You've probably seen "natural wine" at the trendy bottle shop down the street or while scrolling on Instagram, and most likely both. Often, it's the hip, esoteric, hand scribbled labels that catch your attention. While "natural" is a loose term that is defined differently depending on who you talk to, the gist is that's it's just fermented grape juice. Nothing added and nothing taken away.
What Exactly Is Natural Wine?
Natural winemaking is truly ancient, but equally on trend. It requires certain practices in the vineyard and minimal intervention in the winery. The result is a living wine that represents the terroir in a straightforward, uncompromised way.
A Brief History
In 6000 BCE, people in the Republic of Georgia were filling large terra-cotta vessels with grapes and burying them, leaving them to ferment. This was wine at its rawest. As technology developed, agricultural practices and winemaking techniques shifted. Herbicides and mechanical pickers were introduced in the vineyard, and additives and centrifuges in the winery. By the mid 1960s, much of wine production became conventional with the introduction of cultivated yeast strains, and many winemakers had a heavy hand in the winemaking process.
By the 1980s, winemakers were manipulating their product to produce large quantities of homogenous wine. At the same time a handful of old world winemakers in the Loire Valley, France continued to honor the art as they knew it, organically farming their vineyards and coursing a pure expression of the terrior out of the wine. This was the start of the modern natural wine movement.
By the early 2000s, natural wine bars started popping up in Paris, and natural wine importers started to make strides in the United States. Today, natural wine is on shelves and wine lists around the world and the demand for it even has some commercial winemakers shifting their process to keep up with what people are asking for.
In the Vineyard
Natural wine starts with organic or biodynamic viticulture. At a minimum, this means no pesticides or chemicals are used in the farming process. Many natural winemakers or farmers are small and chose to forego the official certification process due to the cost. Regardless of the lack of certification, they are diligent in their organic farming practices. While many large-scale conventional vineyards utilize mechanical pickers, natural winemakers handpick the grapes. This allows them to select only the ripe clusters of fruit, handling them with care.
In the Winery
Once the grapes arrive in the winery, they need to ferment in order to turn into wine. Natural wine uses the native or indigenous yeasts that thrive in the diverse ecosystem of the vineyard. This yeast is distinct to a place, climate, and time, and it will evolve as these factors change. Natural wine does not include any additions, nor does it strip the juice of anything it naturally contains. It is usually matured in vessels that have a gentle influence on the wine, letting the grapes shine. These vessels range from old oak barriques, to concrete eggs to stainless tanks, to clay amphora. Finally, while all wine has naturally occurring sulfites, natural wine has zero to little added.
Natural Wine Terms to Be Familiar With
There's a lot of terminology out there when it comes to wine. As far as natural wines go, these are a few defining factors to understand.
Organically grown grapes do not use pesticides, chemicals or other artificial agents in vineyard.
Biodynamic viticulture takes a wholistic approach to farming grapes which encompasses the entire eco system of the farm. It employs organic practices and then some. A few key components include the presence of animals, specific compost preparations and herbal sprays, and working with the lunar calendar.
Native Yeast vs. Commercial Yeast
There are naturally occurring yeasts in the vineyard that are unique to a place and its climate. These collect on the grape skins are are crucial in starting the fermentation process in the cellar. Using these native yeasts to start fermentation is an important part of the natural winemaking process. This creates more variability and complexity in wines and evolves with the biodiversity of the vineyard each vintage. On the other hand, industrialized wine uses commercial yeast to start fermentation. This yeast is produced in a laboratory and is intended to control the fermentation and create specific flavor profiles, helping to ensure a very similar product vintage after vintage, despite fluctuations in weather or yields.
Unfined vs. Fined
Fining is the addition of clarifying agents to reduce naturally occurring proteins in wine that cause cloudiness. These additives can be bentonite clay, egg whites, casein, and fish bladders. Natural wines are unfined.
Unfiltered vs. Filtered
Filtering wine extracts sediment and dead yeast cells, creating a clearer product. Natural wines are either unfiltered or filtered very little; therefore, they can often have a slightly cloudy appearance and/or have sediment that collects on the bottom of the bottle. This sediment can be left at the bottom or gently be incorporated into the wine as part of its flavor and texture.
Natural Sulfites vs. Added Sulfites
Natural sulfites occur in small amounts during fermentation and act as a preservative and antimicrobial agent. Added sulfites are used to preserve and stabilize a wine at bottling. While there is no set amount of added sulfites that is allowed in natural wine, most agree to use the least amount possible. For some, this means adding none. These wines are often described as zero-zero wines. Generally, an accepted range is 0-30 parts per million (ppm). Conventional wine uses up to 350 ppm. Such high amounts of sulfur kills the yeasts entirely and can leave the wine feeling dull and lifeless.
This term comes from the French and translates to glug glug, meaning casual, drinkable, juicy wines. Typically, these are lighter bodied, chillable reds with a lower alcohol by volume (ABV).
Better known in short as, pét-nat, these wines are made using the méthode ancestrale. These are sparkling wines that are bottled in the midst of fermentation while residual sugar is still being converted into alcohol and CO2. The crown cap traps the rest of the CO2 as it is created, resulting in a delicately sparkling wine.
Still following and want to know more? It's a lot of information to digest, here's a few clarifications.
Is Organic Wine Natural Wine?
Not necessarily! Grapes can be farmed using organic practices but be highly manipulated during the winemaking process. In reverse, all natural wine is made with grapes that are farmed using organic or biodynamic practices.
Is It Healthier?
Wine is alcohol. And alcohol is, well, alcohol. Natural wines do have a tendency to have a lower ABV. They also do not contain any chemical additions, whereas commercial wines are permitted to add over 60 additives to adjust acidity, sweetness, color, and more. As for the hangover debate, some argue the lack of added sulfites leaves them feeling much better the next morning. Whether this is true or not, the overall lack of chemical additions in the field and cellar in natural wines is significant.
Is It Better for the Environment?
Yes. Along with organic or biodynamic farming practices utilized to make natural wine, there are a number of other sustainable strides that natural winemaking can employ, like dry farming, which conserves water, and practicing no-till, which preserves soil structure. Often, natural winemakers also promote the cultivation of indigenous grape varieties, which increases biodiversity.
How to Find Natural Wines
Many cities now have bottle shops that exclusively sell natural wines. Forward thinking restaurants also have a handful of bottles on their wine list, not to mention numerous online retail shops with full fledged monthly wine clubs.
Find a good neighborhood bottle shop and start browsing the labels. The importer/distributor is always listed on the back and it can tell you a lot about a wine once you are familiar with their philosophy and the types of producers they carry in their portfolio.
The following is a list of U.S. natural wine importers and distributors to keep an eye out for while scouring the shelves.
- Kermit Lynch
- Jenny & Francois
- Rosenthal Wine Merchant
- Zev Rovine Selections
- David Bowler
- Scuola di Vino
- Walden Selections
What to Expect When Drinking Natural Wine
Natural wine, in a sense, is about diversity. Diversity in taste, place, vintage, varietal. They are expressive, authentic, and can be both playful and fun or slightly more classic and serious. There is a common misconception that all natural wines have wild volatile acidity and barnyard funk from the brettanomyces. While some do indeed, there are plenty of examples of focused classic styles as well. As Sommelier Pascaline Lepeltier said, "Whatever you like as a more traditional wine drinker, you can find a natural alternative everywhere in the world."
Grab Your Glass and Dive In
If you are new to natural wine and not sure where to start, choose your favorite grape or region, or even the label artwork. Get your palate wet and start getting to know them. You can feel good about supporting sustainably and consciously made wine while being transported to a place, time, and culture.