Natural wines are surprising, unique and unpredictable.Their flaws make them exciting but draw their fair share of critics. Whether you’re a fan or not, natural wine deserves attention for pushing the wine industry to be more sustainable and transparent.
The world of natural wine is filled with weird jargon and loosely defined terms, starting with the term “natural wine” itself. The difference between conventional and natural wines is more of a spectrum than a definitive line with plenty of room for interpretation in between. Here are nine definitions to study up on to begin your exploration into the natural wine world:
Loosely defined as low-intervention winemaking that avoids the use of manufactured chemicals and modern processing machinery. On the farm, grapes are grown without the use of pesticides or chemical fertilizers and are picked by hand. In the cellar, wine is fermented without additives.
Instead of the conventional method of adding industrial yeasts to the grape juice to prompt a controlled, predictable fermentation, yeasts naturally occurring in the air and environment are left to interact with the grape juice to prompt fermentation. These “wild” or “native” yeasts have been used to make alcohol for most of history, as well as sourdough bread and other fermented products. This type of fermentation results in unpredictable and exciting natural wines.
Unfiltered and Unfined
Natural wines avoid the processes of filtering and fining, where solids and sediments in the wine are separated from the liquid by a variety of methods. These “brutal technologies” are thought to remove much of the wine’s character and complexity.
SO2 is a chemical found naturally in the environment and in all wines. All conventional winemakers add additional SO2 to their wines to maintain freshness and decrease oxidation. Natural winemakers add little to no SO2 to their wines, causing them to be more delicate yet expressive of their environment.
Organic wines are made with grapes grown without pesticides. All natural wine is organic but not all organic wine is natural. Organic grapes may still be grown using naturally derived chemicals that are avoided in producing natural wines. Wines are certified organic by the USDA or an equivalent international organization.
Animal products such as fish bladders, egg whites and gelatin are commonly used in the fining process, so conventional wines are not usually vegan. Since natural wines are not usually fined, they are more often vegan.
A holistic, homeopathic method of farming and winemaking based on the ideas of Austrian philosopher Rudolph Steiner. Focused on sustainability, biodynamic farmers strive to create a complete ecosystem rather than a monocrop. Vineyard maintenance is regulated by a special biodynamic calendar that includes unusual practices such as burying cow horns around the vineyard. Most view this type of farming as a mix of science and pseudoscience, but there’s no doubt that some incredible wines are being produced using this method.
One of the most common and vague words used to describe the flavor of natural wine. While traditionally describing a wine as funky means something is off, for natural wine, funky means that the wine exhibits unconventional tasting notes, or more specifically, “barnyard” flavors and aromas.
Mousey taint is a flavor note found occasionally in conventional wines but more commonly in natural wines. It is caused by low sulfur dioxide levels and high levels of certain bacterial strains. Heavy mousiness is compared to dog breath or cheese biscuits and is generally undesirable. In low doses, mousiness is comparable to leather or moss and is embraced when well-balanced.
Where to Buy Natural Wine
If you want to try some natural wine, it can be difficult to find on the isles of a grocery store. Visiting a local natural wine store is a great place to start, such as Miracle Plum in Santa Rosa, Ordinare in Oakland or Primal Wine in Los Angeles. Many restaurants also include natural wines on their wine lists. There are also plenty of online retailers you can order natural wines from, including Natural Merchants and Scout & Cellar.