What Natural Wine Means to Lou Chalmer

Chris Coffey
By Chris Coffey
over 1 year ago
17 min read

What natural wine means to Lou Chalmer

Lou Chalmer, owner and creator of Yume Wine, and founder of wine bar Clever Polly’s, joins us at Mofo HQ to teach us about what natural wine means to her, and attempt to convince skeptics like me.

“The attitude of “f*ck them, who cares?” is systemic in the natural wine movement because it really is about who you are and what you want to make. It’s each person making wine in the way that they believe is right, not trying to make it to industry standards.”

Lou’s come to talk natural wine to a bunch of about 50 of us mofos. She has a coolness about her that comes from confidence in her research and opinions, and the fact that she owned and ran her own wine bar and now makes wine for fun (and as her sole income stream) adds an aura of respect. There’s no doubting she’s a dreamer, and before today I knew little about her, but there’s anticipation in the room. 

I have what I consider to be healthy skepticism about people who claim to be natural winemakers. For starters, are they just jumping on the bandwagon of the unregulated term. Secondly, why are they doing it at all; and most importantly, are the wines style over substance? 

Lou starts off on the right foot, at least. She’s got a hospitality background, and is, surprisingly, relatively new to wine. Having completed an environmental science degree in 2012, specialising in agroecology and sustainability, she pursued honours in the beef industry around time of controversial live export. This led her down the path of procurement by grass-fed leaders in the cattle industry, sustainable frameworks, then organics, biodynamics. Lou saw a gap between science  and the social side of sustainability. She’d been talking to producers as part of her honours project, plus she already knew she could talk to consumers...

A wine bar was the obvious choice — cue Clever Polly’s. Lou didn’t know a great deal about wine except that it opened up a world of learning, and an important intersection of art and science. 

Getting clever for Polly’s

“I spent 18 months prior to opening, learning all I could about wine and immersing myself in the industry,” says Lou.

“The idea was that we’d always focus on small producers, because research shows they take much better care of the land, are more careful with their resource, more diverse in terms of production, and produce better social outcomes. We put together the wine list for Clever Polly’s in 2013, and it was then I had my first experience with a natural wine, from Languedoc. It was from dry grown bush vines planted amongst each other, so they didn’t have rows like you’d see in a conventional vineyard.

“I got the feeling from that there was a real connection between the land and winemaker, and I fell in love with natural wine there and then, and decided that this was what I wanted to do.  I started to learn more and more, by talking to producers and importers. I started realising that natural wine wasn’t just about low sulphur and taste, but about farming and that connection to the land, which tied into my understanding of agroecology.

“Agroecology is a movement within agricultural scholars, where farming is seen as not just producing a commodity, but farming a certain way to produce benefits to other people. The FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) has just recently adopted agroecology as their preferred approach to address a lot of issues in underdeveloped countries. It will help us feed people in the future by mitigating a lot of problems in food production, such as people moving from agricultural areas into cities. It’s a systems approach — understanding that a small change in one system can have a big impact somewhere else along the line. It aligns very closely with anti-industrialisation. The more I learnt, the more it felt right.”

Lou’s starting to ramp up a notch in her excitement. This is her jam, the stuff that gets her going

“Then came the problem at the wine bar, where people were asking: ‘what is natural wine?’ It’s probably more accepted in Europe, because traditional winemaking hasn’t been lost there and it really started there around the 80s, but there’s no strict definition. So when one of my staff members asked me the question, I realised it was time to determine our own framework.”

Here are some of Lou’s requirements for her definition of natural wine:

  • Made by a small producer
  • Biodynamic or organic at a minimum (preferably agroecological farming as well)
  • Unirrigated vines
  • Hand-picked
  • Minimal sulphur dioxide
  • No other additives or amelioration processes (eg. reverse osmosis)
  • Very little new oak, or only older oak

“There’s a term in winemaking: ‘Nothing added, nothing taken away’. There are about 52 things we’re allowed to add or subtract during winemaking in Australia: yeast, acid, tannin, enzymes, water, reverse osmosis, even up to 250ppm sulphur dioxide. But if you have good grapes, you should have all the preservatives you need from the natural acid, tannins, phenolics.”

