó from Bujdosó Winery
So be adventurous and go out there and discover Hungary’s natural winemakers and its orange wines and pet-nats!