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Natural Wine 101: Setting the Record Straight

Natural Wine 101: Setting the Record Straight

Natural wine is wine made from grapes grown and harvested in a traditional or organic manner, then fermented with native yeasts rather than commercially cultured ones. The wine is usually made and bottled without any additional preservatives, fining agents, or any other additives, and is often unfiltered.

And all that does not ensure the wine is any good. Or any more “natural” or “unnatural”, for that matter. So, what’s the deal here?natural-wines_620x324

1. Introduction

Definition of natural wine and why it’s becoming more popular

First of all, it’s unfair to separate wines as natural and what? Unnatural? It is unjust because no clear division separates natural from other wines. Sure, the idea behind “natural wine” or “natural” anything might be an honest reaction to processed food and conventional, ready-made stuff we’re surrounded with. Think of the chain of supply providing instant processed food etc.

Naturalness can also be about returning to our roots and listening to our body chemistry more. This concern is best described by saying Never consume anything your great-grandfather wouldn’t.

Also, nobody wants to be trapped absorbing false food without any real nutritional value. I think about the situation when you can’t ever fed yourself enough because of digestiong fake nutrient, so you keep stuffing yourself until the metabolism collapses. We could go on, and this blessed fight against mass production and unhealthy life can quickly become a holy quest.

And everything is fine and justified as long as it doesn’t become extreme and narrow-minded.

But, what then, when it becomes an obsession? And when obsession turns into a fraud?

The mystique and controversy surrounding natural wine

If natural wine is made without any added chemicals or preservatives, why uncork the mystery? Well, natural wines can have a lot more variation in taste and quality compared to conventional wines. When done right, natural wines can embody the very reason why we love wines in the first place. Unfortunately, when done wrong, natural wines can be as bad and worse, less healthy, than some fake mass-produced wine-like product.

There is a lot of prejudice and for a reason.

For example – natural wines often have a higher level of natural acidity which gives them a unique flavor profile. Yes, because no winemaker wants to do any intervention to their wine, especially not deacidification, because it might diminish the expression of the wine.

This doesn’t mean every natural wine will have a higher level of acidity. The reason for this prejudice, and often a justification for poor winemaking, lies in an abundance of natural wines with elevated volatility. Many wines handle it very well and can even help express a particular character in some wines. Much more use it as an excuse when things get out of control, and the content of your glass becomes more similar to vinegar or cider than to wine.

Another prejudice – natural wines vary from vintage to vintage because natural yeasts can produce different results from batch to batch. Again, yes and no. Vintage specifics can be felt in every carefully handled wine, from vine to glass. There is some liberty in the notion that you do not want your wine to taste the same every year despite the expectations of the distributors and restaurants. But there is much more to it than the simple logic of wild vs cultivated yeasts.

What about weather conditions and choices the winegrower makes? What about the desired yields? What about the grape ripeness level? And the time of the picking? Not to mention the handling in the cellar… these circumstances alone influence the “vagaries of the vintage” much more.

Some prejudice is more dangerous than others – The natural winemaking process is more labour-intensive and time-consuming than conventional processes, which makes natural wines more expensive. This is so embedded in everyone’s mind that it’s challenging to demystify unless using a somewhat brutal comparison.

It could be even more costly to produce a wine using all the pharma chemistry, from pest protection in the vineyard to yeasts and all kinds of enzymes in the cellar. All the technology that helps you in the vineyard and the cellar costs. Also, remember there is a professional (an enologist) to control it all. That is if you are running a small winery.

Sure, it’s seemingly less labour-demanding, but nevertheless, the reason for some natural wine to cost more is not because of the process or anything involving the real value of the wine. It is because it is “natural”. Where I come from, many homemade producers are growing hybrid or not even Vitis vinifera grapes for personal consumption. They use no protection apart from some ancient copper-sulphur solution (which is allowed in natural winemaking) because they don’t need to. Due to limited technological abilities in the cellar, they ferment the wine spontaneously, just like in the old days, and by every definition, they produce – “natural wine”?!? Needless to say, nobody in their right mind would pay them the money natural winemakers charge today.

