As you explore types of wine you may find yourself wondering what exactly natural wine is.
When it comes to wine, there’s a lot out there. There are reds, whites, rosés, bubbles, and within those a whole variety of grape varietals and tastes. But nowadays we’re starting to see even more classification, with wines getting labeled as organic or biodynamic. Navigating the wine world can feel intimidating.
While most people nowadays are used to hearing the words “organic” and “biodynamic” attached to both their food and their wine, there is another vino category that may not have heard mention of: natural wines.
But wait, aren’t all wines technically natural?
Produced from grapes, yes. And this may be what has made the discussion of natural wines so polemic, because if some wines are referred to as natural wines, it puts all other wines in the “not natural” category.
So what are natural wines? First off, unlike with organic or biodynamic wine, there is no certification for natural wines, and therefore no official definition. Natural wines are wines made with as little human interference – that means chemical and technological – as possible. In other words, wine made with grapes and little else, letting nature take care of the growing and the fermentation. Others refer to natural wines as “nothing added, nothing taken away.”
As you can imagine, producing types of wine in this way takes a lot of work. As New York Times writer Eric Asimov wrote, “The fact is that making wine without benefit of chemicals or other technological shortcuts demands precision and exactitude. Far more so, perhaps, than in conventional winemaking.”
Vines are grown organically, or even biodynamically, grapes are hand harvested and the fermentation process takes place in a way that’s as natural as possible. That means minimal to no additives during the winemaking process. Additives that are often used in the winemaking industry include sugar, acidifiers, and tannins. Even sawdust is used sometimes. Who wants to be drinking wine made with sawdust? Laboratory cultivated yeasts, instead of natural, indigenous yeasts, can also be used, and you can also encounter a variety of manipulations of the wine like micro-oxygenation to accelerate aging.
Natural wines are growing more and more popular among people who are concerned about sulfites as well. Sulfites refer to sulfur dioxide, which acts as a preservative in wine. While sulfites are naturally occurring in wine, winemakers can also add in sulfites during the winemaking process and natural winemakers will add little to no sulfites.
In the world of modern day agricultural, natural winemakers are challenging the traditional practices of modern, industrial winemaking, just like other men and women in the food industry devoted to the art of their craft, be it traditional bread baking or beer brewing.
What does this mean for you the drinker?
If you’re used to traditional, industrial wines, switching to natural wines is going to taste different. Natural winemakers have to depend on the natural elements – soil, weather, yeasts, etc. – to produce their wine, and instead of adding and manipulating wines which can help to stabilize a wine and standardize its flavor, their wines will taste as nature wants them to taste. That means that natural wines can often be a little less stable, murky because they haven’t gone through a filtration process, and you never know what you’re going to get. But that means that you get more of the terroir in a natural wine, and you get a wine that’s true to the natural fermentation process.
Just like traditional wine, not all natural wines are good, but there’s also an element of surprise that is special. Alice Feiring, a well-known source on natural wine, once said this in an interview with The Splendid Table:
One of the best examples that I have is when I was at a party, when Frank Bruni just came over to the states to be the dining critic at The New York Times. I said, “Hey, Frank, taste this.” He burst into laughter and he said, “Alice, what the hell is that? That is the most beautiful example I’ve ever had.” He went out and bought a case the next day. A conventional wine never can do that to you.
Think of it in terms of a tomato. When you buy a regular tomato at the grocery store, it’s a bit bland and you get a taste that you expect. Buy an in-season, heirloom tomato on the other hand and you’ll find yourself diving into a sea of flavors. Two different heirloom tomatoes can have two very different flavor profiles.
Where can you find natural wine?
Since natural wine isn’t a certification, for the consumer, it’s not always easy to find. Start with the back label, if you seen any indication of “made without additives” or “made with just grapes” that’s a good thing. It’s also helpful to find a knowledgeable wine seller who knows a thing or two about natural wines and can help point you in the right direction.
France is known for its natural wine culture, but now there are more and more natural winemakers in the U.S., including La Clarine Farm, Donkey and Goat, Kelley Fox Wines, Montebruno and Wind Gap.
If you are looking for natural wines from abroad, Jenny and Francois Selections are NY-based natural wine importers, and they are well known in the business. Natural Wine Company out of Brooklyn is another great resource.
Winelandia is a food and wine blog that last fall launched a retail component selling natural wines. Currently they only ship to California, but we can hope that eventually they will expand.
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Image: Anna Brones