Cult Insider

EDITION 005 | MARCH 2023

Natural wines – can they also be a fine wine?

Written by - Aaron Rowlands, Research Editor - Cult Wines

Natural wine is no longer a small segment of the wine world. The style of wine is now relatively well-established across different countries, especially among younger drinkers. Even fine dining restaurants are serving larger selections of natural wines. It appears natural wine, in some form, is here to stay.

But the category still polarises opinion. Many people who came to love wine through classic Bordeaux clarets and other established regions view natural wines as either a poor-tasting fad or, at best, a niche product, distinct from the ‘serious’ fine wines.

Funky tasting flavours and cloudy-looking appearances are the usual stereotypes. Indeed, many of the pet-nats, orange wines (skin-contact white wines) and young-drinking, volatile reds are chalk full of gamey or cider-like flavours. Love or loath them, most of these wines will stand out when put alongside a ‘traditional’ wine.

But not all natural wines are created equal. Similar to someone who’s had a bad Chardonnay and has since sworn off the grape variety entirely, tasting one or two natural wines don’t give the full picture.

I recently attended an annual portfolio tasting at Dynamic Vines, an importer and seller of wines from independent winemakers employing sustainable methods and minimal intervention. I found many wines that would cater to those with more classic palates. Yes, there were several funky, distinctly non-traditional wines to taste but some of the Champagnes, Rhone Syrahs and a range of Italian reds offered up serious, age-worthy wines with distinct varietal and terroir characteristics.

The difference comes down to the fact that natural wine, despite - or perhaps because of - its prevalence is loosely defined and encompasses a broad range of styles. The term ‘low-intervention’ is often associated with natural wines but isn’t specific. It can mean some combination of not adding sulfites, avoiding chemicals in the vineyard, not filtering the wine, or fermenting with natural yeasts (rather than lab-grown strains that give more predictable flavours). Some winemakers might be more dogmatic, avoiding all interventions at any cost, while others may intentionally strive for something on the more experimental end of the natural wine spectrum, creating a wine that bucks wine conventions and polarises consumers.

However, low intervention isn’t necessarily restrictive. Some winemakers’ primary aim is simply to magnify the natural expression of the terroir, the vintage and the grape with as little outside influence as possible rather than create a specific ‘natural’ style. They might use many low-intervention methods but will adapt or moderate them to make the best wine possible.

These wines might get marketed as natural wines and satisfy the thirsts of the trendy wine bars, but they also can share a lot with conventional wines, especially those in the ‘fine wine’ end of the market. Indeed, many classic fine wine producers in Bordeaux, Burgundy and elsewhere have adopted biodynamic farming and winemaking in recent decades. And most fine wines rest on the basic notion that a great wine should be a natural expression of the terroir and the grape. This philosophy overlaps with most natural wines even if the wine itself isn’t labelled or marketed as such.

Here are a few wines that I think bridge the natural and classic fine wine divide:

  • Ampeleia – This estate in Maremma near the Tuscan coast is owned by Elisabetta Foradori, who also makes a great eponymous wine in in Trentino. Prioritising biodynamic principles and biodiversity in the vineyard, Ampeleia makes a range of wines, ranging for the juicy easy-drinking ‘natural’ wine variety to the more serious structured Cabernet Francs. Sometimes natural wines can lose the grape varietal characteristics, but Ampeleia’s Cabernet Francs are full of the grape’s signature minerality and herbal notes.

  • Emidio Pepe - I dare anyone to not call these a fine wine. In the 1960s Emidio Pepe shifted the focus at this Abruzzo estate to more natural methods to enhance quality in a region known for large-scale production. Today, the estate eschews all synthetic chemicals, sulphites and filtering and fining agents.

    The result is purity with ripe, silky textures rather than any controversial funky aromas. The red Montepulciano d’Abruzzo stood out for its freshness and range of individual flavours. The white Trebbiano is similarly complex and ripe. Both can age beautifully in bottle, with any rough edges from the natural methods smoothing out with time.

  • Domaine Les Bruyères – Another set of wines that do an excellent job of capturing varietal characteristics are David Reynaud’s Syrahs from different Rhone appellations. The ‘350m St Joseph,’ George Reynaud Crozes-Hermitage’ and Rebelle Cornas’ all display excellent precision and finesse that demonstrate the terroir differences between the locations.