This prejudice is why we have every other winery making “natural wines”. They want to make money, not history.

The whole natural revolution has yet to encompass all consumers. Still, we already encounter people refusing to taste natural wine recommended by the sommelier due to a bad experience they had. This undermines the very idea of natural wine.

The wine can be unique and, consequently, worth more to you, or it is not. A naturalness can only be an attribute of the particular wine, not the valorisation form.

a_restaurant_customer_dissatisfied_with_wine_in_glass_

2. The basics of natural wine production

How natural wine is made (grapes grown and harvested, fermentation with native yeasts, minimal intervention during the winemaking process)

It’s being done the same, except it doesn’t influence the (natural) chemistry of the process. Yet, somehow, the natural wine movement, consumers and apostles of naturalistic wines tend to remove the human factor from the equation. As if the wines are more discovered than made.

There is no wine without vines, right? Well, since we are consuming wine made from the fruit of Vitis vinifera, somebody had to grow those vines. And let me tell you, it’s a whole science involving the farming process, and guess what? It won’t grow on its own. At least not in any form you might use to make wine, especially not for selling or trading.

So, somebody planted the vineyard and furthermore is keeping that vineyard in shape. Of course, humans could leave the vineyard to its own destiny and in some ideal conditions, the vineyard could provide fruit. But, unless a human picks it, the grapes will naturally either fall and rot or stay on the vine and, ultimately, rot.

Humans, however, pick grapes and perform a miracle. Well, all they do is press the grapes in a certain way or the other, leaving it to nature to do its miraculous course. Wrong. They eventually put it in some sort of “vessel” to transfer the liquid from the grape juice into wine. Otherwise, the only natural thing that could come out of this miracle is – vinegar.

Not to mention all the farming practices necessary for wine to become discovered, that is. It seems human work is involved a lot in the process. Even more so with winemakers of naturalistic philosophy, as they deliberately choose to practice farming in the way of their forefathers. Without any chemical assistance of course, and sometimes even without mechanical help. 

So much about minimal intervention. There is, of course, a saying that the best cellarmaster knows when it’s the right time to do nothing. This goes hand in hand with the “add nothing and take nothing away” approach, but such mastery does not mean a cellarmaster is doing little or that his role is not pivotal.

On the contrary, to shake up this issue even more, we can get into particular, most often highlighted features of natural winemaking: growing and harvesting, and fermentation.

old_druid_making_potions

Growing and harvesting

Growing grapes is a challenging task. Back in the days before people started messing around with the ecosystem, conditions for biodiversity were idyllic in comparison.

For example, biodynamic wines rely on farming according to phases of lunar cycles and other traditional ways today forgotten. Still, the essential prerogative of biodynamics, or teachings of Rudolf Steiner, is a balanced ecosystem, a biodiversity that ensures the balance without the need to use any chemicals other than some manure solutions or similar, today obscure, stuff. Simplified, it requires the habitat where a predator insect feeds with another insect that feeds with a fungus that feeds with some bacteria that attack the predator insect, thus closing the circle of this natural chain of reaction. Any man-made intervention to treat insects, fungi or herbs could destabilise this ecosystem irreversibly.

Therefore, you don’t need any chemicals to protect your crops. But what if you do not have such conditions? What could be used and what could not to consider wine natural?

That is another slippery ground despite the seemingly relentless rule. For example, due to climate change, even the most stubborn winemakers started to adopt irrigation… even in places where there was no tradition of it and irrigation was considered close to malpractice, a blasphemy tolerable only for less worthy terroirs.

However, is it more natural if some grower collects rain to use it to irrigate vines drop by drop? Or, is more natural when a grower of monoculture on 50 acres, uses products for pest-protection made by the same pharmaceutical company that produces standard systemic solutions, only “certified organic”?

