What is natural wine, and could it be your new favorite thing?
Natural wines may be a hot topic, but what are they, really?
Published in: Vivino News
We've all heard the phrase "natural wine" over the last few years, and these days, every hip neighborhood across the globe seems to have a bottle shop specializing in this style of winemaking. To answer every question about natural wine you might have, we spoke with experts ranging from professionals well-versed in natural wines to wine chemistry PhDs. The main thing to know is that the phrase "natural wine" applies to a wide-ranging and exciting category of bottles that includes organic, biodynamic, and more; a brave new world that’s just waiting to be explored.
Natural wines are made with less "added stuff" than their non-natural counterparts. In fact, UC Davis Professor of Viticulture and Enology Dr. Andrew Waterhouse says that you should think of "natural wine" the way you do "natural foods". He says that the natural wine movement is part of the overall trend away from processed foods and toward understanding where our food comes from, a "wide-ranging market phenomenon" of a consumer preference for transparency. For a wine, this means less manipulation: few or no additives, filters, fining agents, or added yeast.
How does traditional winemaking differ from natural?
In traditional winemaking, depending on a given region or country's requirements, a preferred yeast is used to kickstart fermentation, and various 'ingredients' are added to get the wine to its final form.
Vino Vinyasa founder Morgan Perry boasts a Wine & Spirit Education Trust Level 3 Award in Wines and is a natural wine fan and expert. "If you are a big winery mass-producing wines, there are certain things you can do to speed up the process to produce more wine for less money", she says. "Things can be added to make wine more quickly, or make more of it, or make it taste more consistent with previous vintages or trending consumer taste". An example of this, Perry says, includes using certain additives "to color-correct and provide body in wine, for instance, or making up for under-ripe grapes".
"A lot of what is used for fining and filtering is removed eventually from the wine", she says, which means only trace amounts end up in your glass. These practices are used to make wines more efficiently as well as ensure that what you are expecting from your favorite bottle of wine is exactly what you will get each time you purchase it.
Meanwhile, natural wine is typically made using "no additives and only native (aka ambient, wild or naturally occurring) yeast", says Jennifer Estevez, a Court of Master Sommeliers Advanced Sommelier and CEO and Founder of OmVino. She says that natural winemakers can "use a little bit of sulfur... but the finished product is meant to tell the story of the terroir and vintage more than manufactured wines".
Does a government agency declare wines "natural"?
It depends. In 2020, French officials ruled that to declare itself vin méthode nature, a wine must be made "from hand-picked grapes from certified organic vineyards and made with indigenous yeast". While most wines that call themselves natural are produced using similar methods, outside of France, it's the winemakers who ultimately decide to describe it “natural” or not.
For example, winemaker Chris Brockway of Broc Cellars says the natural wine they produce is made from "organic or biodynamic grapes" and that "once the grapes are picked, wines are fermented by using their native yeasts". He says that their only additive "is trace amounts of SO2/sulfur before bottling and not always, it just depends on the wine and style", and they “exclusively use spontaneous fermentation, meaning that we only work with the native yeasts and bacteria that exist on the grapes".
Estevez says, however, that how "natural" a wine might be can vary because even among dedicated natural wine producers, "certain places will have an easier time than others. In regions where it's a moderate, dry climate, you tend to encounter less climatic issues like mold and mildew. If you're making natural wine and not using additives, it can be tricky to mitigate those kinds of winemaking challenges".
How do I know if a wine is truly natural?
Unless you're buying from France, Dr. Waterhouse says that wine drinkers should look beyond the label to understand how natural a bottle of wine might be. "What people expect of natural wine is a wine made without a lot of intervention. Because it’s not legally defined in many regions, it's more of a hope on the part of consumers", he says.
One thing to look for is winery size. According to Perry, the larger the winery or, the less expensive the bottle, the greater the chance for more industrial practices, including the use of additives and fining and filtering agents.
Another way to make sure you're getting the most nature for your buck is to look for terms like "organic" and "biodynamic" on the label. The use of those terms is more strictly regulated by governments or private organizations than "natural". For example, organic wines are produced without the use of chemical pesticides or herbicides; biodynamic wines jump through a few more ethical and sustainability hoops before earning the designation.
This feels like a lot. Is seeking out a natural wine worth the effort?
Estevez says that she's "had bottles of affordable, natural wines that have been life-changingly good", but that you don't necessarily have to pay a major premium to find something delicious and natural. And Brockway, the winemaker, says that part of the magic of natural wines for winemakers and wine drinkers is that "using these natural methods allows the grapes to express themselves… People can better know what they are drinking, where it came from, how it was made and even the artist behind the label". In fact, he says, "lots of natural wineries are highlighting this whole process more than ever".