Beyond non-alcoholic wine, one of the categories that is starting to push from the fringes to the mainstream of the industry is preservative-free wines, with more and more products appearing on the market every harvest. It's a contentious category, though, especially given the boom in lo-fi wines that share so much but often sit in a different space.
In this piece, Jono Outred lays out the cards and identifies how you make a preservative-free wine and what's happening in the space.
The world of ‘natural’ wine is a complicated one, not least because of our understanding (or misunderstanding), of preservatives.
On the whole, preservatives, what they are and how they’re used can differ from wine brand to wine brand. This makes the low and no preservative space can a minefield of guesswork that can ultimately end up in disappointment.
Thankfully, many Australian producers are excelling in the low and no preservative space, working to improve their products and the segment's reputation while innovating in the process. Importantly, those working in this space are focussed on reducing the number of inputs in wine, from the growing process right through to the final bottled product.
Rachael Niall, a Wine Business Coach based in Perth, knows first-hand the complexities of terminology surrounding no and low preservative wines and what it means for consumers.
‘Consumers want to make informed choices, healthy choices, so of course, preservative-free wines are becoming more popular. One thing is clear: In legal terms, if the detectable amount of preservative is less than 10 ppm, laws in Australia do not require anything about preservative to be mentioned on the label.’ she explains.
‘Preservative-free wine has no preservative added during harvest, production or bottling. However, most wines, no matter how they are made, contain a trace of sulphur dioxide, as it is a natural property formed during the fermentation process.’
These disparities, both in terminology and production, have created plenty of variation within the world of wine. A clear motivation to produce wines with zero added preservatives exists, and a want for these products is growing among consumers.
But how are these wines produced?
For Jess Waldron, owner and winemaker at Jingalup Wines, it’s a simple equation.
‘I think if you are calling it preservative-free, you have got to be doing it right. Just grapes, nothing else. Every step of production is a little bit different when you make low/no sulphur wines. Especially if you are making premium wines and paying a fortune for the fruit, you have to look after it. ‘
And Waldron believes the benefits can be enormous for producers working in this space.
‘The good thing about making better wines from better vineyards is often the fruit is awesome, clean, and if picked at the right time, it's going to make the whole production easier... or at least less stressful. I think the main difference really is being gentle, your wines are alive if you aren't using anything, and you just have to look after it.’
A similar sentiment is observed by Dave Caporaletti, Owner and Winemaker at Architects of Wine in the Adelaide Hills.
‘I strongly believe that preservative free/minimal preservative wines express their terroir better and are more expressive than wines that have been made heavy-handed with preservatives. I make some wines SO2-free and others with a maximum of 20PPM added at racking just prior to bottling. It’s amazing to see how much impact on the aroma and flavour of a wine just a small 20PPM addition can have.’ he said.
‘But I don’t believe that there are drastic differences in the way preservative-free wines are made vs conventional wines. I keep wines on lees during aging and don’t rack wines unless absolutely necessary. In principle, I don’t think this is massively different to conventional methods with the exception that they may rack wines a number of times to aid in clarification and stabilisation.’
In theory, low and no preservative wine should be simpler than ‘conventional’ counterparts, but in many cases, more complications can be presented with fewer tools in the toolkit, so to speak. This means no low preservative wine producers have fewer resources at the ready to fix any problems that might arise, which is one of the reasons consumers find them so alluring when they’re high quality.
‘[regarding inputs] Australia is and has been so large-scale agribusiness for so long, it’s just how people have learnt. We don’t have the traditional finesse of the old world and that’s what taking it back is about for me. Quality is everything, I guess; wine is about grapes, and that’s what it should be’ Waldron concludes.
Thankfully for Australian consumers, there’s an array of producers working within the low and no preservative realm. Some of these producers are small, relying on hand selling and direct-to-consumer sales, while others have a much larger footing to distribute and export their wines globally.
South Australia’s Kalleske, for example, has been growing grapes since 1853, certifying their 48 hectares of vines organically and biodynamically in 1998. They’ve collected plenty of awards and accolades along the way while producing 15,000 dozen [Halliday Wine Companion] annually for global distribution.
Caporaletti is a much smaller producer but has witnessed the popularity of low and no preservative wines grow in Australia.
‘I think, in general, preservative-free wines are becoming more popular in Australia. Early on, I think consumers were more accepting / expecting that a preservative-free wine may have some faults or issues, but as consumers have become more educated and winemaking has improved, this has now become pretty much unanimously unacceptable. Low/no preservative wines are not an excuse for faulty wines, especially when such a small addition can be a big help in ensuring that these faults don’t occur.’
Niall agrees that plenty of Australian producers are making great wines in this space – Lark Hill, Si Vintners, Cullen, Mewstone Wines and BK Wines to name a few – but is also conscious that with new growth in the low and no preservative category, there come some complexities for producers and consumers.
‘It [no and low preservative wines] has exploded. As with food, consumers are now more aware of preservatives and additions in beverages. With more brands popping up, plus some larger, more conventional brands jumping on board the ‘natty’ train, it can be tricky for consumers to navigate and make informed choices.’
‘Words such as minimal-intervention, natty, natural, lofi do not guarantee quality, that a wine is ‘natural’, or that there has been any care for soil health or biodiversity. However, those terms can be used in content and packaging (which) is confusing for consumers and frustrating for producers who legitimately take care to create natural/minimal-intervention wines.’
It’s clear that the natural wine space, which encompasses the ideals of low and no preservative winemaking, is one of turbidity, where new producers are emerging, and interest is growing among consumers, all while the greater wine industry looks to clarify terminology and definitions.
On the surface, these wines might seem like a recent trend, but Caporaletti reminds us that there’s nothing new about natural wine.
‘There are heaps of us out there doing it these days, so the list of people getting it right is quite long, but it’s interesting that people believe natural wines are a new fad. This is how wines were made thousands of years ago, and as time went on, with an improved understanding of winemaking, the addition of SO2 increased the quality of the wines. It became ingrained in conventional winemaking wisdom. With modern technology and a more in-depth understanding of what’s going on, wines are able to go back to their thousand-year-old roots successfully with little or no preservatives’.
Images sourced from Instagram