Apples and oranges, for sure, yet from pruning to harvesting, every decision we make is an intervention, and all viticulture is manipulation. And indeed, we do not want what is poisoning us. Yet, there are many ways to get poisoned. Best not to be poisoned by lies as well.magician_with_a_magic_wand_in_front_of_a_vine

Fermentation with native yeasts

Naturalists are obsessed with this issue. It seems you can either inoculate grape juice with cultured yeasts or let spontaneous fermentation with native yeasts. In fact, there are numerous shades in between.

But what excites the natural wine consumers most is the perception that cultivated yeasts will distort and create aromatics that wouldn’t be there unless this trickery is used. This is true if we talk about the mass-produced wines designed to correspond with a specific pH of a target market. Hell, these wines aren’t necessarily made out of grapes. So, using cultivated yeast to enhance certain aromatics should be our last concern when facing such monstrosities.

Regardless of technique, yeast alone cannot create something that wasn’t there. Cultivated yeasts and bacteria will stimulate the growth of particular compounds that form certain flavours more pronounced than others. Is this cheating? It depends. But, the yeast cannot create something out of nothing.

Wild-yeast-fermented wines are not more natural by definition. Some winemakers use all kinds of pesticides and then make amber (orange) wine. Nothing good can be expected from such skin-contact fermentation.

Others inoculate only with their own yeasts, previously cultivated from selected grapes picked several days before harvest, the so-called Pied de Cuve technique. Some even use yeasts developed in a laboratory, only created out of their finest grapes from the finest harvest…

Understand it’s “the recipe” that annoys us. Most conventional wines are made by the step-by-step recipe. Winemakers follow the recipe to achieve, for example a fruity white wine. Such wines could be soulless, superficial and boring. Everyone can reproduce them using the same recipe. The use of cultivated yeasts is just one of the ingredients in that recipe, but it is not responsible for any potential misusage.yeast_illustration

Differences between natural wine and traditional wine

There shouldn’t be any differences between natural and traditional. We’re having a problem with modern conventional wines, as many of today’s conventional wines are merely products designed to correspond with a particular target audience.

Traditional wine, if we talk about the wines made before the industrial scale production and using chemicals to control crops and design wines in the cellar, is the ideal natural wine. A traditional wine is a wine that is unmistakably tells about the place and culture it comes from. It is oriented towards itself, embodying everything that influences the way it is. And these influences are culture (including human influence), place (including soil) and variety. It is not influenced by sales goals and certainly not influenced by target market affinity. 

These wines weren’t called “organic” because there was no other farming except what we today call organic. The same goes for any modern-day definition. Eco, biological, organic, biodynamic… there was no need to separate wines by that attribute.

The organic story is legit. An organic diet should be healthier because conventional chemicals do not enter the food chain. Also, organic farming is likely to increase biodiversity, reduce energy consumption, and generally improve the health of workers and consumers.

Organic and biodynamic wines are both natural wines but with a few differences. Organic wine is made from grapes grown without any synthetic pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers. Biodynamic wines take organic growing techniques one step further by following the principles of Biodynamic agriculture, which emphasises natural farming practices that work in harmony with the land and cosmos.

Table: Growth of Demeter-certified biodynamic farms in 20 years time

number of farms percentage growth rate
Year 2001 2988
Year 2005 3282 9.84%
Year 2010 4583 39.64%
Year 2016 5091 11.08%
Year 2019 5998 17.82%
Year 2020 6429 7.18%
Year 2021 7050 9.66%

3. The benefits of natural wine

Health benefits (no added preservatives or sulfites)

Like many good ideas that get distorted, natural wines should be healthier to human consumption than conventional, mass-processed, by-the-recipe wines. However, this healthiness got nothing to do with increasing obsession with sulfur-free wines

Unless you have a rare condition that would be triggered a long time ago with other nutrients you intake, you have a headache after overconsumption of wine because of the combination of alcohol, dehydration, lack of sleep. There is a chance you are also more than a bit poisoned by some cheap fake stuff that seemed so sweetly fruity and lovely at first, but that poison is hardly sulfur. Other chemicals or preservatives could be added to such wine that will burden your metabolism.

