What is Natural Wine? Natural wine, explained
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 are used. The result is a living wine – wholesome and full of naturally occurring microbiology.
“PEOPLE THINK THAT NATURAL WINE IS A FAD OR A NEW THING, BUT IT’S THE TRADITIONAL WAY TO MAKE WINE. IT’S CONVENTIONAL WINE THAT’S ACTUALLY NEW.”
Natural wine is more of a concept than a well-defined category with agreed-upon characteristics. In its purest form, it is wine made from unadulterated fermented grape juice and nothing else.
Many people — winemakers, distributors, writers, sommeliers — take issue with the term “natural wine.” Some prefer the phrase “low-intervention” wine, or “naked” wine, or “raw” wine. Scruggs calls her product “just fucking fermented juice.” But “natural wine” is the term that is most widely used, and anyone at a natural-inclined wine store, wine bar, or restaurant will know what you mean when you use it.
For the purpose of this article, I am working under the assumption that natural wine is not a fraud, nor are its supporters delusional, but rather that it’s a highly debated and endlessly complicated topic that never ceases to get all manner of people riled up. Also, the stuff is very often delicious.
Understanding natural wine requires a basic understanding of the (generally complex) winemaking process. In the simplest terms, that process has two parts: growing and picking grapes, and then turning them into wine through fermentation. Natural wine, then, is made from grapes not sprayed with pesticides or herbicides. Natural winemakers handpick their grapes instead of relying on machines to harvest them. When it comes to turning those handpicked grapes into juice, natural winemakers rely on native yeast, the stuff that’s whizzing around in the air and will land on grapes if you put them in a vat for long enough, to set off natural fermentation. And unlike most conventional winemakers, they don’t use any additives (like fake oak flavor, sugar, acid, egg white, etc.) in the winemaking process.
Occasionally, some natural winemakers will add some sulfites, a preservative and stabilizer that winemakers have been using longer than any other additive. Sulfites ensure that the wine you drink tastes roughly the same as it did when it went into the bottle. Natural winemakers either use no added sulfites or use it in small quantities, while conventional winemakers use up to 10 times as much. They also use it differently: Conventional winemakers add sulfites to grapes to kill off natural yeasts, and then add more throughout the rest of the winemaking process; natural winemakers will add a little bit just before bottling. The purest of the pure — naturally fermented grape juice with no sulfites — is often called “zero-zero,” referring to the lack of added anything.
THE PRESENCE OF SULFITES DOESN’T NECESSARILY DISQUALIFY A BOTTLE FROM THE NATURAL WINE CATEGORY
The presence of sulfites doesn’t necessarily disqualify a bottle from the natural wine category, though. Small amounts of sulfites — around 10 to 35 parts per million — are in natural wine circles generally considered an acceptable amount of preservative to add in the bottling stage. Conventional wine, on the other hand, often uses much higher amounts of the stuff, which some natural wine supporters think “deadens” the flavor of the finished product. In the US, the maximum amount is 350 parts per million.
Given that natural wine is often described as “cloudy,” “funky,” and/or “barnyard-y,” many people assume that it’s always loudly, inherently weird. While natural wine is often unfiltered (that leads to cloudiness) and can veer sharply into funky territory, there’s also lots of natural wine that won’t feel like an acquired taste if you’re used to buying yours at Costco.
“There’s a misconception that natural wine is one thing — that it’s ‘funky’ or ‘not clean,’” Scruggs says. “And that’s an injustice. Because natural wine can still honor your palate if you’ve been drinking wine from the grocery store, but the cool thing is that it’s chemical-free, and that’s awesome.” Consumers shouldn’t be afraid to tell sommeliers and wine store owners that they want a natural wine that tastes like two-buck Chuck, she says. As longtime natural wine advocate Pascaline Lepeltier told GQ, “Whatever you like as a more traditional wine drinker, you can find a [natural] alternative everywhere in the world.”
And then there’s glou-glou, a popular type of natural wine made to be drunk without having to think about it too much. (The French term is onomatopoetic, their version of “glug-glug.”) While it doesn’t taste like two-buck Chuck, it does generally taste like delicious electrified juice: These are lighter red wines, often served chilled, and downed quickly.