News in brief

News 1


La Place de Bordeaux list keeps growing

The historic distribution system released an increasingly diverse slew of wines in its March “Beyond Bordeaux” campaign. Recent years have seen a growing number of wines from non-Bordeaux regions come through this three-tier system (producer-broker-negociant before reaching merchants around the world). Two big Piedmont producers – Ceretto and Borgogno – joined the La Place this March. Tuscan Bibi Graetz, whose Colore and Testamatta feature in La Place’s September releases, included three exciting new single-vineyard variants of the Colore wine. Champagne house Boizel will release the 2008 vintage of its ‘Joyau’ wine in the March via La Place as well.

News 1


Wildfires destroy large swathes of Chilean wine regions

Over 300 hectares of old vineyards burned in the wildfires that swept through several regions of southern Chile in February. In total, the fires had ripped through over 450,000 hectares of land by the end of the month, destroying forests, homes and lives in the process. The most extensive damage to vineyards occurred in Itata, Bio Bio and Nuble regions, including some vines reportedly over 100 years old. There are additional concerns about the 2023 vintage as many of the surviving grapes could suffer smoke taint.

News 1


Glass bottle shortage hits multiple countries

French wine producers are grappling with a shortage of glass for new bottles. Although these concerns over glass and other materials (such as wood for barrels or packaging boxes) stretch back to the COVID supply chain disruptions, the jump in fuel costs to run the glass furnaces has been the most recent cause of the lack of bottling materials. Similar shortages and rising prices have been reported in other countries as well. Concerns are particularly high in Italy where glass production typically relies on soda ash imported from the Donbass region of Ukraine.


Lena Lu, Portfolio Manager - Cult Wines - Ao Yun 2014

What we’re drinking

Ao Yun 2014

Lena Lu, Portfolio Manager - Cult Wines

  • • My first impression – a serious wine, yet approachable enough to have on any casual dinner table.

  • • Ao Yun showed all the complexity and freshness that lovely Cabernet Sauvignon can offer. Flavours included cedar wood, red berry fruit, black cherry, sweet spice coupled with floral notes.

  • • Serving it to friends who knew little about wine, I can say Ao Yun 14 came as a nice surprise for everyone - a perfect intro to the world of fine wine!

  • • Ao Yun, which translates to ‘roaming above the clouds’, was the first wine estate in this region nestled in the Himalayas near the legendary city of Shangri-La. You can learn more in my colleagues’ great article on Ao Yun and Shangri-La in this issue.


Our fine wine feature

High quality at high altitude in China’s Shangri-La region

Written by - Joe Alim and Mengyan Zhu - Cult Wines

It is well known that China is a behemoth of a market with regards to wine consumption. What is less known, however, is that the country is home to a myriad of small wineries producing exceptional quality wines. The most prominent and exciting of these regions is Shangri-La – a county in Yunnan province. This region is renowned for its high-altitude vineyards, situated in the foothills of the Tibetan Himalayas; some 2000-2400m above sea level. In fact, the latitude of the region is the same as the Sahara Desert, but this elevation is vital in keeping the climate cool enough for effective viticulture. The most prevalent grape varietals are Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot for the reds and Chardonnay for the whites.

In 2013 LVMH released their first vintage of Ao Yun, probably the region’s most well-known wine. After years of searching across China, they decided that Shangri-La provided the ideal location to launch their inaugural China-based winery project; convinced that the terroir could produce wines to rival those produced anywhere else in the world.

The winery’s greatest achievement to date has undoubtedly been their latest release – the 2019.

High quality at high altitude in China’s Shangri-La region

This was rated at 96 pts by Edward Ragg at The Wine Advocate, the highest score ever given to a Chinese wine. Trading at £200-£300 per bottle, Ao Yun’s price is just as impressive as the wine in the bottle.

But Shangri-La is more than just this one wine. XiaoLing is another highly regarded winery in the region, and Cult Wines recently spoke with winemaker Feng Jian about their work and the wider Shangri-La region.

