There's anarchy in the streets of Sydney. Anarchy in the cute and trendy wine bars; anarchy in the fashionable sommelier-run restaurants, at least. It's the so-called ''natural'' wine movement, which has found more welcoming arms in Sydney than anywhere in Australia. Think Love, Tilly Devine; Vini; 121BC; The Wine Library; 10 William Street; Fix St James; Fratelli Paradiso.
If you drop in to Love, Tilly Devine and are served a white wine that looks more like Coopers Sparkling Ale than wine, with a cloudy brown tinge, and smells like brown apple or stale cider, it's probably a ''natural'' wine. The makers of these wines have thrown the rule book right out the window.
Some top sommeliers actively promote these wines, sometimes, it seems, to the exclusion of conventional wines. Sommeliers such as Fix St James's Stuart Knox, Love, Tilly Devine's Matt Swieboda and 121BC's Giorgio De Maria are spearheading the trend.
The movement has many conventional wine producers up in arms. They find the use of the term ''natural'' offensive, as it implies everyone else's wines are unnatural. The movement is tiny, but is talked about way out of proportion to the volume of wine being sold. But the high-profile people and cutting-edge bars and restaurants involved mean it cannot be ignored.
The natural wine movement is closely linked to the boom in imported wine in restaurants and bars, because most of these wines are Italian or French. There is also a small but growing local movement. It involves producers such as South Australians Anton Von Klopper (Lucy Margaux), James Erskine (Jaume), Tom Shobbrook (Shobbrook) and Sydney's Sam Hughes (Dandy in the Clos), all of whom are members of a group called Natural Selection Theory. Among other activities, NST provides plastic drums of natural wine named Voice of the People to bars for service by the tumbler.
Others making this kind of wine locally are T'Gallant, whose Claudius white wine is turbid and ''wild'', Geoff Weaver with his Ferus sauvignon blanc, Cobaw Ridge with its l'Altra chardonnay, Lowe Wines in Mudgee, Harkham Winery in the Hunter Valley and quite a few more. For some, notably Lowe, T'Gallant and Weaver, natural wine is a sideline: most of their output is ''normal''. It's annoying enough to have the natural wine movement hijack the term ''natural'', but the thing that sticks most in the craw of conventional winemakers is that there's no definition of ''natural'', and little agreement on what constitutes natural winemaking or natural viticulture.
As someone who's been observing this movement for some years, tasting as many wines as I can and talking to the proponents in an attempt to understand their philosophies, I've tried to keep an open mind, or at least not leap to judgment prematurely - although many wines I taste grossly offend my senses. After all, any movement that is partly aimed at sustainable agriculture and minimising the impact of grape growing on the environment can't be all bad.
What does annoy me is when people claim to be able to taste special things in these wines, when all I can taste are winemaking faults. It often seems a case of, at best, self-delusion and, at worst, an outright con. It rankles that some proponents admit they use a different set of standards when they judge natural wines. In other words, we must make allowances for faulty wines just because they're produced with lofty ideals. This seems hypocritical.
My latest attempt to see in these wines what some others, whose opinions I respect, find so appealing was a 30-wine tasting for a private tasting club, composed mainly of retailers and wine trade people. The wines were mostly from Italy, some from France, with a smattering from Germany and Spain. The wines were quite diverse in quality and character, as was the reaction among the 19 tasters. Some reactions were quite hostile, especially as many wines were quite expensive, and some of the flavours and odours were unpleasant, to put it mildly.
There are several observations to make. One is that the natural movement, especially at the vineyard level, has influenced many conventional growers to change their practices - if not to convert to organic or biodynamic, at least to minimise their environment-harming inputs and take better care of their land. A similar, more subtle shift is happening in winemaking, with more care taken to minimise the manipulation of wine. Less added tannin and acid, less use of oak and fining agents, gentler filtration, increased use of ambient yeasts instead of cultured yeasts, and so on can be observed at the top end of Australian winemaking.
Second, exposure to these wines causes us all to re-evaluate our ideas about quality. We should constantly ask ourselves what is quality? Am I wrong about this? Should I be more accepting and less dogmatic about what is good wine?
A final observation: many natural winemakers claim to be seeking to better express the terroir of their vineyards by intervening as little as possible. A worthy aim. But many fine winemakers who don't align themselves with natural wine or biodynamic or other cliques espouse similar aims, and manage to achieve them without making faulty wine.
If a wine is to express its terroir, it must first be free of faults. Faults not only diminish the pleasure of wine, they obscure its terroir.
Many natural winemakers are simply making bad wine, and if they think they're revealing the terroir, they're deluding themselves.
Search for quality comes at a price
At the natural wine tasting, the most expensive wine tasted was Gravner's Anfora Ribolla 2005, a white (or rather, orange) wine from north-east Italy, fermented and aged in amphorae. Gravner was the pioneer in reviving this ancient practice.
I had never found anything to enjoy in his wines before. But I really liked the '05: it was for me the wine of the night, a very complex, beautiful wine that reminded me of an old Vin Jaune. At about $175, it should be good.
I also enjoyed the '05 Radikon ($69 for 500 millilitres), another famous Friulian ribolla, which was probably the group's favourite. It was slightly volatile, but had excellent flavour. I also liked two of the three wines from Umbrian maker Paolo Bea: '08 Arboreus Montefalco Bianco ($129) and Pipparello Montefalco Rosso Riserva '05 ($120). Ar.Pe.Pe Sassella Valtellina Riserva '01 ($94) was also a complex and satisfying red. But several wines, including two from the much-touted Sicilian maker Frank Cornelissen - 2010 MunJebel Bianco 7 ($64) and 2009/10 MunJebel Rosso 7 ($80) - were, to my palate, absolute rubbish.
Otherwise, there was a strong correlation between conventional tasting wines that I enjoyed and less-risky, less-natural (if you like) methods. Certainly, the Giovanni Rosso Barolo La Serra '07 ($116), Julie Balagny Fleurie '10 ($50), Marechal Savigny-les-Beaune '09 ($53), Peter Lauer 2010 Ayler Kupp Saar Riesling Fass '12 ($55), and Collier La Charpentrie Saumur Blanc '08 ($75) were all technically well-made wines which appealed, but hard-line natural-wine fiends would probably question their claims to ''natural'' status.