What Is Natural Wine?

We asked winemakers and sommeliers to dispel some common misconceptions around the trending beverage category.

By: Sarah Tracey

Photo by: Clay Williams/Orange Glou

Clay Williams/Orange Glou

If you think all wines are simply made from grapes and sunshine, it might be shocking to learn that there are over 72 additives legally permitted in winemaking. These include enzymes and acidifiers, artificial color, added sugar, nitrogen, hydrogen peroxide and preservatives like added sulfur dioxide. Wine is an agricultural product that’s continually living, breathing and evolving on a molecular level, just like the fruits and vegetables in your produce aisle. These additives are a way to stabilize the wine and keep it fresher for longer. However, they can also be used to hide flaws and manipulate the flavor of poor-quality grapes used in some cheap, mass-produced wines.

In response to this, natural wine has become a trending category in the industry. It's a winemaking philosophy where as little as possible is added or taken away in the process.

According to wine and spirits consultancy IWSR, sales of organic wines (farmed without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers) were projected to rise by 14 percent between 2017 and 2022. But organic wine is still a comparatively tiny segment of the global wine industry; making up just 3.6 percent of all wines on the market today. As far as natural wine goes, the category is estimated to represent just one tenth of one percent of wine sold in the U.S., but many predict it’s poised to gain traction as millennial wine lovers continue to demand products with fewer additives.

Photo by: Photo courtesy of ZAFA Wines

Photo courtesy of ZAFA Wines

So, What Is Natural Wine?

Thinking of natural wine like organic food is a great way to start understanding what's in your glass. To begin the natural wine process, grapes are organically grown without synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and fungicides, then often hand-picked. In the winery, no commercial yeasts are added. Instead, winemakers simply let the indigenous yeast, naturally present in the environment of the vineyard and winery, drive the fermentation process.

The resulting wine is bottled without added tannins, acid and stabilizers, and isn’t fined or filtered. Some industry leaders prefer other terms over natural (as “natural” implies that conventionally-produced wines are unnatural, which isn't entirely accurate). So, you might see this category called “raw wine” or “minimal-intervention wine” instead.

Many natural winemakers have a passion for farming and see a disconnect in the understanding of wine as an agricultural product. “Consumers spend a lot of time looking up recipes, watching YouTube videos, googling everything under the sun regarding the food they eat,” says Krista Scruggs, the winemaker behind ZAFA Wines. “I encourage them to do the same with the wine they drink.”

Photo by: Photo courtesy of MYSA Natural Wine

Photo courtesy of MYSA Natural Wine

5 Things to Know Before Buying Natural Wine

Low-intervention style wines with a focus on grape farming isn’t new. For thousands of years, wines have been made this way. But the idea of natural wine as a suddenly-hot category in trendy bars and bottle shops is a relatively recent phenomenon, and many misconceptions have emerged among the wine-drinking public. We talked to some natural wine experts to shine a light on what many people don't know about natural wine.

You've probably had a natural wine before.

Not all natural wines are labeled that way, or even called “natural” by their producers. Many natural wine advocates feel the term has become misunderstood (and co-opted by some as a marketing tool) and prefer to just present their products transparently and leave it at that. Scruggs explains, “I purposely do not self-describe or use hashtags using the word 'natural.' I just want to lead with the fact that I farm and make wine.”

Nic Jansson, co-founder of MYSA Natural Wine, says, “Sometimes, the only way to know if a wine is natural is to research the producer and importer, as it won't just say it on the bottle.” For example, if you’ve ever had a bottle from the “Gang of Four” from Beaujolais (Marcel Lapierre, Jean Foillard, Jean-Paul Thévenet and Guy Breton), you’ve had a natural wine.

There is no universal definition of natural wine.

Like the term “natural” on cleaning products and in grocery aisles, there’s no concrete definition or regulation around what makes a wine natural. “There has been much confusion as to what it takes to be a 'natural' wine because there was no institution that confers and regulates this denotation,” says John Avelluto, owner and sommelier of The Owl's Head, a natural wine bar in Brooklyn, NY. Terms like “organic” and “biodynamic” are dictated by organizations from which winemakers can receive a seal of approval. This year, the INAO in France put out the first official designation around natural wine, but it’s unclear whether other countries will do the same.

There are still sulfites in natural wine.

Adding sulfites to wine is a very effective way to help preserve it – and some natural winemakers aiming to add as little as possible still do add a small amount. “Sometimes when chatting with a guest or customer to find a wine for them, the term 'natural' will come up and the guest will say 'Good! I can't have sulfites,'” Avelluto says. Some wines are made with minimal sulfur additions at bottling, but grape skins naturally contain sulfites.

You can age natural wine just like a regular wine.

“A common misconception is that natural wines need to be drunk quickly after bottling or they'll go bad due to a lack of preservatives like sulfur. In fact, we've had natural wines that are over 12 years old and drank beautifully. If the wine is well-made, and intended to be aged, they can rest for years just like conventional wines,” says Jansson.

Not all natural wines taste "funky."

Many natural wines indeed have aromas, flavors, textures and visual characteristics that may be unusual; if you're not accustomed to experiencing those kinds of attributes in wine, they can even be off-putting. But, there's no one-size-fits-all profile.

Photo by: Clay Williams/Orange Glou

Clay Williams/Orange Glou

Doreen Winkler, natural wine sommelier, consultant and founder of wine club Orange Glou, says, “Natural wine can be super clean. There is natural Champagne, natural Burgundy, even Chablis. It's not all funky and cloudy wines from regions and grape varietals you've never heard of.”

As for how to know what you're getting? All of our experts recommended going to a wine shop where the buyer is informed about the producers they carry and the staff can help you pick out something you'll really enjoy.

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