The Beginner’s Guide To Natural Wine
We get to the bottom of the trend.
As you tug a glass of wine up towards your mouth, it usually goes something like this: you give it a slight swirl, a sniff, and lift the wine to your lips. Sommelier or not, you may get hints of chocolate, cherry, or apricot. But these days, there’s a whole host of funkier flavors making their way onto the palate. With the rising popularity of natural wine, vino-lovers are discovering the difference for themselves. Whether it's via the wine list at a hip local restaurant, or through a bottle of the month club — increasingly natural wines are making their way into the mainstream.
But, within this category also comes an entirely new vocabulary intended to help explain the breadth of styles. “Barnyard-y” is a perfectly respectable way to describe funky notes found in unfiltered oranges. “Glou Glou” is a term that in french means “glug glug,” referring to a type of natural red wine that’s light and easy to chug down. And along with all these new phrases also comes the often-confounding marketing terms that may not mean anything at all.
So what exactly defines a natural wine? It begins with the process. Whereas conventionally, wines are bulk harvested and preserved in large batches using industrial yeast and additives to ensure that every bottle retains the same flavor, natural wines are harvested in a more simplistic way: picked by hand, fermented with natural yeast, and with minimal intervention throughout the finishing process.
“Natural winemaking is a lot of babysitting,” says Issamu Kamide, co-founder of natural wine label Wonderwerk LA. “The term ‘low intervention’ sometimes gets used to imply you put grapes into a bucket and you make wine. But for us, it’s thinking about it, and talking, and making sure that we can steer this ferment in the right direction to make sure it creates this beautiful expression of the fruit that you’re trying to achieve.”
Though it may not be visible in the finished product, ”there's an ethical element to natural wine and winemaking,” adds Guido Cattabianchi, the founder and CEO of Primalwine. “Everyone who contributes to making natural wine, starting from farmworkers, should be treated fairly; wine is a farming product that's where everything starts. It makes no sense to consider a wine natural because it's made with no added sulfites, but then the farmers who, say, picked the grapes can't take a bathroom break and are paid poorly.”
What Does Natural Wine Consist Of?
Natural wine is by no means a new concept, in fact it’s closer to the traditional ways wine has been made for thousands of years. “A lot of producers in Europe have always made wine naturally, way before natural wine was a thing,” says Cattabianchi. “In the US things are a bit different, it's a newer phenomenon, even though there are a few winemakers who always made wine naturally – like California OG natural winemaker Tony Coturri.”
Though there is no official definition of what constitutes a natural wine, the movement is tied to the idea of minimizing additives or chemicals often found in conventional wines. In order to successfully make natural wines outside of conventional methods, it’s often necessary to produce in smaller batches, simply because of how labor intensive the process can be. Natural wines can also be risky for the winemakers, as the chemicals and technologies used to correct any issues during convention production cannot be used. This means more variety and ultimately the opportunity to create more interesting, unusually flavored wines. But, for a new drinker it can also mean that you encounter flavors outside of your comfort zone.
As natural wines have grown in popularity categorically, certain styles have become particularly buzzy, like orange wine, a skin-contact style made when white grapes are fermented with the skin and seeds still in contact with the juice. “People don’t exactly know what natural wine is, but they know what orange wine is,” says Andrew Lardy, co-founder of Wonderwerks LA. “I’m pretty sure that we started seeing orange wine hit the market and really became a thing before ‘natural wine,’ that phrase, entered the conversation.”
Kamide compares the journey of natural wine in the US to that of coffee. “Everyone knows what cold brew is, they can maybe tell you what nitro is. These terms that people use to define certain styles. Remember when you had a cappuccino and Australians came over and called them flat whites? Now people have flat whites and it’s like you don’t necessarily know the difference between a cappuccino and a flat white, but that’s something you can order. It’s very similar to coffee in how people approach that.”
