Natural Wines seems to be the most talked about recent development in the wine industry, and possibly one of the most divisive. Social media and hype wine bars and restaurants in capital cities have pushed these wines to the front of the scene, quickly followed by online specialist wine shops and lifestyle influencers. While there is little new about them as their origin can be traced back 8000 years, shouldn’t all wine be natural either way?
Like most crops, the majority of grapes around the world are produced in a similar way to any other fruits or vegetables, referred to as the conventional way. Conventional agriculture believes that human intervention can solve any agricultural or winemaking issues. It’s a problem/solution outlook at nature and agriculture, made possible through intensive use of machinery, fertilisers, pesticides, treatments in the vineyards, and selected yeast strains and high-tech equipment in the winery. Additions of all sorts can be done to the wine, so to achieve what the winemaker (and consumers) expect from it and fix any defaults or qualities: acidity levels, aromas, flavours, colour, sugar levels etc. Fining agents – usually derived from fish, eggs, gelatine or pulses; are commonly used to clarify the wines, making them unsuitable for vegan drinkers. In many scenarios, these practices aim at producing crowd pleasing, consistent, cost effective and replicable wines from main known grapes: merlot, cabernets, sauvignon, pinots…
Natural wines, on the contrary, are usually made without any additions both in the vineyards or the cellar. Treatments against vine disease and fungus are based on empirical observations and better understanding of natural interactions between the vine and its environment, in favour of biodiversity and immune resistance. An approach very similar to homeopathy to some extent. All the work is done by hand, from cuttings to harvests, and horses are often brought back to the fields for ploughing and other heavy-duty jobs. In the cellar, traditional methods (foot treading, hand-press, old barrels…) are favoured and human intervention is reduced to a minimum. Organic grapes are turned into juice, spontaneously fermenting, and turning into wine at their own pace. Clarification is banned, replaced by patience and time to let the wine settle by itself.
The resulting wines may look and taste a bit different at first. A hazy shade and sediments at the bottom of the bottle, due to the lack of heavy filtration, set them appart from high-volume supermarket wines. On the nose, the usual fruit aromas are sometimes completed by bruised apple, sourdough-like, savoury notes that add complexity to whites. Some reds may display more gamey, farmyardy notes that gives them a desirable rustic character, while the palate may focus more of lighter, brighter fruit notes. Overall, while they may seem like an acquired taste for some, the wines feel a lot livelier, lighter, fresher and potentially lighter on the head than their conventional equivalent.
Natural wines come in all forms and shapes and shapes and styles, making each bottle a totally unique experience. Produced in small batches, you may never taste the same wine twice. This partly explains the price difference, as producers rely on much smaller volumes to make a living for themselves and their family. They are fairer, more sustainable alternatives, and a new category to explore for wine drinkers.
Key Natural Wine Words
Orange Wine: a white wine that has spent an extended time macerating with the grape’s skins. This process (similar to the red or rosé making process, but with white grapes) provide savoury, spicy, citrus peel notes and tannins: this grippy feel on our gums that makes red wines so satisfying. Orange wine can be paired with meat, fish and cheese for this reason.
PS: no ORANGES (the fruit) are used in the process. Grapes, only grapes.
Pet Nat: from the French Petillant Naturel. A naturally made sparkling that started its fermentation in a larger vessel before being transferred to bottles to finish its fermentation. The CO2 produced then is trapped into the bottle, making the wine bubbly. Col Fondo Prosecco is made with this method, called the Ancestral method.
Expect a fruitier, richer and more textured wine than traditional method sparkling. Careful when you open though, as some can be a little…explosive!
Sulphites: a natural by-product of fermentation, Sulphure Dioxide (or SO2) help preserving the wine from bacterias, oxidation and other defaults. Conventional producers use it throughout the process to protect the grapes and the must, and some at bottling too as a preservative. Unfortunately, it tends to numb flavours and aromas, and is toxic to human consumption at much higher level. Some people may have an allergic reaction to SO2, even at levels found in wine and food products. Natural producers ban the use of SO2, with the exception of tiny amounts at bottling for stability.