Towards better farming

“I had an amazing experience in Burgundy last year, with Dominique Derain,” Lou says. “He showed me two of his whites: his Bourgogne Blanc, and then his Premier Cru, from vineyards which are not far apart. The Bourgogne is seen as the inferior wine and retails about $50; the other is about $130. But the Bourgogne was the first wine that he started making 28 years prior, and he’d managed it biodynamically that whole time, whereas he’d only had the Premier Cru vineyard for four years. Tasting those wines side by side, there was a completely different flavour profile — the Bourgogne was completely alive and much more intense. I didn’t find out about the vineyard differences until after tasting them.

“It makes you realise how much is possible with better farming.

“I’ve encouraged vineyards to use cover crops and plough rather than using herbicides, and use plants to encourage beneficial insects. Hand harvesting reduces damage and allows sorting, which further increases quality. We don’t add sulphur when grapes are picked, so it’s really important that they’re undamaged. Irrigated vines also lead to grapes more prone to infection, as they dilute these natural preservatives.

“We came up with our framework, and found people who were doing part of the process really well — either growing grapes really naturally, but not making the wine, or making the wine naturally but not doing the right things in the vineyard. There are also producers who do the right things but don’t associate themselves with natural wines in Australia.”

Natural wine is better for you

“The other conclusion I came to was that natural wine is really good for you, after doing some research, and based off my own experience.

“I noticed very quickly that I wasn’t getting sick after drinking only natural wine, rather than the usual four–five times a year, I’ve been sick only three or four times over the last five years, and only for a day or two. I also stopped getting hangovers, which I found was related to the amount of sulphur in the wine.

“It’s not the alcohol at all, it’s literally the sulphur.”

I’m just going to leave that there. Cue discussion.

“Because there are fewer sulphites, your body should be able to work through the alcohol a bit quicker, so recovery from having a bit too much — I find, anyway — does tend to be quicker with natural wine. I also get a bit of asthma, and I don’t see those symptoms with natural wine; a lot of my customers say the same.

“At Clever Polly’s, we were the first bottle shop and wine bar in Melbourne to specialise in low sulphur wines.

“Because natural wine is organic as a minimum, the vines haven’t been sprayed with glyphosate, which is the most widely used chemical in agriculture. Viticulturalists use this to kill weeds. It’s very recently been linked to cancer, and the World Health Organisation (WHO) have actually declared it as probably carcinogenic. It’ll be interesting to see what happens with that news over the next couple of years.

“The other thing about glyphosate in wine and beer is that it can bioaccumulate, and your body doesn’t necessarily deal with it that well, and there’s a bit of research about the negative effects it has on the liver and kidneys.

“Organic grapes also have much greater nutritional value than conventional grapes — organic produce does in general. And when it’s fermented, these nutrients become more bioavailable, which has big implications as far as health and nutrition goes. Fermented foods are much better for your microbiome, which is also linked to depression and anxiety, and depression has been found by the WHO to be the biggest health problem globally.

“We can improve our gut health and reduce oxidative stress — these are things we can do for ourselves.

“There are more flavonoids in natural wine, because they tend not to be filtered or fined. When you see milk, fish products or egg on the back of your wine, it’s been fined, mainly just for clarity — in doing that, you strip out of a lot of flavour, and nutrients.”

Natural wine = freedom

“The other thing I really love about natural wine is that there’s a certain freedom that comes with it. When I’m making wine, I’m not thinking ‘okay, I’m making a semillon or a saperavi or a shiraz, what’s it supposed to taste like?’ 

I think about what the grapes taste like, and how I can enhance that. As a winemaker, my own personality and taste preferences come into the wine I make, and I make what I want, not a style that someone expects. There’s a real diversity in the natural wine industry, and freedom of expression. Each year you do something different, and hopefully learn something.

“Winemaking is an 8,000 year old tradition, at least. Meanwhile, the conventional winemaking approach has only been around about 150 years, since industrialisation started. We’ve seen people getting sick, people not really understanding where wine comes from. I understand why we’ve moved away from traditional techniques, and for me, we’ve put wine into a box and made it a commodity.

“If you go to Georgia, wine is an integral part of their culture, part of everyday life. They drink every day, but they probably make the wine themselves, or it’s been made by their neighbour. It’s good for them, nutritionally, as part of their culture, and socially.

