Natural wine: It’s a term that seems to be popping up all over the place lately. Maybe a new wine bar opened up in your neighborhood touting the term, or you grabbed a bottle off the shelf and noticed the phrase on the label. Sure, it sounds appealing, but what exactly does it mean? Isn’t all wine “natural”? And why is it so popular?
First: Be careful not to confuse natural wine with organic, sustainable, or biodynamic wines. These sound very similar, but can mean different things. USDA certified organic wine, for example, is legally regulated, while wines labeled as “sustainably produced” do not have to follow those same regulations. Biodynamic wines try to keep additives to a minimum, but incorporate additional practices into their winemaking, like astrology and the lunar calendar (yes, really!).
In theory, natural wine is wine made with minimal additives or chemicals. Sounds great, right? Yes—but there are actually no laws or set rules to define “natural wine,” so winemaking practices can vary greatly, as can quality. In other words, don’t buy the bottle just because it’s “natural”—it might not be.
Another thing to note: While adding extra stuff to your wine may sound like a bad thing, winemakers have actually been relying on additives to improve wine quality for centuries, and many of the world’s most renowned wines contain additives. The most common is sulfur dioxide, which controls fermentation and oxidation. Ever forgotten to finish a bottle and been disappointed to find that it turned vinegary? Yep, blame oxidation. Keep in mind, though, that sulfites occur naturally in all wines—ones with no sulphur added just have significantly less.
Beyond sulphur, a wine’s “natural” label can mean a lot of different things. Some winemakers might start with organic grapes, but then alter the final product by filtering or clarifying the wine. Others might call their wine “natural” because it doesn’t contain artificial coloring—yes, unfortunately, that’s a thing—or because it’s made with only hand-harvested grapes, or because it’s only made with wild yeasts.
Many of these winemaking practices result in wines that might have more sediment in the bottle or have a cloudy appearance. They might take on a slightly sour flavor reminiscent of cider, or taste tangy or funky—though this isn’t true of all natural wines. That’s part of the appeal for natural wine lovers: Each one is unique, with its own philosophy behind it.
When buying natural wine, it’s important to keep in mind that many times, the vintner made a deliberate choice in deviating from traditional winemaking practices, and the way they chose may not have been the easiest route to winemaking. If a bottle catches your eye, be sure to ask your wine shop more about the label, or investigate on the winery’s website. They can tell you more about why the winemaker made certain choices, which can help you learn more about your own wine preferences!
So, if you want to go au naturale, where should you begin?
One tip: It helps to have a general knowledge of the traditional form of the wine you’re trying. Start with a grape that you know and love, then pick up a few “natural” counterparts from your local wine store, being sure to learn more about the specific practices that went behind the “natural” label. Then, pour the wines side-by-side and compare. You might be amazed to find how different an unfiltered Pinot Noir tastes than your go-to weeknight bottle, or discover that a natural Sauvignon Blanc brings out different flavors in your favorite cheese than your old standby. That’s the beauty of thoughtfully-made natural wine: It’s a chance to enjoy a grape you love while getting to know it in a whole new way.
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