It’s no surprise to you readers out there that over the years, I’ve become increasingly more focused on the natural. That goes for my eye makeup remover (virgin coconut oil!), my straws (metal!), and my plastic bags (just kidding – hardly use them!). But this also opened up an internal conversation for me about wine, and a quest to both learn about and understand what it means for wine to be “natural.”
Like pretty much all areas of life, a label is well, just a label, and I’m less concerned with only buying wines labeled as “natural” and more concerned with having a fundamental understanding of what this terminology actually means in practice. Ultimately, I was looking for the answer to my question, “So what?” when I thought about natural wine. So I delved in deep, and spent the past few years reading about, tasting, and exploring this world, quietly and privately, for my own personal purposes. It actually really began for me on a 2018 solo trip to Copenhagen, where the natural wine scene is ripe (pun intended), and I was able to devote significant time to trying these wines and talking to knowledgeable experts there about them. These days, I’m not saying no to a non-natural wine, but I am trying to thoughtfully and intentionally drink naturally when I can. For my fellow Manhattanites out there, Vinyl Wine on the Upper East Side has become my touchstone for all things natural, and small production too.
This article is by no means conclusive, but a “natural wine 101 guide” that will hopefully provide a basic understanding of the concepts and the language surrounding this subcategory of the wine world. As if choosing a wine wasn’t infinitely complex already, I know. I originally wrote this article for Bashed, but am sharing it here in hopes that at the very least, it encourages y’all to try something new, step out of your comfort zone, and support a producer who values and supports their environment, too.
Article below originally written for Bashed.
All natural. Au natural. Derived from nature. No matter where we turn, we sometimes feel as though we’re being bombarded with products that claim to be made “naturally,” from eye creams to granola bars, and even our beloved vino. We’ve been watching how the natural wines section at our local wine shop has been growing over the past few years, how there is special attention paid to organic wines on the cocktail list at our favorite small plates spot, and how some restaurants proudly claim that they only serve biodynamic wines. Where we get tripped up is that, we don’t actually know what any of this lingo means, and let’s be serious, wine can be complicated and confusing enough as it is. So we’re here to demystify the natural wine movement, break down what it all means for you, the buyer and the joyful drinker, and set you up for success next time you go to grab a glass (or a bottle) and want to do so as an informed wine lover.
Breaking It Down
When it comes to drinking wine au natural, there are three key terms that you’ll need to digest: natural wine, organic wine, and biodynamic wine. While they are all often lumped together under the larger umbrella term “natural wine,” these labels are important, and knowing what they mean will allow you to fully understand what’s in that bottle you’re about to buy.
Another key question that we often ask (and get asked) is, why drink natural wine in the first place? While this is a very personal decision, many believe natural wines to be more healthful, as there are less additives and sulfites (more on those later), so the wine is viewed as more pure. Others claim that they don’t get that dreaded wine headache the next day when drinking natural wine, because of the lack in those aforementioned added sulfites. Still others choose to support growers and winemakers who use sustainable methods to create their beloved wine. The “why” is up to you.
Natural Wine 101
Let’s kick this off by saying, just like in the food industry, there is actually not any regulation in the US around how and when brands can use the word “natural” when describing their product. Slightly confusing, right? That being said, the term “natural wine” is widely held to refer to wines that are made without manipulation by the winemaker. Natural winemakers choose to forgo adding or subtracting anything during this process, and really aim to create wine that is full of the grapes’ authentic taste and flavors. In conventional winemaking, practices such as adding additives, sulfur, chemicals, cultural yeasts, oak character from barrels, and many others are quite commonplace, and natural winemaking eschews all of this. One important note is that wine can be natural, but not necessarily organic (more on that later). So when in doubt, always ask the staff at your local wine shop or the sommelier to get the full picture of how a particular winemaker chose to make what’s about to be poured into your glass.