If you genuinely have a diagnosed sensitivity to sulfites, there are wines without added sulfites that contain only sulfites released through natural fermentation. 

It would be wrong to consider these wines more healthy or more natural than others only because they are without added sulfur. Bluntly, the wineries that do not add any sulfur, do not need to. Their wine is made in a certain way and from a certain variety and it’s stable without adding sulfur. 

Generally, sulfur is the question of mere hygiene. It was used more or less in a similar way and for the same reason since ancient Roman times. To preserve wine.

Suppose you are avoiding gluten for example, because you’re afraid you might develop intolerance even though you’re not having any problem with processing gluten. In that case, you are part of an increasing number of people concerned about the quality of today’s bread. So the answer might not be in avoiding gluten, but in consumption of a quality bread that might contain gluten but in less quantity and of better quality.

Sourdough bread tends to agree considerably more with the digestion of people with diagnosed coeliac disease. In short, it is hypocritical to insist on a sulfur-free wine and intake other nutrients with much higher levels of sulfites. 

Environmental benefits (sustainable farming practices)

By dominant opinion, natural winemaking is a style of winemaking that prioritizes minimal intervention in the vineyard and winery in order to allow the grapes and the terroir to express themselves as authentically as possible. 

Some of the key sustainable farming practices associated with natural winemaking include no or low use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides in the vineyard. In addition, natural winemakers often use alternative methods to control pests and diseases, such as companion planting and biodynamic preparations, or they may simply allow a certain degree of crop loss in order to maintain a healthy ecosystem in the vineyard.

Organic and biodynamic farming, both can have a positive impact on the environment, by reducing the use of synthetic chemicals and promoting biodiversity in the vineyard, preserving soil health and reducing water usage. Additionally biodynamic farming goes further, based on principles of holistic and ecological farming which promotes not only health of the soil, but also health of the farmer and the land as a whole.

It is important to note that there is no widely agreed definition of natural winemaking, and some winemakers who call their wines “natural” may use some of the practices listed above while others may not. The movement is still developing with no widely accepted standards, so it is always best to ask the winemaker themselves about their practices.a_man_with_a_gas_mask_in_a_vineyard

Taste and flavor (more authentic and unique)

There is one important difference between “natural” and “conventional” wines that can’t be easily proven, but it can be felt. Wines made with organic or similar approaches tend to be more dynamic on the palate, more restless when young and generally feel more energetic. This difference does not approve if the wine is spoiled or ruined by poor handling and tastes like vinegar or cider or a compote.

Even though it is justified to expect a natural wine to feel “more alive”, we should not confuse “life” with a lack of class. Clarity, elegance and balance do not contradict “natural wines”. 

Many apostles of natural wines have gone astray so much that consumers now doubt the authenticity of an elegant, clear and delicious wine. Literally, if the wine isn’t quirky, cloudy, volatile etc, it is “suspicious”. True story, one certified biodynamic winemaker needed to explain his handling to consumers who couldn’t believe a natural wine could be so clean and precise.

I like to compare this with newly minted hopheads (beer enthusiasts). With the craft beer revolution, many rediscovered ales in numerous expressions, so now they believe only ales are craft, and lager beers aren’t. Furthermore, if the beer isn’t triple-hopped New England IPA, cloudy as a spoiled yoghurt, and similarly unstable, it must be it isn’t craft at all. 

After all, when facing natural wine, it is helpful to remember wine is more than just fermented grape juice. Also, while we hold the wine’s complexity in high esteem, as in a wine’s ability to change and transform, it is vital for these transformations to make the wine better in terms of deepened balance, persistence and progression on the palate.

4. Natural wine tasting and pairing

How to taste and appreciate natural wine

There should be no general difference in approach towards natural wines or conventional ones. Natural wines can have more intense flavors and aromas and some necessary adjustments are required for certain wine types, such as amber (orange) wines, but apart from some adjustments, there is no need to invent the wheel again.

