Natural wine is ancient and trendy at the same time; it’s not a new type of wine as people have been making wine without additives for thousands of years. Natural wines have become a source of heated debate between wine aficionados; with natural wine purists arguing for its virtue and thrilling taste, and traditionalists criticising the perceived flaws.
What is natural wine?
Natural wine is much more of a concept than a well-defined category with standard agreed-upon characteristics. In its purest form, natural wine is made from fermented grape juice and nothing else.
Many people take issue with the term ‘natural wine’, preferring phrases like ‘naked wine’ or ‘raw wine’ instead. But natural wine is the term that is most widely used and most restaurants or wine stores will know what you mean by that.
Understanding natural wine requires a basic grasp of the winemaking process; in the simplest terms the winemaking process is made up of two main parts. The growing and picking of the grapes, and then turning them into wine through fermentation. Natural wine is produced from grapes that haven’t been sprayed with any pesticides or herbicides. Natural winemakers also handpick their grapes instead of relying on machines to harvest them; and when it comes time to turn the grapes into wine, they rely on native yeast – this is the stuff that is floating about in the air and will land on the grapes if you put them in a vat for long enough, to set off natural fermentation.
What isn’t natural wine?
‘Conventional’ winemaking is non-natural wine, it is defined by technical intervention. In the vineyard, that intervention comes in the form of pesticides and herbicides. In the cellar, intervention comes in the form of lab-grown yeast, acid and sulphites added at the time of bottling. Many winemakers also add in sugar, which doesn’t make the wine sweet but instead, through turning into alcohol, creates the perception of “body”.
On top of all these interventions, there are lots of approved additives that winemakers can include in order to manipulate wines without listing them on the label.
Conventional wine, the stuff we are used to seeing in supermarkets and drinking at home; is less than a century old. Pesticides only became widespread after World War II, and commercial yeast entered the market in the mid ‘60s.
Where did natural wine come from, and where is it going?
Most wine experts would agree that the modern natural wine movement began in rural France; where a small handful of low-intervention winemakers found out about each other and began growing a community of like minded individuals. This then grew into a worldwide community of winemakers and wine drinkers who want to embrace the natural way of drinking wine. With natural wine being stocked in many popular restaurants all over the world, natural wine is a popular alternative to the conventional stuff.
With the issue of climate change becoming more dire every single day, natural winemaking gains more traction as a way to protect the earth. Natural wine begins with organically or biodynamically farmed grapes, which are grown without pesticides, herbicides or any other chemicals. The most difficult issues facing the consumers of natural wine is being able to identify it as face value.