“I make natural wine to showcase it, and to pursue it — to learn about it. It helps my own health, the environment, producers, and has more sustainable outcomes. Plus it’s exciting and fun, and I’d love to see more people become part of the natural wine industry.”

How long does natural wine last?

“When I was just starting out, there were all these people making in the ‘natural way’ but not buying organic or biodynamic grapes. When you buy cheaper grapes or use cheaper produce for something, the quality will never be as good. They’re the type of wines that if you have open for a day they deteriorate. Generally, natural wines that come from well-cared for vineyards do better.

“My aunt says she doesn’t really like drinking my wine after it’s just been opened, she likes drinking it three days later. I know some wines that taste better after being open for a week or two. I read an article about Peter Lauer, where he’d had some of his wines that had been open for a couple of months, and they taste fantastic, but I don’t think you can make really good wine without really good grapes.

“Natural wines can defintely age. You could easily age Peter Lauer’s wines for 20–30 years. You could keep a good bottle of Jura savagnin for 30 years. I was lucky enough to meet Pierre Overnoy (he’s sort of seen as the godfather of natural wine), and ended up having lunch at his house, where he pulled out a late 1940s vin jaune and a ’59, plus some whites from the late 80s and 90s, none with any added sulphur, and they all tasted like they were too young.

“One of the vin jaunes was from a cellar above ground (late ’40s), and one was from below (’59). The ’40s wine was much more concentrated, while the ’59 was much finer and more delicate.

“All of those little decisions…”

From grape to bottle

“With natural wine, you’re not really focussed on primary fruit flavours,” says Lou. “By allowing micro-oxygenation, you’re increasing complexity while actually protecting the wine by increasing the length of flavour molecules.

“Carbon dioxide can also act as a bit of a preservative, you might move the wine really gently during bottling to try to preserve that, especially if it hasn’t been exposed to oxygen early in the winemaking process. Of course, some natural winemakers just like a bit of a spritz, and that’s up to them. You might also find a bit of sediment in a natural wine if it hasn’t been cold settled.”

At the Tasting Bench

Lou had brought along two wines to try, a clear, bright rosé, and a very cloudy-looking, yellow wine in a sparkling bottle, with a crown seal.

The first was the rosé, a Domaine Tempier Bandol 2016.

It’s a bright, clear salmon skin colour. The nose is exotic: pink grapefruit juice, guava, rockmelon, citrus, jasmine. Intense, but absolute aroma without any sharpness or over-exuberance. The palate is a gentle wave of flavour, lifted up gently by alcoholic spice on the end, without being out of whack. It’s a lovely, moreish wine. I can definitely see the attraction.

Lou: “It’s very much a natural wine, but it’s been heavily endorsed by Robert Parker, who said it was the best rose in the world a few years ago. It would satisfy a conventional wine drinker’s palate, but it’s totally natural. Ecological farming, no yeast added; the family who make the wine went down the conventional path and then came back to a more natural approach in the ’80s. They pulled out the conventional varieties, and went back to the grenache, mourvedre, shiraz and cinsault. This is one of my favourite wines and a really great example of how you can have a very clean, really well made wine that’s still natural.”

Then we’re onto the funky looking specimen, which it turns out is the Yume 2017.

It’s cloudy golden-bronze. The nose is fascinating, pungent and citrusy. Campari, chinotto, a herbaceousness reminiscent of a secret Benedictine recipe. Cloves, quince, cashews — it keeps rolling. I imagine the palate to be brash and bold following suit, but it’s finely textured and quite delicate. It’s well-poised, nothing out of place, and a little shy if anything. The finish is long and clean. The wine’s refreshing, and unexpectedly clean and satisfying.

Lou: “It’s fruit-forward now, flowery, but in a few days the structure becomes a bit more apparent, all the little details become crisper, kind of reorganises itself into a nice clean line.

“It’s semillon from the Yarra, from a vineyard called Chantelle. Older vines (39 this year) on their own rootstock, and semillon works really well in the Yarra because it’s quite warm there. I don’t usually like pinot or chardonnay from the Yarra (there are some exceptions in the cooler parts), and I’d love to see more semillon there. I approached the vineyard managers a few years ago about changing their farming practices. They said yes because they live on the property and the didn’t actually know there was a different way to farm.