  • You should be open-minded to experiencing different aromas, generally. It is ok to have expectations, but it could be counterproductive to imply any prejudices to unfamiliar wines. If you’re unafraid to explore new scents, you have the necessary prerequisites for wine tasting.
  • Consider the wine’s context. Think about where the wine comes from and how it’s made, as well as what foods it might pair well with.
  • Take your time. Natural wines, if unfamiliar to you, can take a bit longer to get to know than conventional wines, so don’t rush to decide whether you like it or not.

Natural wines can be unpredictable. It could be possible that you don’t like a natural wine the first time you try it, just as any other wine from a unknown culture, but find that you might enjoy it more the next time you taste it. It takes time and experience to appreciate the nuances of natural wine.

Natural wines can sometimes be more volatile or have slight off-flavours. Do not discard the wine immediately because it might be an irrelevant characteristic of the wine, not the fault.

Recommendations for food pairings with natural wine

Natural wine can offer a unique and complex flavour profile. Contrary to the dominant opinion that natural wines are challenging to pair with food, the truth is opposite. Natural wines in all their shades and colors cover almost any imaginable meal.

Recommendations for food pairings with natural wine are “surprisingly” similar to suggestions for (any) wine food pairings:

  1. Go for fresh and simple flavors: For example, a crisp white natural wine can be paired with a salad of fresh greens and a light vinaigrette dressing. No surprises there.
  2. Match acidity with acidity: To match acidity in wine with acidity in your food is nothing new as well. For example, a wine with a higher acidity can be paired with a dish with a similar acidity, such as a tomato-based pasta sauce or it could be paired with a dish with low acidity and high-fat content for example, to counter it in the right way.
  3. Experiment with different cuisines: The flavours and textures of different cuisines can offer a wide range of food and wine pairings. For example, a natural wine with a lot of minerality can pair well with the flavours of Asian cuisine, particularly those with bold spices and umami flavours.
  4. Think about the region: Many natural wines come from specific regions, so it can be helpful to consider the local cuisine when choosing food pairings. After all, the whole idea of authenticity is the reason why you are having this glass of Pošip with your gilthead bream in the first place.
  5. Be open-minded: Natural wines can be unpredictable, so don’t be afraid to experiment with different food and wine pairings. And don’t be afraid to break the “rules” of traditional wine pairing. For example, a rich, full-bodied red natural wine might pair well with certain lighter, delicate fish dishes.

Ultimately, the key to successful food and wine pairings with natural wine is to keep an open mind and experiment with different flavours and textures. Take notes or memories of what you liked and didn’t like, and over time, you’ll develop a sense of what pairings work best for you.

5. Finding and buying natural wine

Where to find natural wine (speciality stores, online retailers, natural wine bars)

Now, that’s the question where all falls apart and the whole “revolution starts to consume its children”. Since it is very arbitrary to divide wines to natural and others, most often named “conventional”, you can basically open a physical or online store, declare it natural and sell whatever wines you want. 

There are numerous “certificators” who also sell their influence and charge their certificate to vintners. Some are more dedicated than others, but they also do not certificate the most important thing – quality of the wine.

Simply because wine is declared natural, does it mean it is better than conventional?

Just like there are numerous stores dedicated to natural wines, and more and more conventional retailers that add this “natural niche” to their offerings, there are growing numbers of mediocre and lesser wines of poor quality sold at higher prices, because they are “natural”.

To keep the obscure status, all in desire to charge additionally for a wine which would otherwise be impossible to sell, such natural winemakers will avoid all usual distribution channels. Hence, the specialised “natural” stores and specialised distributors are their only exit.

On the other hand, equally devious is the practice of conventional channels as they will arrange with the conventional mass-production factories to produce “organic”, “bio”, “amber/orange” and why not “vegan-friendly” and “sulfur-free” wine. But, of course, their sulfur-free wine being the result of some experiment in which sulfur is extracted from wine by chemical processes in order to replace it with some experimental stabiliser, will take little scrutiny from consumers unburdened with all this.

