From the mice to the glou, all these terms are for you!
Wine as a subject can be an incredibly intimidating conversation to engage in. Part art, part science, it leaves so much to subjectivity, and yet there are thousands of grapes, terms, regions, production methods and other things to know so that you can form those opinions! If you are generally interested in wine, I highly recommend the WSET program. Going through it gave me the basis I needed to understand what I was drinking and to vocab needed to express it.
However, the discussion of natural wine was non-existent when I did my coursework (though I’ve heard they added a section on orange wine) so as an additional resource, here are the 25 terms you are most likely to hear in reference to natural wine so that you can be prepared to understand what everyone is talking about and describe what you’re finding in the wine.
One quick note before we dive in. Each of these definitions could have an entire chapter or book written about them, so consider this the cliff notes version! If you want to know more about any of these terms, check out the resources at the bottom. Let’s dive in!
1. Natural Wine/Raw Wine/LoFi Wine
The most obvious first term is a natural wine, which can also be called raw, real, lofi, etc. There isn’t one definition for this kind of wine, but we will take the one from Isabelle Legeron here, as it is generally accepted definition and shouldn’t steer you wrong!
Natural Wine is farmed organically (biodynamically, using permaculture or the like) and made (or rather transformed) without adding or removing anything in the cellar. No additives or processing aids are used, and ‘intervention’ in the naturally occurring fermentation process is kept to a minimum. As such neither fining nor (tight) filtration is used. The result is a living wine – wholesome and full of naturally occurring microbiology.
Zero/Zero can also be seen listed as 0/0 or 00 on bottles or in publications. Building on the definition of natural wine, this is an extension saying that zero was added and zero was taken out of the wine. So if they did not add sulfites or other additives and did not fine or filter, wine would be considered a zero/zero wine.
3. Native Yeasts
Also called "wild", "Sauvage" or "natural" yeasts. These yeasts are naturally occurring on the grapes and environment and are used in spontaneous fermentation. They are the most honest representation of wine because they embody all the things happening in the vineyard and winery. Natural wines are only made with native yeasts.
4. Volatile Acidity (VA)
This smells and tastes exactly as it sounds. If the wine you’re drinking has VA you’ll get aromas of vinegar or nail polish remover. It doesn’t sound pleasant and, a lot of times is not in wine. However, sometimes this can actually balance a wine, so it’s a case-by-case basis for if it is a problem. It’s also not always fatal, if you let the bottle sit and decant it, the VA can also blow off over time.
5. Spontaneous Fermentation
Fermentation is the process of the wine yeasts eating up the sugar and turning it into alcohol. How spontaneous fermentation differs from conventional is instead of adding an active yeast to inoculate the wine, it occurs naturally via the native yeasts that the grapes bring in with them from the vineyard as well as the yeasts that are floating around the cellar.
6. Organic Farming
The goal of organic farming and winemaking is to grow grapes without pesticides or chemicals that are not derived naturally. It is not necessary for the fertilizers or other elements to be from the farm, as long as all the elements in them are organic. There are several bodies that certify vineyard organic across the world.
7. Biodynamic Farming
Is made employing biodynamic methods both to grow the fruit and in the winery. Biodynamic wine uses organic farming methods, soil supplements, and follows a planting calendar created by Rudolph Steiner. Biodynamic winemakers treat the earth as "a living and receptive organism" and the goal is to have it function as a self-sustaining land.
8. Dry Farming
Dry farming means that the vines aren’t irrigated, relying only on rain. Not only is dry farming environmentally responsible, proponents suggest it yields more intensely-flavored grapes. In some regions, irrigation has been the norm for centuries; in others, it’s prohibited. Most people consider dry farming a requirement for natural wine.
If you are getting a strange hamster cage vibe or the wine starts lovely and hits at the end with some breathy finish that makes you forget about what you just experienced, you likely have a wine that has turned mousey. It’s possible the bottle had it from the beginning, or many times it comes on after the bottle has been open for an extended period of time.
10. Unfiltered Wine
Most wines are filtered, meaning that the producer will put the wine through surfaces with different sizes to take out yeasts and other sediments that could end up in the wine. Many believe that this and fining wine takes away from its integrity and the essence of what the wine was meant to be. A filtered wine will likely be less expressive than an unfiltered wine. Generally, minimal filtration is something people look for when looking for natural wine.
11. Unfined Wine
Fining is the clarification process where a lot of strange things you wouldn’t expect happen to a wine! Unlike filtration, which is just removing particles in the wine, fining removes soluble substances that could make a wine look hazy later. To do this, things like egg whites and fish bladders are used to bind the substances and remove them.
12. Vegan Wine
As discussed above, most wines are not vegan because the fining process can use: casein (a milk protein), albumin (egg whites), gelatin (animal protein) or isinglass (fish bladder protein). Natural wines are more likely to be vegan, but not guaranteed and it is important to ask if the wine was fined, and if so, with what to know for sure! Note: not all vegan wines are natural and not all natural wines are vegan!