When talking about organic wine, what you’re really discussing is how the grapes were farmed, before they were made into delicious wine. Farming grapes organically means that no chemicals, such as pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and herbicides, were used in the vineyards where the grapes were grown. As we noted earlier, organic wine and natural wine can overlap, but can also be mutually exclusive categories. Wine can be organic, but not necessarily natural. For example, grapes can be farmed organically in a vineyard, but if the winemaker intervenes and adds things like sugars, yeasts, and clarifiers during the fining process, that is technically not a natural wine at all. Many of these clarifiers use animal products, so if you’re vegan or vegetarian, check out of guidelines for finding vegan wine here.
Biodynamic might be one of the most challenging categories to identify and define, but is nonetheless incredibly important to the natural wine conversation. The term “biodynamic” refers more to an ethos than to a rigid or particular set of practices and processes. This ethos is about thinking of the vineyard as an entire ecosystem filled with biodiversity. It’s not just about the graphes, or the vines, but about the soil that they grow in and the surrounding landscape, and how growers can cultivate a healthy and robust ecosystem of microbiomes around those vines. In turn, these living microbiomes move with the grapes through the winemaking process, resulting in what’s known as biodynamic wine. This is really what’s meant when you hear that term “living wine” – wine in which the microbiology from where the grapes are grown is still very present.
The Question of Sulfites
When referencing the aforementioned “great headache debate,” we often hear the word “sulfites” thrown around, and until recently we have no clue what this actually meant. Why would a natural wine have a label stating “contains sulfites” on the bottle, if natural wine meant that nothing was supposed to be added during the winemaking process? So let’s break it down. Sulfites are always going to be in your wine. Period. They’re a natural byproduct of fermentation, aka the process in which the sugars in the grape juice are converted into alcohol. However, most standard winemakers add additional sulfites during the winemaking process, and this is where things get a bit confusing. The practice of adding these sulfites can be traced back to the ancient Roman empire, as sulfites help to preserve the wine during bottling, as well as being antimicrobial. In today’s world, where wine is being shipped across continents, the sulfites can help to keep the wine stable when the temperature outside the bottle may be shifting. Natural wines, however, strive to add little to no sulfites during the winemaking process. A handy trick with French wine for determining if it has no added sulfites is to check and see if the label says “san soufre” (translates to “no sulfur”). And when in doubt, always ask the person you’re purchasing the wine from, and they should be able to give you the lowdown on the added sulfites situation.
A Few FYIs
We always advise that you handle your wine with care, but there are a few additional things to note when purchasing, storing, and drinking natural wine. Read on for our playbook.
- Store your natural wine in a wine fridge or cool cellar
- Keep your natural wine away from all light sources (both sunlight and manmade)
- Drink your natural wine within a year of purchasing
- Buy locally when you can, to avoid the risks associated with the shipping process (remember – this wine is not stabilized by preservatives!)
- Remember that the flavor profiles may be different than what you’re used to. Natural wine can be known as “funky,” with more pungent flavors that are gamey and yeasty, and often a more cloudy look.
- Know that natural wine is unpredictable, but that is the beauty of it!
Natural Wines We Love
Get started with a few of our favorite types of natural wine.
- Orange Wine – Not only is the color incredible, but the process is pretty interesting to boot. Orange wine is technically white wine, but it’s made like a red wine. So while the grapes are white wine grapes, their skins and seeds are kept in contact with the grape juice during fermentation, instead of being fermented without the grape skins as happens during white winemaking traditionally. Italy and Slovenia are two countries that have historically made incredible natural orange wines – a great starting point for the new consumer.
- Pétillant Naturel – Also known as “Pet Nat,” this is a sparkling wine that’s made in the ancient style, without any added sugars during the winemaking process. It’s unique because fermentation is paused partway through, and fermentation is finished once the wine is bottled. Look to French wine from the Loire Valley, specifically natural Chenin Blancs, to try this out.
- Col Fondo Prosecco – Did you know that prosecco, which is Italian sparkling wine, can also be made au natural? This type of prosecco undergoes a secondary fermentation in the bottle, and the term “col fondo” literally translates to “with the bottom,” which refers to the sediment being present during this second fermentation. The result is a uniquely cloudy prosecco with some lovely sour notes.