What Is Natural Wine?
Bridget Reed @ 2021-12-16 13:04:06 -0800
The term “natural” isn’t regulated in wine, but it’s used to describe wine all the time. So, what does it mean?
The good news is that natural isn’t a buzzword used to twist the truth. Instead, “natural wine” indicates how a wine was made and what it should taste like, which can be really helpful. After all, wine labels can be confusing.
Let’s dive into the differences between natural, organic, and conventional wines.
What Is Conventional Wine?
Conventional wine is grown and made commercially, and it contains additives. Common additives include sulfur, fish bladder, egg white, gelatin, and velcorin, but over 72 additives are allowed by the US government.
So, why use additives? The main roles of additives are to stabilize the wine and maintain flavor profiles from harvest to harvest. If the wine isn’t transported with care, it’ll be spoiled by the time it reaches you. Additives are also used to filter the wine, removing solids and particulate matter, and it provides character when winemakers are seeking specific flavor outcomes.
One additive called Velcorin is commonly found in everything from conventional wines to sports drinks, juices, sodas, energy drinks, and even all-natural cannabis soda. Handlers have to wear a hazmat suit, but for some reason Velcorin never needs to be disclosed. It’s tasteless, scentless, lethal in high doses, and toxic when ingested within 24 hours of being added. After 24 hours, it is perfectly safe in low doses, but consumers are never made aware of its presence.
Conventional wine is made from grapes grown through conventional farming methods that save time and money but aren’t good for the environment—pesticides & herbicides, anyone? Plus, these methods create fruits that are less than spectacular. This means these wines need a lot of adjustment during fermentation, which requires additives.
Conventional winemakers also use commercial yeast that is grown in a lab rather than natural yeast. Because of this, they need to use aggressive filtering methods to remove all impurities that sadly take all the subtle aromas of a great wine with them.
What Is Minimal or Low Intervention Wine?
The philosophy behind minimal intervention wine is that the more wine is touched and manipulated during the winemaking process, the more its quality is lost.
Great wine is made on a vineyard on healthy land that can grow healthy grapes. If the land isn’t quite so healthy, a lot has to be done during and after the fermentation process to fix the end product.
Low intervention wine requires work and attention in the vineyard so that once the grapes are harvested, they can ferment into a great wine. Because of the work in the vineyard, low intervention will have very little SO2 added and will not need to use aggressive filtering methods. They may use native yeast or a combination of commercial and native yeast.
The idea behind minimal intervention wines is that these wines are treated with greater care than conventional wines, but they aren’t necessarily organic or natural. This means they can always use additives if the vintners deem it necessary.
What Is Organic Wine?
Organic viticulture feeds the vineyard, not the vine. This means no pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, or chemical fertilizers. While chemical fertilizers feed the vine directly and don’t improve the quality of the soil, organic fertilizer like compost nourishes the soil so that it remains healthy enough to support the vine.
However, there is a difference between organic wine and organic grapes. In the US, certified organic wine is made with organic farming practices that allow for no added sulfites, and they’re fermented with certified organic yeast.
Other wines are labeled as “made with organic grapes,” but they aren’t certified organic wines. This slight change in phrasing actually indicates a major difference. Though the grapes themselves are grown organically, once they leave the vineyard, a maximum of 100 parts per million of sulfites is permitted.
To make things even more confusing, wines coming from the EU that are labeled “organic wine” can also contain 100 parts per million, despite the fact that certified “organic wine” in the US doesn’t contain any sulfites.
All Natural Wines are Organic however not all Organic wines are Natural wines, as Organic wines may also use select additives, albeit a smaller list than conventional wines’ 72 options.
What Is SO2 in Your Wine?
Sulfur dioxide is a hot topic in wine. Do sulfites cause headaches? The answer isn’t that simple.
If you’re allergic to SO2, the answer is likely yes. But wine’s headache problem hasn’t fully been figured out, and there are several other reasons why wine could be giving you this reaction.
Sulfur dioxide is added to wine in order to prevent spoilage, browning, and oxidation. It stabilizes the wine so that it doesn’t go bad before it reaches your lips. Still, many natural winemakers will minimize SO2 as much as they can.
Conventional limits are 350 ppm, but most wineries will have over 100ppm. Natural winemakers attempt to stay as close to zero as they can.
What Is Natural Wine?
“Natural” is a term used to distinguish wine that’s been made with absolutely no manipulation from wine that has undergone some degree of manipulation. When someone refers to natural wine, they’re referring to several things:
-Use of native yeast
-Typically unfined or unfiltered wine
-Limited to no added SO2
Let’s break down what these mean, why they’re important to the natural wine movement, and most importantly, how to find the best natural wines.
What Is Biodynamic Wine?
