Is it just trendy hipster nonsense? Why is it so popular? What does it even mean?
We love natural wine, and so want to debunk some of the mystery behind this term to get more people in the loop.
First things first: the term ‘Natural’ isn’t regulated by anyone, so it’s thrown around pretty loosely. In the wine world, it’s a bit of an umbrella term covering a set of principles that are a bit easier to pin down.
What do we expect in a natural wine?
Anything under the natural umbrella should be either organic or biodynamic in practice, even if it’s not certified. Plenty of winemakers don’t pay to get certifications as they’re too small for it to be worth their investment, but practice the farming methods all the same.
This means we can assume there won’t be any chemical pesticides, herbicides, fungicides or fertilisers in the process, and that usually translates to healthier grapes in the long run that taste better!
Human hours over mechanised intervention
Manually pruned, treated, picked and sorted grapes are to be mostly expected if you’re calling a wine ‘natural’. Low intervention winemakers often spend quite a bit of time among the vines to make sure they’re well tended to, and choosing which grapes to harvest by hand rather than with machinery allows them to exclude any that may not be quite up to standard for the wine.
Low sulphite levels
Sulphites (aka sulphur dioxide) are a naturally occurring byproduct of fermentation, that winemakers often top up artificially to stabilise the wine. When added in large amounts, they’re not good for human consumption, but a ‘natural’ wine will have quite low levels of added sulphites (if any). While there are a few outliers with no detectable sulphites, essentially all wines will have enough sulphites naturally to require the ‘Contains Sulphites’ allergen warning. These levels are lower than you’d find in a serving of dried fruit, so as long as you’re buying natural, you don’t have much to worry about.
Fining (aka clarifying) wine can help stabilise and soften wine, but also can take away texture and character. Generally this acts as a sort of secondary filtration, to get the teeny tiny bits left that filtration can’t remove. It’s also the point when the wine can lose its Vegan status, as many fining agents are proteins that come from animal products (from things like crustacean shells, egg whites, fish swim bladders, etc.). None of the protein will really be left in the final bottle, but using these proteins in the process doesn’t jive with the Vegan ethos.
Just grapes, please!
Often in commercial winemaking, the producers will choose particular yeast strains as well as adjusting the level of sugar and acidity in the wine by adding sugar or tartaric acid (or both) to ensure the consistent flavour they want. Not too surprising, considering how many bottles they send out to supermarkets and other retailers across the globe, all of which need to stay stable and tasting the same for years on end. In natural winemaking, we can presume this isn’t happening, and the producer will just let the yeast in the environment start the fermentation spontaneously. They also won’t be messing with the sugar or acid levels by adding these synthetically. Instead they’ll just be more thoughtful about aspects like harvest timing, the way they train the vines, maceration and ageing lengths, etc. to keep the flavours in balance. No added sugar, acid or yeasts.
So there you have it! Next time someone says a wine is natural, these qualities are more or less implied. It’s always good to check about elements like biodynamic practicing, level of added sulphites or whether a wine is vegan if it’s important to you, but minimally at least a few of these boxes should be ticked.