Au Naturel: A Beginner’s Guide to Natural Wine
As more people look for sustainable, chemical-free products, it’s no surprise that natural wine has entered the spotlight.
But natural wine isn’t exactly new. Back in 1960s France, four winemakers from the Beaujolais region — Marcel Lapierre, Jean Foillard, Charly Thevenet, and Guy Breton — decided to go back to basics. After World War II, pesticide use in agriculture was prevalent, but the four men yearned to make wine the way their grandparents did, sans pesticides and chemicals.
Influenced by their predecessors Jules Chauvet and Jacques Neauport, two enologists who studied how to make wine with fewer additives, the four vintners and other like-minded winemakers soon began a movement. As time went on, the popularity of making natural wine spread throughout France and the rest of the world.
Now, winemakers in many countries, including the United States, Spain, Italy, Germany, and Argentina continue to make natural wine for conscious consumers. In the U.S. — particularly New York City, Los Angeles, and Portland, Maine — there are even wine shops dedicated to au naturel vino. Still, you might be wondering what exactly qualifies wine as natural.
Natural Wine, Explained
The term “natural wine” is an ambiguous one. The FDA has not established any rules or regulations for labeling food or beverages with this description, but it does offer a definition: natural means nothing artificial or synthetic has been added.
In general, natural winemakers use organically-grown grapes that forgo the use of pesticides and herbicides. They also use wild or native yeast as opposed to laboratory-produced yeast. When it comes to adding sulfites, this is up to the winemaker, since there are no rules prohibiting them from doing so.
While some natural winemakers don’t use any sulfites, others may add some during bottling. Sulfites are preservatives that ensure wine keeps its taste after bottling. (These are different from naturally occurring sulfites that occur as a result of fermentation.) Either way, the amount of sulfites in natural wine is much lower than conventional wine.
One popular phrase that sums up the natural winemaking process is "nothing added, nothing taken away." Other terms you might see when browsing Trader Joe's wine shelves are low intervention, naked, or raw wine.
Overall, natural wine is made without chemicals, added sulfites, or extravagant machinery. It's about minimal intervention, simplicity, and bucking conventional trends.
Natural Wine vs. Conventional Wine
Unlike natural winemaking, conventional winemaking requires heavy intervention. Pesticides are used when growing the grapes, and lab-grown yeast is employed during fermentation. Acids can be added to help the wine age, and many conventional winemakers add sugar, which turns into alcohol, giving the impression of more "body."
You might be shocked to learn that there are 60 approved additives U.S. winemakers can use without having to legally put them on the label. While there
When it comes to harvesting the grapes, it’s customary for wine producers to use machinery. In some cases, small natural wineries may choose to hand-pick grapes, while bigger conventional wineries stick to machine harvesting and often employ several different processes that can change the wine’s chemistry.
Natural, Organic, and Biodynamic Wine
As discussed, “natural” is a loose term for wine that is made without chemical additives and minimal intervention. However, since the term is not legally regulated, wine producers using this term can often be vague in their definition.
While natural wine practices can vary greatly depending on the winemaker, for the most part, you can infer that the wine was made with fewer sulfites and no additives.
Organic wine is more clearly defined than natural wine — it signifies that the wine was made with organic grapes. Organic wine production must follow organic farming practices, and the bottle will have a label to indicate this. Look for organic certifications from the USDA or CCOF (California Certified Organic Farmers.) It's worth noting that organic farmers can still use organic chemicals to protect the grapes.
In the United States, organic wine must be made without added sulfites, similarly to natural wine. There are also differences in what organic wine entails in the U.S. and Europe. While organic wine means no sulfites in the United States, sulfites may or may not be added to organic wine made in Europe.
There is no specific legal definition in the U.S. that classifies biodynamic wines, and the methods used can vary among wine producers. According to the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association, the definition of biodynamics is a holistic, ecological, and ethical approach to farming, gardening, food, and nutrition.
Biodynamic wines are produced using organic farming practices, but the difference is that the entire vineyard is seen as one interconnected ecosystem — a whole organism, from flora and fauna to the soil beneath the vines. Producing wine biodynamically employs holistic, socially responsible, and environmentally-friendly methods.
Biodynamic wine is similar to organic wine in that both avoid synthetic chemicals or additives. However, a major difference that sets them apart is how biodynamic methods link spiritual forces to farming — like connecting times of harvesting to lunar phases.
While natural wine may be organic, organic wine is not always natural, as it might still contain additives. That said, if you want to drink wine created without made-made chemicals, choosing among natural, organic, and biodynamic comes down to personal preference.
What Does Natural Wine Taste Like?
You may have heard that natural wine tastes funkier than conventional varieties of wine, and this might be true. Often there are different aromas, similar to cider, because natural wine ferments slower. The longer the fermentation period, the more oxygen is exposed to the wine, creating these funky and sour flavor profiles.
Two more nuances of natural wine are the cloudiness and fizziness factors. Because natural wine is not filtered the same way as conventional wines, it can be a bit cloudier. Some natural winemakers let sediment float to the bottom, so not all natural wine is cloudy. A part of the fermentation process is the release of carbon dioxide, which creates bubbles, so natural wine is sometimes bubbly.
Many people associate funkiness with natural wine, but this doesn’t have to be the case. The funky character linked to natural wine and its low intervention might be seen as a flaw, but many natural wines are crafted with care. Well-made natural wines can share the flavor profiles that conventionally-made wines have.
When trying natural wine, be open to new tastes and sensations. Decanting natural wine is also a good idea to give it a little time to open up.
What About the Alcohol Content of Natural Wine?
By now, you might be wondering if natural wine contains less alcohol than its conventional counterparts. The answer is yes, natural wines tend to have less alcohol content.
Many conventional wineries add sugar during the fermentation process, speeding up production and increasing the alcohol level. Without added sugar, natural wine will be naturally lower in alcohol content.
Although many natural wine drinkers claim that it gives them fewer or no hangovers at all, it's probably not the alcohol content that keeps them hangover-free. The zero-additives policy of natural wine is likely the reason.
Lower-quality wines can have coloring agents, commercial yeasts, excess sulfites, clarifying agents, and pesticide residue, all of which can result in side effects, such as hangovers.
Pick Wine That’s Better For You
Natural wine has existed for thousands of years in the simplest form of fermented grape juice. But the natural wine movement of today started back in 1960s France, when four men decided to go back to basics and make wine the uncomplicated way.
Whether it’s natural, organic, or biodynamic, this approach to winemaking forgoes the chemicals of mass-produced conventional wines. Because of the different production methods, the bubbly and cider-like character of natural wine usually tastes different than the reds, whites, and rosés you’re used to. But natural wine has gained followers who admire the drink’s quirky qualities.
To many, making wine simply, without sugar, sulfites, or additives is how it should be done. Usual Wines are made the Old-World way, in small batches from sustainably farmed grapes with zero additives. Ultimately, it’s about choosing the type of wine that makes you feel good about drinking it.