If you haven't tried natural wine before, you “naturally” (get it?) might wonder what it tastes like! After all, there’s a lot of stories about there about it tasting like cider, dirt, vinegar, and worse. However, just like all wines, some can be well-made and delicious, and others can be terrible!
What Does Natural Wine Taste Like?
The quick and easy answer is that natural wine can taste like anything from traditional grape expressions, where you don’t even know it was made naturally, to a bit more wild. This is usually where the word funk or funky is used, which could be anything from kombucha like to sherried.
We’re going to work to be specific about funk throughout this article so that you can know what it is your tasting and whether you like it or not!
Let’s start with the easiest descriptions then move into some of the more difficult ones, touching on what is and isn’t considered a fault along the way.
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1. Natural wine can taste like any conventional wine
The most obvious, and least talked about aspect of natural wine is that a vast majority of it tastes like the traditional expression of a wine. This means that it would likely have a clean finish and aromas that you would expect from the grape. In fact, the most highly touted wine in the world, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (DRC) is made naturally!
2. Natural wine can have qualities that are different from conventional wine
When a natural wine doesn’t taste like a conventional wine, that is typical because of a few reasons. First, it’s made with native yeasts and ferments spontaneously, so the flavors are a real representation of what is going on in the vineyard and winery! Some of that funk you hear about could be coming from those native yeasts. It is also possible that this funk could be coming from one or more of these components below that could be considered a fault, but, when used intentionally and with finesse, can something that adds to or preserves the character of the wine in natural winemaking.
Volatile acidity, or VA, is considered a flaw in conventional winemaking and tastes like vinegar or nail polish remover. In natural wine, it isn’t uncommon to find it because there is bottle variation across all the wines. To help the volatility go away the easiest thing to do is to put the wine in a decanter for 15 minutes to 5 hours (all depends on the wine!) and let it basically blow off.
There is a big difference between oxidative and oxidized wines. Many in conventional wine consider any oxidation to be a flaw, but it is also a prominent component of Sherrys and other wines as a characteristic to look for in the wine. Oxidative wines still taste alive, vs an oxidized wine might taste like curry, wet socks, or other unpleasant flavors. One example of a nicely oxidative wine we have is Flor de Mata from Vinessens!
Because natural wine spontaneously ferments, it can be slower to ferment, like cider and have a bit more exposure to oxygen. This can create some nice ciderlike qualities that you find in wines like La Garagistas, or it can go too far too overly bruised apples and other aromas that you would likely consider a flaw.
Like the rest on this list, in small quantities, a reductive wine can create great complexity and lovely flavors of smokiness in the wine. However, if it goes too far, you’ll know by experiencing aromas of burned rubber, skunk, rotten eggs, so I’m pretty sure you’d notice! If it’s not too far gone, you can actually save the wine by decanting it and plopping a penny into it to neutralize the stinky components. Try it out!
Brett or Brettanomyces is a type of yeast found naturally in some vineyards but is associated with unclean winemaking in the conventional wine world. It is a wine characteristic that a lot of winemakers actually look for (for example some wineries in Bordeaux). Like with oxidative wines, too much can ruin a wine, but a bit can add some lovely character of barnyardiness to it.
Not a flavor (unless you accidentally drink them!), but definitely a part of the drinking experience, it is common to find sediment in natural wines when they have been unfined and unfiltered. Don’t worry if you swallow one, they are just yeasts and small particles of the grapes that were leftover from fermentation. And if you are wondering, they normally don’t really taste like anything honestly.l
There are numerous other qualities that you might find in natural wine, but that’s a general overview of what you may see when trying them and what they might taste like based on the winemaking!
4. Natural wine can be made in styles you’re not used to
There are a lot of ways to make wine but there are only a few that are considered the norm by the conventional wine community. In the natural wine world, a lot of the styles we are now seeing that seem a bit out there are actually just revivals of the earliest ways of winemaking. It is, in fact, conventional wine and the use of chemicals and additives to make wine that is new, only a few decades old, compared to the thousands of years that wine has been made in a natural way! Here are a few examples that you likely find out there:
Glou-Glou/Vin de Soif
People love to talk about glou-glou (French for glug-glug) or Vin de soif in natural wine because many times the natural wine movement gets boxed into natural wines being only chuggable, non-ageable wines that you sit down and kill in an hour. This is definitely a myth, as there are many serious natural wines out there that can age and have incredible complexity. But, the glou-glou is also a wonderful style of wine! Examples you’ll find will typically be lower in alcohol, probably didn’t spend as much time on their skins, keeping a lighter flavor profile, and are in fact quite chuggable. Wines that we consider vins de soif are Ambuscade, Blauer Portugieser, and Saignee Rosso.
Orange wine is another topic that is talked about a lot in natural winemaking. Orange wines can be made conventionally as well, but they are typically associated with the natural winemaking movement because they are some of the oldest ways natural wines are made and having skin contact with white grapes is a natural way to help stabilize the wine. Flavors associated with orange wines include oranges itself to harsher qualities like the wine having some medicinal qualities to it. Some can be light and floral, like Egesta, and others can be dense and complex, Flor de Mata.
Pet-Nat is another one that can be made conventionally but is traditionally associated with natural winemaking. Like orange wine, it is one of the most ancient ways of making sparkling wine (pre-dating champagne) and essentially takes the wine before it’s finished fermenting, puts a bottle cap on top of it, and lets the bottle carbonate itself so that it becomes bubbly deliciousness when you pop it open. Flavors of this will vary based on the winemaking, but you can expect it to have a bit to massive amounts of foam, so be careful when you open it! Some of the pet-nats we love are Oracular made from Macabeo and Ambuscade, made from Pinot Noir.
Staying on the ancient winemaking trend, Amphoras are the oldest vessels used to make wine and originated in Georgia thousands of years ago. The amphoras shape helps clarify the wine naturally by letting it settle at the bottom. Another name you’ll see is called quervi, the Georgian word for it. Sometimes they even bury them in the ground for more temperature control! Amphoras can range in size from the size of a small barrique to large barrel size. A great wine made in amphora is Benimaquia Tenijas.
A more rare trend in natural winemaking is the use of ceramic bottles. Some producers choose to use them because they don’t want light exposure on the wines. They are neutral and shouldn’t impart any specific flavors in the wine. Examples of these wines include ones like Tin Rimbau that we should have in stock next year.
5. Natural wine can be delicious!
Ultimately, there are a million ways to make natural wine and each winemaker is deciding every day what the best way to facilitate the winemaking that has the least amount of intervention while getting the best expression of the wine and terroir they can have.
If you're ready to try some out, check out our natural wine starter kit!
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.