Natural wine has seen explosive interest in recent times. Independent natural wine fair RAW Wine launched in New York and Los Angeles in 2017, and by the following year it had spread to Europe and Canada. According to Google, meanwhile, searches for ‘natural wine’ quintupled between June 2014 and June 2018, and then it really hit the mainstream in August 2018, when discount supermarket brand Aldi launched its own line of natural wines.
But what is natural wine? With many producers touting biodynamic or organic credentials, and growing numbers taking a minimal intervention approach, it’s not clear cut, especially since there is no legal or regulatory definition of the term. Indeed, any producer is free to label their wines as ‘natural’ should they choose. Here’s what you need to know.
1. Natural winemakers aim to produce as pure a fermented grape juice as possible
Many natural winemakers subscribe to the ideology ‘nothing added, nothing taken away’. While traditional wines rely on a complex system of checks and balances involving chemical additives and processes, natural wines are usually free of fertilisers, pesticides, enzymes, sugars and yeasts.
2. Natural wines contain little sulphur
Sulphur is a de facto ingredient in traditional wines, largely because it kills bacteria, prevents oxidisation and helps to preserve the wine. It’s a naturally-occurring substance but winemakers often add a little extra to ensure they get good results. Natural wines use no additional sulphur, which means flavour and quality can vary between bottles. For some, this is part of the charm of natural wines, but it also means things are more liable to go wrong during production.
3. Natural wine is not the same as organic or biodynamic wine
Indeed, winemaking practices across the three often align, but while natural wines are organic by default, not all organic wines are natural. To be certified organic, wines must use grapes grown without chemical fertilisers or pesticides. However, the regulations around organic grape processing allow for additives and industrial processes. Natural wines, however, use little or no intervention, and are harvested by hand and processed in a low-tech way.
Biodynamic wines, meanwhile, rely on a host of ancient farming techniques such as mineral preparations and observance of the lunar calendar – these practices aren’t necessary to make natural wines.
4. Natural wines are vegetarian
Wine’s main ingredient may be fruit, but that doesn’t always mean it’s suitable for vegetarians. Many traditional wines commonly use isinglass – a fish bladder derivative that creates a clearer, brighter liquid. Other animal-based ingredients, such as gelatin and albumin, are also commonly used. Not so the case with natural wines, which again, aim to steer clear of additives.
5. Natural wines have a ‘distinct’ character
Foregoing chemical additives and processes means that natural wines are usually cloudier than their traditional counterparts, and their flavours are often described as ‘funkier’. Critics will often attribute ‘barnyard’ flavours to natural wines because of their lack of preservatives.
6. Natural wines are produced all over the world
There are natural wine producers in just about every wine making region across the globe. France’s Loire Valley is said to be the original birthplace of this style of wine, while Beaujolais, Jura and Savoie are also well known for their natural offerings. As general lifestyle trends veer towards the ‘green’, there’s an increasing number of natural wine producers in California, too. Almost all are small-scale and independent.
7. Natural wine is usually more expensive
When it comes to everyday bottles, at least. It’s much easier to make traditional, mass-produced wine than a natural wine, which involves hand picking and pruning, and laborious low-tech processing – and time is, after all, money. Expect to pay around £25-£40 for a bottle.
8. Natural wines are more fragile than conventional wines
As such, they require more careful handling and storage. Best practice tips include:
- Buy natural wines as locally as possible to reduce the risk of transport spoilage.
- Drink them within a year of purchase.
- Store them in a fridge or wine cellar.
- Keep them below 26.7°
- Keep bottles away from all light sources (including LEDs).