Trying to Define Natural Wine
Natural wines are being featured more and more on store shelves and wine lists, but what does it mean to be called a natural wine? And are they really better for you?
There is no standard legal definition for natural wine, but the term is intended for wines with minimal intervention. In an effort to classify these wines, France created a natural wine certification with 12 requirements to be labeled as such. However, similar certifications have not yet been established in other countries.
Typically, natural wines are made from grapes grown organically or biodynamically, although not a requirement. Most natural wines have the following similar characteristics:
- Minimal or no sulfites are used in the winemaking process
- Ambient yeast rather than cultured yeast are used for fermentation
- No additives
- They avoid winemaking techniques like filtering or fining
Let’s look at each of these factors a little more closely to help us understand the differences…
Sulfur dioxide (SO2) is often used throughout the winemaking process as an antioxidant and anti-microbial agent, meaning it both helps to slow down the process of oxidation and reduce the risk of bacteria. Although wines cannot be sulfite free because a small amount is naturally produced as a byproduct of the fermentation process, the less added is considered better practice. The risk of using no sulfur is that bacteria can occur and give wines funky aromas and flavors. This is why some natural winemakers opt to use a small amount at bottling to reduce this risk.
Grape juice becomes wine through fermentation, which requires the presence of yeast to convert the sugar to alcohol. For natural wines, winemakers tend to rely on native yeasts, which are the yeast naturally occurring in the vineyard and/or cellar. Many organic, biodynamic and sustainable winemakers also rely on native yeasts. In addition to these yeast being more sustainable, they are also believed to enhance the expression of terroir in a wine.
Conventional winemaking uses cultured yeasts, which have been grown in labs specifically for winemaking. The benefit to cultured yeasts is they are more reliable meaning fermentation will occur at a certain rate and produce a consistent style of wine.
At two points in the winemaking process adjustments can be made—to grape must before it goes through fermentation and following fermentation. Adjustments include adding substances to reduce alcohol, increase or decrease acid, increase tannin and alter color.
Many regions of the world, especially European nations, do not allow for certain adjustments to be made regardless of whether the wine is natural or conventional. In other countries, such as the United Sates, conventional winemaking allows for a variety of additives to be used, and while legally natural wines are also allowed to make adjustments, the majority do not. Natural winemakers believe in the philosophy “nothing added, nothing removed.”
Invasive Winemaking Techniques
Natural wines tend to be cloudy because fining and filtering techniques are not used. Both processes remove sediment and small particles that can cause a wine to look cloudy, but simultaneously may also remove some of the desired attributes of the wine.
Racking is a process where wine is transferred from one vessel to another and during this process the sediment that sinks to the bottom of the vessel is not transferred with the wine. This is the most natural way to remove sediment from the wine without the risk of stripping it of some of its distinctive aroma and flavor compounds.
Where this all gets confusing is that the best quality wines have been made with minimal intervention for centuries, but aren’t labeled ‘natural’. The vintners have consistently cared for the land and grapes and intentionally created wines with the least amount of intervention in order to showcase the sense of place where the grapes are grown. In fact, in French there is not a word for winemaker because they believe it is the terroir and nature that produce the wine, not human intervention.
The trending natural wine category seems to be taking some of this to the extreme without any intervention, which sometimes leads to, well, not so delicious wines. It would be unfortunate for the term natural to become associated with funky, lower quality wines rather than with wines that have been produced naturally for centuries by producers who do just enough to assist Mother nature in expressing each vintage.
It’s worth trying some of the natural wines on the market, but I also suggest seeking out wineries who may not be labeled natural but use minimal intervention. The best resource for this is your local wine shop.
If we use the same principle we do with food— the least processed food is better for us—then it seems silly to even argue that wine produced with minimal intervention is better for us.