Sustainable, organic, biodynamic — these are all particulars you can see listed on bottles when you’re shopping for wine. But there’s another phrase that has become increasingly common among both niche connoisseurs and mainstream wine drinkers in recent years: natural wine. If you’re not exactly sure what this term means, you’re not the only one. Many people assume that all wine is natural — just combine grapes and sunshine, right? — but the reality isn’t quite that simple.
Most people agree that the modern natural wine movement began in the French countryside in the late 1990s when a small group of farmers who had been experimenting with low-intervention organic winemaking found out about each other and began growing a community. While this trend went on to gain popularity worldwide, natural wine itself is not new; people have been fermenting grape juice without any additives for thousands of years. But what does natural wine mean, anyway?
What is natural wine?
Natural wine is more of an idea than a well-defined category with established characteristics. In the simplest terms, it is a wine made from unadulterated fermented grape juice — and that’s it.
Understanding natural wine is easier with some simple knowledge about the (otherwise complex) winemaking process. At the most basic level, this process consists of two parts: growing and harvesting grapes, and then turning grapes into wine through fermentation. Natural wine is made from grapes not sprayed with pesticides or herbicides, and these grapes are harvested by hand rather than by machines. When it comes to step two natural winemakers rely on native yeast, which can be found in the air and will settle on grapes when they’re left in a vat for long enough, to begin the process of fermentation.
Conventional winemakers use additives to aid the winemaking process, which can include everything from added sugar and water to gelatin, artificial color, nitrogen, egg whites, hydrogen peroxide, oak chips, and synthetic tannins. Unlike conventional wine, natural wine doesn’t use additives — with one occasional exception. Although many do not, some natural winemakers will add small quantities of sulfites. These sulfites act as a preservative and stabilizer to ensure that the wine you drink tastes basically the same as it did when it was bottled. Conventional winemakers often use up to ten times the amount of sulfites used in natural wines, with the purpose of killing off natural yeasts altogether. By contrast, natural winemakers will add just a little bit before bottling. Natural wine that uses no sulfites at all is often called “zero-zero” wine — describing the lack of any additives.
Some tips for drinking natural wine:
Because there is technically no certification or legal definition, it may be hard to identify a natural wine by examining the label. If your local wine shop doesn’t specialize in natural wine, they may simply direct you to the organic section (while natural wines are organic, organic doesn’t necessarily mean natural; organic pertains to how the grapes are farmed and not how they are treated in the winery). Be sure to explain that you’re looking for organic wines with nothing added during the winemaking process.
To enjoy natural wines, make sure to store the bottles properly; ideally, bottles should be kept in a cool, dark place because natural wines are especially sensitive to light and heat damage due to their lack of chemical preservatives. Because the aging potential varies for each particular natural wine, there’s not necessarily a ‘drink by’ date.
Finally, natural wines are known for their unusual flavor profiles compared to conventional wines. Cloudy appearances created when winemakers don’t add fining agents or filter out impurities after fermentation are common, as are funky flavors that come from the use of natural yeast and lack of preservatives. Do your best to taste with an open mind, and expect the unexpected. With the intriguing tastes and lively uniqueness of natural wines, it’s no surprise that wine lovers are increasingly seeking out these wines from farmers and makers who are dedicated to a pure winemaking process.