Drinks

What Exactly is Natural Wine? We Asked an Expert

You probably need a glass.

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With selections popping up on restaurant menus to full-blown dedicated shops and bars opening their doors, natural wine is slowly making its way into the mainstream. If you’re a wine drinker, there’s a decent chance you’ve heard of the term “natural wine.” And if you haven’t — you might be thinking that wine is made from grapes, so it’s inherently natural, right? Not exactly. When you look at a label, it doesn’t give you a lot of information about how the wine was made. As it turns out, there’s a lot more going on inside these bottles than the pretty labels suggest.

We sat down with Katherine Clary, editor and publisher of The Wine Zine, a biannual print magazine all about natural wine, and author of the forthcoming book Wine, Unfiltered, an illustrated introduction to natural wine (you can preorder it ahead of its May 2020 release here), to talk all things natural wine.

Here’s some insight into the elusive drink from this self-made sommelier.

What exactly does it mean for wine to be “natural”?

Natural wine doesn’t actually have a legal definition, unlike organic or biodynamic. “Natural” is really just a term that has been coined by the community and refers to a style of winemaking and ultimately, a style of wine. Natural wine starts with organic grapes and native yeast and has very little added to it and very little taken away. It’s also sometimes referred to as “low intervention” wine. 

How is natural wine different than regular wine?
Natural wine is never filtered — it’s left untouched. As such, you might find that some natural wine has a bit of sediment or cloudiness. This doesn’t make it any less clean than conventional wine — it just makes it a little different.

Conventional wine is usually heavily manipulated. People will filter a wine to clarify it, which can alter the body of a wine and strip a lot of its nuances. When you filter a wine, it can be done with an actual physical filter, or it can be “fined,” which involves using animal-derived fining agents like fish eyes, egg whites, and all sorts of weird materials that bind to the sediment for removal. This means a lot of conventional wine isn’t technically vegetarian, which is something a lot of people might not realize. 

What about additives?
Conventional wine is also packed with all sorts of additives, and the grapes themselves are frequently grown with pesticides and herbicides. Natural wine always starts with organic grapes that are fermented without anything added to alter the flavor, color, body, or alcohol content. There’s a phrase that’s commonly used when it comes to describing natural wine — it’s “nothing added, nothing taken away.” It’s pretty much just pure grapes fermented with native yeasts and bottled. 

How does being “natural” affect the flavor?
I wouldn’t say natural wine always tastes different, it’s more that you might notice some qualities about the wine that tend to be removed from conventional wine, like the sediment. I personally find that natural wine tastes a lot more alive. It might have higher acid, or it might be brighter, or it might taste a little bit more fermented (think kombucha-like) than you’re used to. Some natural wines can be a bit of an acquired taste. But you know, there are plenty of natural wines that are super clean and taste just like a classic wine. 

What are some of the benefits of drinking natural wine over a conventional wine? 
Something I always start out with stating is that even if it’s natural, it’s still alcohol — so it’s still a toxin. Alcohol is always best consumed in moderation. But I find that the benefits of natural wine mimic a lot of the benefits of eating whole foods and eating organic: By not consuming pesticides and herbicides, you’re reducing levels of cancer causing agents in your body and you’re consuming something closer to its original form. The benefits will be apparent once you consume a natural wine from a trusted source; most notably being that you’ll probably feel a lot better the next day.

Do natural wines have sulfites?
Sulfites are a naturally derived preservative that basically suspends a wine in time. They’ll keep wines from oxidizing when oxygen gets introduced to a wine. They are naturally occurring in wine from the fermentation process, so pretty much all wines, including natural, will have a limited amount of sulfites. But when we talk about natural wine, it’s usually little-to-no-added sulfites, whereas conventional wines will usually have an excessive amount.

So does this affect hangovers? I swear I never get hungover when I drink natural wine. 
Some people will claim that sulfites contribute to hangovers, but there is no proof of that. There are a lot of reasons conventional wine will give you a hangover, from the ingredients that may have been added like sugar to spike the alcohol levels, or the added preservatives in themselves might have a negative effect on your body. 

If a wine is listed as “organic” does that mean it’s natural?
Absolutely not. Organic wine only means that the grapes themselves were grown organically. But after that point a conventional winemaker can still manipulate the natural integrity of the wine. Natural winemakers have a very low intervention, kind of an Old World approach, and their process involves much more than just using organic grapes.

What about biodynamic? How does it differ from organic?Biodynamic is a form of farming that was developed by Austrian farmer and philosopher Rudolph Steiner in the 1920s. It’s a discipline of farming that’s pretty esoteric: You take into account the moon cycles and that determines when you plant your seed and harvest your fruit, as well using a variety of herbs in the soil which contribute to the health of your land. There are three prongs of farming methods that frequently get mixed up: organic, biodynamic, and natural. I would say natural wine always starts with organic or biodynamic grapes, but organic and biodynamic grapes don’t always make a natural wine. 

Where are natural wines produced?
Really everywhere — they’re not limited to one particular region. You’ll find natural wine being made anywhere from Upstate New York to Mexico, and from Australia to Italy. Nearly anywhere you can grow grapes, you’ll find someone trying it. 

Can you tell if a wine is natural based on its label?
Unfortunately, not really. There are a lot of really cool, beautifully designed labels these days that might signify that there’s something more innovative happening, but I don’t think it’s trustworthy enough. Mind you, if it says “natural” on a label, I would be suspicious because the term doesn’t mean anything yet. Some people are fighting to have natural be legally defined in the wine world but as it stands, only organic and biodynamic are the things that require regulation.

So how do you buy natural wine? I need a glass like, now. 
Go to your local wine shop and ask for it, they should know what they have in stock. I really recommend dropping subtle hints and expressing an interest in this type of wine; it’s the only way we’ll see increased availability. You can also purchase it online (if your state allows!). My two favorite online shops are KingstonWine.com and HenrysBK.com. I also regularly highlight shops and wine bars in The Wine Zine, and my book will have an index of every natural wine shop and bar in the USA, which was generously provided by the natural wine app Raisin

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