Biodynamic viticulture takes organic farming to the next level. Vineyard management is guided by the philosophy that the vineyard is a single living organism. France is a leading pioneer in the practice, but estates all over the world are starting to embrace this environmentally sustainable methodology.
There are a few ground rules for biodynamic wine creation. First, the vineyard has to be a self-sustaining ecosystem. Second, several specific herbal and mineral preparations must be performed to care for the vineyard. Last, all procedures must be coordinated with the phases of the moon.
Biodynamic farmers are used to some skepticism, but this ancient practice dates far beyond the modern world. The proof is in their wines’ amazing flavor profiles.
What Is the Difference Between Native and Commercial Yeast?
Natural winemakers use native yeast found in the vineyard or the winery, rather than lab-grown commercial yeast.
Yeasts, which play the starring role in fermentation, multiply and mutate like it’s their job—and it is. They’re found everywhere in wineries: on the walls, in the air, and even naturally on grapes’ skin.
Natural wine producers harness this “native” yeast to begin the fermentation process, but this comes with unique challenges.
Native yeasts offer less control on the winemaker's part than lab-grown yeasts, fermenting slower and running the risk of not completing the fermentation process. That’s a big gamble for a crop that takes an entire year to grow!
Commercial yeasts are more consistent, ferment faster, and are more robust. They can ferment a wine to 15% alcohol, where native yeast may not make it past 10% to 12%. For this reason, some winemakers use both native and commercial yeast in their products.
What Is Unfiltered and Unfined Wine?
Have you ever seen those cloudy wine bottles with colorful, hip labels? Wine lovers, meet unfiltered wine.
Wine that appears clear wasn’t always that way. That wine had to be clarified—aka, filtered—to remove solid particulate matter like dead yeast cells, bacteria, and proteins.
Not all of that stuff is bad for you, but natural winemakers prefer not to put their wine through this process. While filtering does clean the solid matter out, it also removes many aromas and subtleties.
If you’d prefer to taste the nuances in your wine, then natural wine may be your thing.
When it comes to filtration, there are more and less aggressive methods. Conventional wine will opt to go the aggressive route, saving time and money that they would have spent ensuring that their wine wasn’t spoiled. Some natural winemakers will take the time to simply let the juice “settle,” a natural way to let the solids fall out. But again, this takes time.
Fining is another method of clarifying wine in which a fining agent bonds with the particulate matter and falls out, bringing the hazy stuff with it. Fining is a controversial topic because some fining agents include milk, egg whites, fish bladders, or bentonite clay. Only trace amounts are left in the wine, but many winemakers opt to use clay to avoid losing the interest of their vegan customers.
Why Drink Natural Wine?
Natural winemakers consider their wine to be alive. Like any natural food movement, the goal is to provide a product that’s better for you. Plus, natural wine is better for the environment.
Low intervention allows the wine to express terroir—a sense of place—while conventional wine masks these nuances. Grapes are allowed to sing through low intervention wines, which are a celebration of their characteristics. Often described as a bit funky, they have a great deal of unique flavor profiles and range without any of the gross ingredients you’ll find in conventional wine.
Importantly, the absence of additives and clarification methods can provide respite for some, especially from the pesky side effects of wine hangovers. Keto-friendly, vegan-friendly, sustainable, and delicious… what more could you ask for?
If you’re usually sensitive to foods and alcohosl, natural wine may be just the ticket.
How Can You Find Natural Wines?
Wine labels can be more confusing than clarifying, but there are several ways you can identify natural, organic, and low-intervention wines.
The easiest way to find these wines is to shop in locally-owned wine stores.
Local wine shops are curated around a passion for wine, artistry, and sustainability. They tend to buy wine from smaller producers who are making the hard choices to forgo profit in order to make better quality wine. When you shop locally, you’re likely to encounter workers that can tell you everything about the wine that a label just can’t.
If you’re in a bigger store, look for European wines. While many new world wine regions make great natural wines like Australia, California, and Argentina, European wine regions tend to have stricter laws around vineyard management and the winemaking process to ensure quality.
There are even some wine regions that are notorious for organic and biodynamic farming that you can almost guarantee will make a natural wine. These include Alsace and the Loire Valley in France and Wachau in Austria.
Great Wine Is Made in the Vineyard
When in doubt, look up the wine producer’s website. Do they write about their winemaking practices?
Many natural winemakers make it a point to break down everything they’re doing to ensure quality on their website. If their website doesn’t detail winemaking practices, it may be because there’s not much to brag about.
Proper vineyard management ensures that grapes reach their potential. Small producers know this, and they take care of their land in kind. They see themselves as a small piece of a big universe and carry out their business in a way that respects their small but significant role in it.
The good news is that you can play a small but significant role in this as well, and even better, you get to do it with a glass of wine in your hand.