Natural Wine. What is it?

Drinking natural wine is a cleaner, more ethical alternative to any other wine on the market.

First thing’s first, natural wine should (& could) be called ‘low intervention wine’ as it’s a more descriptive and accurate name, but that’s a mouthful of technical words nobody can be arsed with, including myself. Natural wine is the trendy name adopted by minimal human intervention wine in more recent decades, which is now (thanks to Instagram) taking a resurgence into society and becoming one of the most mainstream alcoholic beverages across the whole world.

Essentially, minimal human intervention is the aim of the game when it comes to natural wine.The main idea behind natural winemaking is for humans to intervene as little as possible throughout the entire process; from planting the vines in the vineyard to the fermentation procedure in the cellar.

Wines made from grapes and grapes only, nothing added, nothing taken away.

What truly separates natural wine from its conventional counterpart (a.k.a commercialised wine) boils down to the methods that are practised in the vineyard, in the cellar, as well as the foundational principles that natural wine was built upon such as freedom of speech, creativity and most importantly, no rules. Natural wine is the superior option when compared to mass-produced, conventional wine because it’s made from just grapes, by a humble winemaker, a spontaneous fermentation and most importantly, time.

Let’s take a closer look at the distinctions that separate natural wine from the rest!

Moussamoussettes Rosé Pé-Nat Sediment in Bottle Cap
Grape sediment at the bottle cap thanks to zero filtration.

The Vineyard

The vineyard is your bread and butter as a natural winemaker, your sacred land, the place where it all begins. Vigneron’s* farm their vineyard in an organic (or biodynamic) manner, feeding their vines fertilisers made up of compost or animal and plant compounds. Unlike most big commercial wineries, it is considered sacrilegious to use any type of chemical-based fertilisers or stimulants on the growing vines during the growth process.

Sloped Vines at Lammidia Winery, Abruzzo, Italy
Organic vines on the slopes, Lammidia, Abruzzo.
  • Vignerons – People who cultivate grapes for winemaking.

Biodynamic Farming

Some natural winemakers go even more hardcore than organic farming and opt to practise biodynamic farming instead. Biodynamic farmers aspire to generate their best resulting grapes through composting, integrating animals, cover cropping, and crop rotation. 

Originally ‘founded’ by the late Austrian philosopher, Rudolf Steiner, biodynamic farming is widely recognised for its top quality results when it comes to large yields and most importantly, healthy plant life. A biodynamic soil is one that’s in complete cohesion with the planet. Some would go as far as saying the biodynamic approach towards agriculture is ”proactive rather than reactive”. 

Even Alice Feiring, author of Natural Wine For the People, seems to agree with the biodynamic way of winemaking-

“In biodynamic farming, you pace your practices to nature’s rhythms…The object is to heal, not to harm.”

Both practices (biodynamic and organic) nine times out of ten produce outstanding, juicy natural wines!

Spontaneous Fermentation

After their growth period, what happens to the grapes during fermentation in the cellar must adhere to the same principles implemented in the vineyard – minimal human intervention. 

(Most conventional wine corporations add commercial yeasts and extra sugar to the freshly pressed grape juice in the cellar; they do this in order to artificially speed up the fermentation process.)

Natural winemakers are mostly against the use of commercial yeasts which spur on quicker fermentations, and instead, prefer a spontaneous fermentation using natural ‘wild’ yeasts that are found floating around the cellar from previous fermentations and on the skins of the grapes.

The spontaneous fermentation process is crucial to making natural wine as the native yeasts from the cellar and vineyard eat the sugars in the grapes and on their skins/stems, turning the grape juice ‘naturally’ into wine over a prolonged period of time.

Filtration and Fining

When you get a bottle of white wine from the corner-shop, or even from the supermarket in most cases, once poured into your glass it tends to look awfully pale, almost artificially pale. 

With the re-introduction of natural wines to society we now know that this is not natural at all, massive wine corporations mass filter and fine their wines before releasing them on the market to remove those tiny particles of sediment. Those tiny bits of sediment found in natural wines are oftentimes the reason for a cloudy/hazy looking wine.

Hazy sparkling wine
Two hazy looking pét-nats.

But what’s so bad about a cloudy/hazy wine?? Not one thing. 

Those little particles of sediment at the end of a bottle actually provide even more flavour and texture, adding new dimensions to what already was a great bottle of wine. Think of cloudy and non-cloudy apple juice for example, you know which one of the two is bringing more oomph and character to the table once poured.

To Sulfite or To Not Sulfite

To not sulfite is the most common answer in the natural wine industry, as it coincides with the ‘natural’ way of producing wine. Although some natural winemakers will add a very small amount of sulphur to their end product in an attempt to stabilise the wine, this is on a minuscule level compared to the conventional winemaking industry who generally opt for copious additions of sulfites to make a ‘perfect’ looking and tasting wine.

Sulfites are bad for you; they help cause hangovers, dehydration, and flare up skin problems, but they’re not all that bad in small doses. As mentioned above, some natural winemakers use a very small amount of sulphur to their wines before bottling to ensure a steady, smooth-sailing journey to its final destination. 

Now there are a small percentage of sulphur-intolerant people out there in the world, and this is the reason why all winemakers (natural or not) must provide a ‘contains sulfites’ or ‘no sulfites’ sticker on their bottles of wine.

Constant Experimentation

Natural winemakers have it slightly easier than traditional, conventional or classical winemakers when it comes to experimentation in the vineyard and in the cellar. In the natural wine industry, there are no arrogant critics slapping score’s out of one to a hundred on a bottle, potentially ruining it’s reputation because that one critic personally didn’t feel any emotions toward it. 

Producing natural wine carries a true sense of freedom.

With freedom, comes experimentation. And with experimentation, comes natural wine. 

For example; Using a concrete or amphora ageing vessel just because they have the freedom to do so instead of using classic old/new, big, gastly oak barrels. 

Me inside an Anfora wine aging vessel
Cleaning the inside of an Anfora aging vessel.

In this industry, the winemaker makes their own decisions on how a wine should be made, not the critic who’s on a six figure wage from the Guardian. 

Instagrammable Labels

Natural wines of today’s world tend to have jaw-droppingly appealing colors and eye-catching, artistic labels, for the most part. This goes back to my recent point on freedom, natural winemakers have a lot more freedom to experiment with their entire project and that especially goes for designing the actual label for their wines too.

A lineup shot of cool natural wine labels.

They don’t have to follow historic wine appellation ‘rules and regulations’ for example; specifying the region and quality of land on the front label. Instead, independent low-intervention winemakers opt for quite forward-thinking, almost provocative labels.


To Round It Off

From my point of view, a big reason for such growth in the demand for artisanal products like natural wine is down to us Gen Z’s and Millennials, we are genuinely concerned for the well-being of our planet and the chemicals that conventional winemakers across the world are putting into our soils is killing the planet.

I for one will not just sit back and hope everything fixes itself, I won’t give up on our planet that easy and if becoming a natural wine advocate is a step in the right direction towards making a difference I’m all in.

Natural wine has a unique meaning, it can take many appearances such as amber with a hazy hue or candy pink with an elegant sparkle and a deep smell of strawberries and cream. This wine we love to call natural is made in a traditional way, it’s humble and it’s here to stay so I suggest you give it a chance as there is something for everyone’s taste, I promise.

Salut!

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