13. Glou-Glou/Vin de Soif
This is likely the second term everyone thinks of after natural wine and both describe a wine that quenches your thirst and is easy drinking. Glou-Glou literally means glug-glug in English and vin de soif means it’s a wine for someone that’s thirsty. Because this is the perception of the natural wine movement, a lot of people think this is all-natural wine is, but there are obviously lots of wonderful glou-glou bottles out there along with complex ageable natural wines!
14. Pét-Nat/Pétillant Naturel/Méthode Ancestral
You’ll likely recognize a pét-nat with the sparkling wines capped with a beer topper. They are fizzy deliciousness and are made in a different way from Champagne-style by bottling the wine before the first fermentation is complete. This creates carbon dioxide in the bottle from the sugar. From there, it can be disgorged and recapped to filter out the sediment, or not, so check for if it has a lot of sediment at the bottom and note that you’ll likely want to disgorge it yourself.
15. Col Fondo
Another fizzy wine referring to Prosecco when you see that it’s cloudy from not having been disgorged. Similar to the pet nat, you may want to disgorge it yourself or just shake it up so the sediment integrates a bit into the bottle, à la française!
16. Orange/Amber Wine
Orange/amber wine is given its name because of the color it produces in a wine. The color comes from making a white wine like a red wine, where the grape skins and seeds in are left in contact with the juice for a certain period of time, creating an orange-hued wine that will likely have a bit of tannin.
17. Skin Contact
Building on the orange wine definition above, people will also call orange wines skin-contact white wines. It doesn’t quite ring off the tongue in the same way orange does, but it’s definitely a more accurate description! All wine except for white is a skin contact wine. So no need to ask if a red wine was skin contact! For a rose or orange wine, a good question is always, “how much skin contact did this wine have?” It will give you a good insight into the color extraction and potential tannin in the wine.
You might see words like qvervi or amphora written on wine or discussed the style of winemaking. This is the most ancient version of winemaking, using a clay vessel of varying sizes. In Georgia, they will bury them in the ground and let the wine ferment there, then bottle directly from the qvervi. If you hear the word, just know it’s how the wine was made, no oak or stainless steel, but instead was in a clay vessel!
19. Carbonic Maceration
Popularized by Beaujolais, carbonic maceration (you can call it carbonic for short and I’ve heard some people even call it carbo) is a technique that allows whole bunches or clusters (more on that later) to go in a vessel, be sealed off, and eventually ferment themselves from the inside out! Eventually, the grapes bust open from the pressure and the juice combines to ferment further into wine.
Sulfites (SO2) are a preservative widely used in winemaking (and most food industries) for its antioxidant and antibacterial properties. It helps prevent oxidization and keeps a wine's freshness. It is naturally occurring and is typically added at bottling as well. Natural winemakers strive to add as little as possible/none in their wines.
21. Whole Cluster
The term whole cluster is referring to the grapes themselves and how they go into the vessels for fermentation. If you leave them in their whole cluster you will also have the stems with the grapes, meaning you may extract more tannin and aromas from not just the grapes skins and seeds, but the stems too.
Brutal!!! is like a cult label used to signify a specific kind of wine a producer is making. The only requirements are that it’s zero/zero. There shouldn’t be any sulfites (thus the grim reaper and the SO2 on the label) and the vintner shouldn’t be intervening in the wine. It also signifies that this wine is an experiment.
Sediment in wine is any of the things you see floating around in the bottle or chilling at the bottom. They are not bad for you and can help the wine preserve its vibrancy and flavor by staying in contact with it. They are composed of dead yeasts and parts of the grapes and taste exactly like you’d think a tartrate would taste like… not a lot!
24. Wine Additives
There are no ingredients listed on wine so everyone assumes it is just grapes. But, there are over 100 additives that can be added to the wine in the US including obvious ones like sulfur and copper, moving into the strange like mega purple, which adds a saturated color, to oak chips and anti-foaming agents. None of those likely sound very appetizing, thus the goal of having zero/zero in natural wines!
Different from oxidized, like in a sherry, sometimes a natural wine can purposely have notes of dried fruits, nuts, and a bready element. If it goes to the point of being brown and smelling like curry, you’ve gone too far and have an oxidized wine! But, if it has those nice notes, it’s likely the goal of the vintner to extract some of these notes to add complexity to the wine.
There are of course MANY more than this, but these 25 should be enough to allow you to feel confident walking into any natural wine bar and understanding where your wine came from and how it was made!
Holly Berrigan is the Founder of MYSA Natural Wine. She has a WSET Level 3 certification with Distinction, is a member and writer for the Porto Protocol and Slow Food USA, and is a student in Sustainable Agriculture at the University of Massachusetts Stockbridge.
If you want to learn more, check out the resource pages below: