What is 'natural' wine?

Jonathan Goodall / 19 October 2011

‘Natural’ is now the in-thing in the vineyard, but what results can you expect from this hands-off approach to winemaking?

If you like unpasteurised, runny Camembert, organic milk, free-range eggs and the like, then ‘natural’ wines could be for you. Natural is the buzz word in the wine world at the moment – and as much about a philosophy for life as winemaking.

What makes a wine 'natural'?

Wine is essentially a natural product that, left to its own devices, can make itself. A quantity of grapes left in a barrel will crush the fruit at the bottom, releasing juice that starts to ferment, thanks to natural yeasts.

So, winemaking philosophies boil down to how much control you want to take. Most makers use an arsenal of additives and techniques to make sound, consistent wines, while natural winemakers tend to favour a hands-off approach.

What additives are used in winemaking?

Being an agricultural product, the same wine will vary from one vintage to the next, but the degree of ripeness can be addressed by adding sugar or tartaric acid.

Most conventional winemakers use cultivated yeast strains, some add powdered tannins, others put oak chips in the wine. All of these are done to ‘correct’ what nature has – or hasn’t – provided.

Adding sulphur dioxide to wines, to act as both a preservative and disinfectant, is the norm. While sulphur does provoke allergic reactions in some and can be detrimental to asthma sufferers, it is a naturally occurring element.

How is natural wine made?

The central tenet of natural winemaking is minimum intervention. Generally, they begin the process with organically or biodynamically grown grapes. Biodynamics is a type of organic farming that involves tending the vines according to the lunar cycle.

Most natural winemakers harvest their grapes by hand; use naturally occurring yeasts; do not use any of the additives mentioned above; frown upon the use of new oak barrels and the flavours they impart. They bottle their wines unfiltered, which is why many are cloudy. Their use of sulphur is discretionary, so look for labels stating sulphite-free.

Are natural wines worth buying?

Natural winemakers believe in allowing the grapes fully to express themselves and a sense of where they were grown – so how good are the results?

When it works, natural wines can taste thrillingly pure and vibrant, but in bad years they can taste feral, farmyard-y and ‘funky’ (not encouraged in the wine trade). There are, however, no officially recognised definitions or regulations governing natural winemaking, so it’s a case of ‘let the buyer beware’.

Sadly, less also costs more. Natural wines are made on an artisanal scale so you won’t find any cheap ones or find them in the supermarkets yet. But if natural techniques prompt major winemakers at least to question their own methods, this must be a good thing. The future for natural wines? Cloudy with a silver lining.

Where to buy natural wine





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