What is Natural Wine?
The Ultimate Guide:
Broadly speaking, natural wine is a term used to describe wines that are farmed organically, typically using practices like biodynamics, and made without adding or removing anything during the winemaking process. This means no fining or filtering and no adding of acid, sugar or any other components. Below we will explore what natural wine is, who makes it, where it comes from, debate around it, and where you can find it here in the US.
Many people think that all wine is natural wine. After all, isn't wine just grapes that were crushed, put in a barrel, left to ferment, bottled and sent to the local retail store? The short answer is no. But, unlike other food products that have to list their ingredients on the labels, wine labels are incredibly vague and hard to understand. In fact, you can't actually put the ingredients on the label even if they wanted to because of regulations in the US.
Here are the topics we'll go over in this article:
1. What is Natural Wine?
2. Where does it come from?
3. How do you know if it's natural?
4. Why is it so debated?
5. Where can I find it?
6. Other resources on natural wine
What is Natural Wine?
The definition of natural wine has several components. There are two parts of the vinification process that need to be considered when exploring what natural wine: how the grapes were grown in the vineyard and how they were treated at the winery. There are certain practices in both areas that should be followed to create what we would consider a natural wine.
In the Vineyard:
Grapes grown for natural wine live differently than what you typically see on a guided winery tour. You likely won't find manicured vines with perfectly trimmed leaves on each trellis. Instead, you'll find biodiversity such as cover crops below the vines and animals roaming around looking for some vine pests to eat. The approach is formed by organic or biodynamic farming practices with the goal of maintaining soils that are full of worms and the nutrients they feed on so the grapes can reflect the biodiversity of the land.
Organic farming practices involve limiting the number of synthetic products put on the grapes and vines during their growing season and opt for natural ways to treat pests and diseases in the vineyards.
Biodynamic farming takes organic farming a step further and looks for natural ways to prevent issues with pests or disease in the vineyard. It also focuses on planting according to the moon cycles and has specific preparations that Rudolph Steiner created in 1924 that focus on things like preparing the grapes for harvest and stimulating root growth.
Other areas that natural winemakers consider in their vineyard are practices like dry farming, where you either do little or no irrigation for the grapes, and the use of animals in the vineyards.
In the Winery:
Even after the grapes have been grown and farmed organically or biodynamically in the vineyard, it doesn't always mean it will be a natural wine. The processes that are followed after the vineyard can easily turn naturally-grown grapes into a standard (non-natural) style of wine. According to Isabelle Legeron, who we'd argue is the leading authority on natural wine and the founder of RAW WINE, the definition is that natural wine is what happens when nothing is taken away or added to the wine. This becomes most relevant in the winery where there are endless options of yeasts, acidifying agents, and other chemicals or substances that can be used to alter the way the wine tastes.
The general idea is that the wine is making itself rather than the winemaker putting a stamp on the wine. The goal is to get the purest expression of what the wine is trying to say about the terroir. This means that the wine itself chooses when to ferment (called spontaneous fermentation) and the winemaker is there to monitor the process, seeing how long it takes for nature to take its course and create the wine
Another area of note in the winemaking process is sulfite use. Sulfites occur naturally in the wine but are also what is needed to keep the wine stable during travel. You'll see a range of producers who add no sulfites and will only have what is naturally occurring in the bottle. Other natural wine producers will limit the amount they put into the wine to just what is needed for the wine not to brown or take on other faults. However, as a rule, a natural wine should contain minimal sulfites.
Although we did just mention that the winemakers don't intervene in the winemaking process and allow the grapes to become the wines natural expression of it's location, there are a decisions that need to be made that will affect the way the wine comes out and, in particular with natural wines, some of these decisions give the wine qualities that are typically seen more often in natural wines than conventional ones. These decisions include:
- Skin fermentation - We've all likely heard of orange wines, a short way of saying a white wine that has fermented on its skins. Red wines almost always go through a process of resting on their skins to extract tannin and color from the grapes and skins. With orange wines, they typically come off as heartier white wines that can have some tannin and other qualities not typically associated with white wines.
- Fermentation in bottle - Pétillant Naturel, or Pét-Nat, for short, is bottled prior to fully completing its first fermentation, allowing carbon dioxide to be produced by the natural sugars found in the grapes. This method is typically preferred to the méthode champenoise by natural wine producers.
- Co-fermentation - The method of having two types of grapes (or even grapes and another fruit like apples) ferment together, creating pre-blended wines or vinous ciders.
The key point of natural wines is the intention of the winemaker to create a pure and clean version of their wines. These are some of the ways to best get that expression.
Where Does Natural Wine Come From?
Natural wine can technically be produced anywhere, but there are a few places that are known to have a lot of renowned producers and natural wine communities. Most people trace the new natural wine movement back to France in the 1980'. Wine has been made the natural way for many years, but this rebirth was a fight against the Robert Parker view of how wine must taste.