But even for the educated consumer, navigating the natural wine space can be confusing. “There are so many wines out there that obscure the details,” says Cedric Nicaise, wine director of Vivaneterre. “Where are the grapes coming from, where is the wine made, who is doing the wine making. All these important facts that you should have the ability to know right away. So we wanted to make wine where all the details are out there. Great wine is simple in concept, responsible farming, and the end result has to be delicious. I love the term ‘delicious’ because it's different for everyone, and it's hard for anyone to describe it, but when you taste something that is delicious you just know, even if you can't totally put into words why.”
With the rise of natural wine has come a lot of interest around other often equated terms like vegan, organic, and biodynamic wines. But, while there may be some overlap on the venn diagrams of what constitutes each, in reality these terms are complicated and come with their own unique sets of parameters that can become muddled by marketing. “There is a huge difference between being Biodynamic or Organic which have very strict rules governing how you farm and ‘natural’ which is simply a catch all phrase and legally has no meaning,” says Nicaise. “People who are farming ‘naturally’ can use whichever framework they would like and that works for them, if you follow biodynamic principles there are very strict guidelines as to what is allowed and not allowed.”
What People Are Getting Wrong
In addition, as natural wine grows in popularity, experts find themselves faced with misconceptions, both about the process and the finished product. “A lot of non-natural wine drinkers initially think that the wine is off and that the winemaker must not know what they're doing because they're used to certain styles and tastes depending on region and grape varietal,” says Kamide. “Thus, some folks might think making natural wine is easy or doesn't require the same skill or training as demanded by the high end Napa or Bordeaux estates — but by eschewing the use of chemicals or certain ‘interventionist’ processes, a natural winemaker must develop entirely different or unique sets of skills that come from years of practice in their cellar and with their vineyards or fruit.”
Kamide adds that another common misconception is that “sulfur is the enemy.” Lardy explains that many “organic” wines work with organic fruit but use sulfur in the vineyard, though it may not make it into the bottle. “There are always going to be some sulfites present from fermentation and when we produce wine,” Lardy says. “We like to add no more than 30 parts per million of sulfur and we try to wait until the very end for bottling. We really [focus on] preventative winemaking — seeing problems before they happen and have to be treated with a massive wallop of sulfur or other chemical treatments. In this way we preclude the use of them just by being there and anticipating what needs to be done to the wine.”
Popular Natural Wines
As natural wines are unfined and unfiltered, and by nature are made in smaller batches, it’s often the case that they can taste unusual to someone dipping a toe in for the first time. You may be surprised to learn that “barnyard” is an aroma many natural wine enthusiasts look for — an inherent earthiness that often appears in natural wines. And while orange wines may be the first natural wine to take off with American consumers, there are other types that are quickly rising through the ranks. A Pét-Nat, also known as a pétillant naturel, is a sparkling natural wine similar to a champagne, but can be made with a wider range of grapes. Since it’s bottled while still in the fermentation process, the finished wine is much harder to predict than a traditional sparkling wine, leading to an unexpected range of flavors — from a sourness akin to kombucha, to an earthy touch of umami.
Another on-the-rise option to look out for is the Piquette. This low ABV drink is made from adding water to leftover grape skins. Wonderwerk’s 2021 vintage includes a piquette that Kamide deems one of their most exciting projects at the moment. “We’re adding Oaxaca hibiscus, Japanese plum … the point of the experimentation is to recreate some of the structures found in regular wine and are inherently absent in a piquet. Higher acidity, a little bit more alcohol … [when] we get to do that kind of stuff is when we have the most fun.”
Ultimately, for those exploring natural wine for the first time, one of the best ways to get a sense of what level of funkiness fits your comfort level is by asking the experts. As more options appear in local wine stores and on the menu at your favorite weekday haunts, you have the chance to try wines made in smaller batches, ultimately with a breadth of flavors than what you’ve experienced before. Part of the fun in testing out this corner of the wine world, is you never know exactly what you're going to get. Sip accordingly.
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