All because of the idea that natural wines should cost more than modern conventional ones.

It seems the only choice for a wine lover is in personal experience, often forged on specialized wine festivals and from personal recommendations. Lack of knowledge could be overcomed by experience, as many of the best natural winemakers started doing “natural wines” before the whole natural revolution started. When there was no natural wine market, only fine wine markets were there.

Today, speciality stores, online shops and bars are dedicated to natural wines. As if natural wines weren’t always present in retail stores and good bars, regardless of the natural prefix.

It seems that, more often than not, natural prefix will only guarantee higher price, not better quality.

Tips for shopping for natural wine (deciphering labels, identifying reliable producers)

Regardless of unwanted outcomes of naturalistic revolution, the essential idea of natural wines is pure. As a natural reaction to mass production and consumption of characterless wines, there are many reasons why this is a highly contagious and growing movement. Again, someone who has followed naturalistic philosophy for some time now might conclude that he still supports naturalness in wines, but cannot support the agenda promoting poor and borderline harmful wines. At a higher price, of course.

Truly substantial, authentic, soulful wines don’t need the prefix natural. They are natural from way before somebody started using this arbitrary prefix. They are mostly sought after and harder to get without regulating market demand with a price increase.

The only useful tip for shopping natural wine today is – trustful source. But, unfortunately, the fundamental flaw of the natural wine revolution is the “either us or them” sectarianism. 

Rather seek authentic, good wines from smaller producers that possess a sense of place and transfer you to that place in a cultural sense. Most often, these wines also are natural, without having to label them “eco”, “bio”, “organic”, “biodynamic”, as these attributes never became the commercial criteria for them.

If you don’t know how to begin with, you write down (or take a photo) the wines you liked and contact a store asking for a recommendation based on these wines only in natural wine philosophy. Many online stores would appreciate the challenge and the opportunity to share their wine passion. 

6. Conclusion

Recap of the main points about natural wine

  • There is no universal definition of natural wines. However, it is generally accepted to consider wines natural if made from grapes grown and harvested in a traditional or organic manner, made and bottled without any additional preservatives, fining agents, or any other additives, and often unfiltered.
  • Several practices can be defined as either organic, biodynamic or other. Once there was no need to separate wines by that attribute.
  • There are many prejudices about natural wines, most of which result from wrong consumer experiences or misconceptions.
  • The positive health effects of natural wines should be taken for granted, but even about that issue, one should be careful and informed.
  • It is crucial to be patient and open-minded with natural wine and its different aromas and to taste wines in their entirety.
  • When buying wines, seek out a trustworthy source or, if you do not have enough time to investigate on your own, choose based on a guided recommendation from the store.

Encouragement to try natural wine and discover its many mysteries for oneself

The goal and purpose of natural winemaking should be to produce wine that is a true expression of the place where the grapes are grown and of the people who made the wine. Natural wines are often considered more authentic and unique than those made using more traditional methods, as they are not subjected to the same type of manipulation.

Yet, all viticulture is manipulation. Natural winemaking is simply a different approach, one that values the natural environment and endeavors to work in harmony with nature. The benefits are many: health benefits from reduced or eliminated preservatives (and sulfites); environmental benefits through sustainable farming practices; but naturalness alone is not sufficient to achieve the necessary balance – the balance between Place, Variety, and a Winemaker… as Terry Theise wrote in Reading between the wines, We need wines that tell us in no uncertain terms, “I hail from this place and this alone, not from any other, for only here am I at home”. Such wines transport us to those places. 

It is not enough to be “natural” to accomplish that. It’s not “you’re either with us or against us”. It’s always the third way, the way of true knowledge and wisdom.

We invite you to join us on this natural wine journey and discover the wonders of natural wines! Cheers!

Nenad Trifunovic
Professional Wine drinker ;)

Moderator of a series of wine workshops and educator of wine course (Wine Reading), promoter of table culture and wine writer, most famous as an author of the most influential Croatian wine blog (vinopija.com).

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