There are many producers of natural wine in France, the most famous being the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. Regions most commonly associated with the practice are the Jura, Loire, and Southwest France. Currently, some of the most celebrated producers include Hank Beckmeyer of La Clarine, Eric Texier, Virginie Joly, Cedric Bouchard and Jerome Prevost. On the wine trail, it is a bit tougher to find stellar wine producers that aren't already discovered here because the natural wine movement has been in effect for many decades at this point.
Italy is taking the hipster scene of natural wine producers to the next level with the giant handlebar mustaches, crazy labels, and some truly amazing wines. Natural wine is made from the tip of northern Italy next to Slovenia with greats like Radikon in Friuli, to lots of newcomers popping up around Etna in Sicily where they are finding an excellent environment for clean farming.
As a country,Georgia epitomizes what natural wine was and still is today. As the initial home of winemaking from thousands of years ago, most Georgians still make a small amount of wine for their family in the old style in amphora with skin contact on their white and red wines. Expect to see more and more of these wines start to hit thee US market.
With the breakout appearance of Gut Oggau a few years back, Austria has been on the natural wine map as a prime spot since it became popular in the US. Now the production is taking hold of much of the country as families like the Rennersistas and GSELLMAN of the Pannobile group in Gols take over their family's vineyards and create greater specificity around how they want their wines made.
The Brutal wine movement started here and has evolved into the brutal wine corporation that is a collective of producers across Europe producing one Brutal labeled wine each year which is their most interesting or unique barrel they have that year. There are winemakers all over the country producing naturally, even in the harshest of conditions, and are famous for having even more outlandish labels than the Italians on some of their bottles. Barcelona is seen as on par with Paris when it comes to the availability and community surrounding natural wine.
All of the wine producing countries in South America have natural wine producers, but Chile definitely has the highest concentration of them all. While there are less on the market from South America at the moment, it is a great place of opportunity to create natural wines because of the environment and rotating season from the north.
Starting with a group of four creating the Natural Selection Theory group, the method really kicked off from there. Our neighbors down under have some incredible natural wines starting to make their way to the US with much difficulty since the Australian market could easily consume the majority of what they're producing there.
All over the world, even in places like Mexico where you wouldn't expect producers like Bichi, or Frukt Stereo in Sweden, or La Garagista in Vermont to be venturing into natural wine, there are players all across the world moving into this market and we expect more and more to come over time.
How Do I Know If A Wine Is Natural?
Like we mentioned in the intro, it's impossible to know if the wine you're buying in the store is a natural wine or not without doing further research or talking to a knowledgeable person at the store. We recommend looking into the importers that work with your state and finding those that you agree with their methodology to winemaking techniques and the kinds of wines they are bringing in. Aside from ourselves (we're in DC and across the US with our wine club) these are some importers we look for and love to snatch up if we see them on the shelves at a store: Jenny & Francois, Bliss, Selection Massale, GoatBoy Selections, Percy Selections, and Zev Rovine
The RAW Wine website is also working on an active directory for the industry, so this is another great place to look up producers, importers, and distributors.
Sometimes you can tell if a wine is natural by the way it tastes, but not always!
Why Is Natural Wine So Debated?
Natural wine is one of the most highly debated topics in wine. Because it's non-traditional, there's always a rub with the current thinking on the subject of wine. Traditional wine education like the WSET program or the Court of Master Sommeliers have specific parameters for what a wine should look like, taste like, and smell like. If something is outside that scope it is typically seen as a fault.
Natural wines can have faults and can taste terrible, just like a conventional wine might, but some parameters like clear wine, without any flocculation, is one that natural wine lovers would debate is not actually a fault and is rather a component that adds more character to the wine. Other areas for debate are the oxidative (not to be confused with oxidized) notes you can find on a wine.
There was also a highly debated interview with Bobby Stuckey that came out saying the natural wine movement is building barriers and is the Fox News of wine, claiming that the story is all that matters and not the taste. Because the topic is so hotly debated, we can't write the next statements without prefacing that this section is our opinion on the subject, like Bobby has his. Beyond the idea of a wine being made cleanly, the natural wine movement is also about acceptance of all people who enjoy wine and, arguably, is far more inclusive of the everyday wine drinker who doesn't have a background in wine. The average drinker won't know what color they should expect for a Chenin Blanc or if the acidity level is medium plus instead of high. However, everyone can understand the way a farmer uses yaks to mow the vineyards in the winter, crushes the grapes by foot, and still has a horse named Ted running a press. While this may not speak to the quality of the wine, as long as it's clear to everyone that it is delicious and worthy of being drank with whatever meal they're having, then it is probably the more enjoyable addition to their wine knowledge.
The debate around natural wine's place in the wine world is far from over and will likely gain more attention as the movement continues across the US. We will leave it to you to decide your own opinions on the matter.
Where Can I Find Natural Wine?
Other Resources on Natural Wine
With so many topics put under one label, we've written quite a bit on natural wine comparisons, how natural wine is made, and other articles that are useful launching points from this article. Find some that could be of interest below:
Natural wine is a very exciting community to be a part of. While it can be hard to find the wine, it is worth the effort to get out there and try as much as you can where you are or while you are traveling. We hope this page has been a great entry resource for you and has peaked your interests enough to dive in deeper!
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