“They stopped herbicides immediately, and the vines have only been sprayed with copper and sulphur once since then. A lot more attention is paid to pruning; we started planting between rows, and sewing beneficial crops.

“This was the first wine I made by myself. I don’t pick really ripe, maybe four or five days before a conventional winemaker would. I pick earlier for acidity and florals, and there are higher polyphenols when the grapes are a bit younger, plus higher acid and more tannin integrity.

“It had two weeks of carbonic maceration, a week of skin contact before being pressed. There’s so much flavour in the skins that are usually missed out on, so I do a lot of skin contact with my wines because I don’t want to miss out on that.

“Both years we’ve made it, it formed a thin veil of flor yeast, just like Jura!” Lou practically squeals with delight at this point. 

The wine speaks for itself. It’s singular. Meanwhile, the name Yume is Japanese for dream. 

Future dreams

“I drew the dandelion for something else, but then it was perfect for the brand. ‘Ichi-go ichi-e’ is a Japanese mantra that I live by meaning ‘one meeting, one life’; every moment contributes to the greater fabric of the world. 

Lou’s new wine label, ANALOG, will be coming out later in 2018, and will be a homage to old traditions. 

The grapes were hand picked and hand destemmed. 

Let’s stop for a moment and imagine picking small, squishy grapes off many thousands of bunches, painstakingly, and trying to keep them as intact as possible, one at a time. I’ve done this for 18kg of gewurztraminer and it took about an hour — the wine was horrible, I left it on skins too long with too much oxygen, before you ask. Lou tells me that timing is vital, and a day can make all the difference. 

The grapes for ANALOG were on skins for nine months, in Georgian-style qvevri — big traditional clay urns. Lou will also have a new winery in the heart of Kensington. Watch this space. Or maybe a local Kensington rag, given that the wines are the antithesis of digital.

Lou’s favourite Aussie wines

Of course you want to know some more homegrown wines that inspire Lou, so here are three.

Si Vintners Sophie Rosé

“I love the acidity,” says Lou, “and it’s really pretty and expressive. You can tell its pinot noir, and its limestone soils come through with the acidity. It tastes like a ‘Sophie’.” Lou giggles at that delicious thought.

Bindi Quartz Chardonnay

“Awesome wine, tastes like chardonnay, but also like it was grown on granite soils, with its beautiful, energetic acidity. Michael, with his Indian background, has a real love for aromatics, and it’s quite aromatic for a chardonnay.

“Michael Dillon doesn’t spend a lot of time with natural people or associate with the natural wine movement,” Lou continues, “but I think his wines are some of the most naturally made in Australia. There’s nothing done to the wines. He uses a little bit of French oak to frame them, but there’s so much love and care. They’re precise because that’s Michael’s nature. He got brought up learning to make them in a precise, almost mathematical way.”

Gentlefolk Syrah

“The grapes are farmed by Ngeringa. Gareth buys the fruit and makes it himself, and this is a wine that highlights the grower and the maker. He nails that wine: perfect acidity, beautiful intensity of fruit and balance. Deep but light on its feet at the same time.”

But waiter, there’s winemaker in my wine!

“A lot of people say a great wine shouldn’t taste like the winemaker, which I completely disagree with,” says Lou. “But it should taste like the soil, and the season, and the grape as well. But once you know the winemaker you appreciate their wine even more.”

We spent a good hour chatting about bits and pieces, she’s a fascinating sort, with real conviction and well-formed opinions based on a lot of recent research. We touched on how some natural wines can have a certain sameness to them, affectations of winemaking which lead to a dulling of sense of place. 

“Sameness is not isolated to the natural wine movement,” Lou fires back without pausing.

That gave me reason to pause. It’s an excellent argument, one that sums up the natural wine movement nicely. Everyone involved is producing grapes in a ways that are no doubt better for the earth, and for you. And every individual has their own take on why they’re making natural wine, which is what’s so fascinating about the movement itself. You can certainly regulate science, and that’s bred industrial winemaking, and ‘conventional’ winemaking. But you can’t regulate art.

And like all good art, the value lies in the story, and beauty is in the eye of the beholder.