Natural wines may be the new black, but what are they, really? And are they drinkable?
The buzz about natural wine makes it sound like it’s the newest thing in winemaking, but natural wine is old. Ancient. Prehistoric almost. Natural wine is what everyone was growing, fermenting and drinking before the second world war brought us so much new technology. So what is it? Think about Instagram, and now think about Instagram without filters and with just one take. That’s natural wine.
Natural winemakers believe in letting nature do what it’s going to do – theirs is an ethos of neither adding nor removing anything from their grapes or the ensuing wine, hence the nicknames “nothing in-nothing out”, or the more bougie “zero-zero“.
Conventional wine is what most of us drink all the time, though it’s actually the new kid in town. Conventional winemakers like to take control of the process, using various methods, machines, technology and ingredients during the lifecycle of the plant and during harvesting, fermenting and bottling.
Natural wines are planted and grown without pesticides or herbicides of any kind, whereas a conventional vineyard likely uses a combination of both. A large portion of conventional vineyards (globally between 60%-80%) employ massive grape-harvesting machines. The grapes from a natural vineyard are 100% hand-picked and hand-separated from their stems. And these are just the differences in the vineyard.
Additives are allowed in conventional winemaking. This sounds bad, but it’s not necessarily. Oak barrels or adding oak chips to enhance flavor is considered an additive, as is adding sugar, yeast and sulfites (sulfites aren’t the bad guys you might think they are, but more on that later). Fining agents are also used to remove any unwanted materials from the wine. For conventional winemakers, they do these things to stabilize and preserve their wine and to create a controlled and consistent product for consumers.
For naturalists, once those grapes are picked and destemmed, they go directly into their fermenting vat and are left alone to do their thing. Naturalists don’t use oak barrels, that would be adding to the wine, instead they favor a modern version of amphorae – those iconic Greek and Roman clay jars with the narrow neck and high handles. No additional yeast is added to aid in fermentation – natural wine uses only the wild yeasts on the grape skins and any other yeasts that pass through the environment.
Conventional winemakers use lab-grown yeasts and acids to control the fermentation time and speed, which helps regulate taste and produces a wine that tastes the same when you pour it as it did when it went into the bottle. These additives also help wines age – and taste better as they do. It’s often assumed that because of this, natural wines can’t be aged, but in a skilled winemaker’s hands, a natural wine can age quite well. Since naturalists don’t remove anything from their wine, they also don’t use fining agents – binders like egg whites, bentonite clay and isinglass that are added to the wine (and later removed) to attract and collect unwanted particles which affect the flavor, texture, color and clarity of the finished product. And they don’t add sugar, because the grapes have been left on the vine to their desired ripeness. Conventional winemakers may pick their grapes as needed, and later grape concentrates ((dehydrated natural grape sugars) to speed along fermentation and increase the amount of alcohol, which in turn affects the body of the wine. Riper grapes equal more sugar content, and more sugar equals more alcohol, which then equals a wine that has more body. Side note: Adding sugar in the form of sucrose (think the white sugar you bake with) is technically illegal in the US, though it is allowed in other countries, and in France is known as chaptalization.
LET’S TALK ABOUT SULFITES
Some natural winemakers may add a small amount of sulfites to stabilize their wine right before bottling. Anywhere from 10 to 35 ppm (parts per million) are generally considered acceptable in natural winemaking, though there are heated debates on both sides of this argument. Sulfites have been included in winemaking for centuries and they serve a purpose; they are antioxidant and antimicrobial. They are the first additives ever used in wine and they occur naturally (though they can also be synthetically produced), but if you’re a purist – and many natural winemakers are – you don’t put anything in. Note even sulfites.
Side note on sulfites: You may be surprised and relieved to learn that they do not cause red wine headaches. You may also be surprised to know that all wines contain sulfites; and reds do not naturally contain more than white. The level of sulfites has to do with how a grape is fermented, not its color.
Sulfites are used by conventional winemakers at the outset of fermentation to kill off natural yeast – if a winemaker is trying to make a certain type of wine with a certain taste, natural yeast is unpredictable and therefore unwanted. Then more sulfites are added during the rest of the fermentation process, with conventional wine usually seeing higher amounts than natural wines, with 350 ppm the maximum allowed in the US, though most wines average 80-120 ppm. And remember, this is parts per million.
IS NATURAL WINE ORGANIC?
According to Isabelle Legeron, founder of RAW WINE and the first woman in France to earn the exclusive title Master of Wine (there are less than 400 Masters of Wine in the world), while there are no governing bodies over natural wine, like there are for organic wines, it’s considered a non-negotiable that natural wines are grown organically. The two practices diverge outside of the vineyard in the fermenting process. Since natural wines are nothing-in, nothing-out, there are no organic ingredients added in the fermenting process, so it’s a safe bet that any natural wine is organic, even if it’s not labelled as such. Organic certifications are pricey and many of the small, independent vineyards making it don’t bother paying for the label.
On the other hand, conventional wines with an organic label are allowed to use up to 60 USDA approved additives and fining agents – as long as they’re organic. But let’s be clear – the wines with dozens of additives in them are probably the cheapest wines at the bargain basement store. Winemakers are craftspeople and don’t add more than is needed. Excessive additives are just a cover up for bad wine.
AND WHAT HECK IS BIODYNAMIC WINE?
Biodynamic wine is yet a different type of winemaking from either organic, natural or conventional. The practice of biodynamic farming was created 100 years ago (a couple of decades before organic farming) by Rudolph Steiner, an Austrian philosopher. This type of farming is often seen as woo-woo, because it involves a biodynamic calendar that takes into account alignment with the terrior, with the four earth elements (air, earth, fire and water) and with the cycles of the moon and astrological charts. But that’s not really all that different than how indigenous cultures around the world have viewed things for millenia. Natural winemakers are interested in supporting what the land is capable of giving the crop, while at the same time investing in the land to make it healthier and more robust, but only by natural means.
We think Legeron best summed it up when she said, “Natural wine is pure, fermented grape juice,” and that the goal of natural winemakers is to, “bottle a drink that is alive, full of the naturally occuring microbiology that existed on the grapes and in the cellar too.”
So let’s talk about the real question here: taste. Are natural wines something people actually want to drink? We think so, and we love the idea and existence of natural wines. We believe wine is supposed to be simple and fun and that choices are to be celebrated.
Natural wine can taste similar to its conventional counterparts, but it is usually described as being more alive, and tasting more natural. Big compliments for a natural wine are terms like funky, sour and earthy. It’s often likened to cider or kombucha – which makes sense, as Ms. Legeron pointed out, because we’re drinking pure fermented grape juice. And who doesn’t want to experience (at least once) the taste of a vineyard right out of the glass?
But don’t just take our word for it. Go forth and try some natural wines. Here are a few we like:
Catherine & Pierre Breton Trinch! 2017
Cabernet Franc from Bourgueil, Touraine and Loire, France
Bosman Fides Grenache Blanc
Specialty Wine, South Africa
Agnes & Rene Mosse Moussamoussettes Petillant Rosé
Pink Wine Loire, France
Sandhi Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnay
Chardonnay, California, United States
As always, we love to hear your thoughts. Do you think natural wine is drinkable? Better than conventional? Or just a nice change of pace? Drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or tag us on social @drinkboxt.
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