“It just needs time and more attention from the press,” Feng Jian said about the international profile of the region. “We need an association which could represent the region with fundamental things like regional maps, articles and a website. It is such a tiny region in terms of quantity, but surely it could become the jewel in the crown for China’s wine regions if things can be done properly.”

Although its wines primarily use Cabernet Sauvignon, XiaoLing’s roots are in the Cote d’Or. Bertrand Cristau (estate CEO) is related to the family of Domaine Bouchard Pere et Fils, and Sylvain Pitiot (former wine maker at Clos de Tart) is the lead consultant and second largest shareholder. The estate blends its wines with grapes grown in different villages across the region, all with distinct characteristics.

“There is no big difference between now and when we started (in 2014), but we are turning to more reductive handling for the whites and building up texture while improving the overall balance of wine,” he explained. “In addition, we are putting every effort to improve overall cellar cleanliness and are gradually shifting to spontaneous fermentation for all our wines.”

XiaoLing’s philosophy is deeply entrenched in the local area, and they are committed to supporting the local Tibetan population.

“Absolutely crucial,” said Feng Jian about the local expertise. “The growers own and work in the vineyard, so the quality of fruit largely depends on our communication about the requirements. It is more than just a working relationship; there is also a cultural and religious respect; very complicated and unique management is adopted here.”

This relationship is a big reason why the future for the region and XiaoLing looks bright. In keeping with the estate’s Burgundian ethos, XiaoLing plans to release a ‘Terroir Series’, a range of five single village cuvees, which fits with their overall plans for the next five years: “Simple. Keep making wine from as many plots as we can and select the best ones for our holdings. This will place us in a better position in long term.”


Explore & travel

December in Napa

Written by - Olivia Bodle, Cult Wines Head of Events - Cult Wines

My idea of winter comes from a British upbringing where winter lasts for half the year, and December is a month of darkness, cold and frequent rain. Therefore, I wasn’t enthused by the prospect of a December trip to Napa. Visiting a vineyard in the depths of winter with frozen ground and leafless, grapeless vines didn’t sound that picturesque.

But as one of the sunniest states in North America, California’s winter sun shone in the blue, cloudless sky over the endless view of mountains encircling the vineyards. I’d managed to visit before the freak snowstorms hit California in late February, so I got to enjoy December weather when even a coat was unnecessary. I was only gutted that I’d left my sunglasses at home in London.

I realised visiting wine regions is winter is seriously underrated. No crowds of tourists, no harvest vehicles on the roads holding your journey up and staff at the wineries have all the time in the world for you.

The vines were clinging onto a last few rust-coloured leaves, providing a whole new type of beauty.

December in Napa

The vineyards surrounded by sage plants, olive trees and other greenery tricks your brain into thinking it is not the middle of winter. I may have even caught a slight sun burn.

Napa also offers a stellar list of culinary options. My colleague and California native Sian Parry will dish out the details next month.

For those able to make a trip, here are three top producers to visit for great wines and beautiful vineyards whatever time of year you visit:

  • Continuum – One of Napa’s finest producers run by the Mondavi family (by appointment only).

  • Antica – This new Napa winery opened by the Antinori family offers tasting visits with wonderful views.

  • Mayacamas – This brand has more than 100 years of history, making it a Napa benchmark producer to visit. Conveniently, they offer tasting rooms in downtown Napa and at the winery.

This great experience got me looking into other wine regions primed for a winter visit so here are a few other good off-season destinations:

  • Bandol – Located in the south of France, Bandol can be counted on for some winter sun and mild temperatures. Even if it’s not hot enough for a Provence rosé, the tiny Bandol AOC is just as well known for its robust, meaty reds based on the Mourvèdre grape.

  • Jerez – A nutty, smoky Oloroso sherry is a fantastic winter warmer. But visiting a vineyard in sherry’s home grounds near Jerez is even better since it is one of the warmest places in continental Europe. The region remains largely off the tourist track so you’ll be free to take your time soaking up the Andalucian sun and sampling a range of sherries at your own pace.

  • Sicily – A land of contrasts. You can find some winter sun in the vineyards in the south of the island or head to the slopes of Etna where you’ll find snow, skiing, and some of the world’s most unique fine wines.


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