Low-Intervention Wine: Natural Wine Does Its Own Thing

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Three times next month, in Montreal, NYC, and then LA, the RAW WINE Fair will bring hundreds of natural winemakers together with thousands of people who like to drink their wine. It’s been going on for six years and that fact might make you ask:

What the heck is a natural wine?

Here’s a little guide to natural wine — what it means and how it tastes — and whether you should bother picking up a bottle of natural wine tonight. (Short answer: Why the heck not?)

What does natural wine mean?

Legally? Nothing.

Unlike, for example, organic, the term “natural” is not regulated. But those declaring themselves part of the natural wine club generally tend to adhere to a few basic guidelines, such as:

  • Using grapes grown organically, biodynamically, or as close to one of those as possible
  • Sometimes relying only on ambient yeast for fermentation
  • Adding a minimum amount of sulfur dioxide, or none at all
  • Eschewing additives entirely

While not every natural winemaker follows all of these restrictions, the self-imposed limitations are meant to produce wine that’s as close to grapes plus time as the winemaker can make it.

And that means two things become really important: the winemaker has to be good, and the grapes have to be even better.

How additives turn sub-par grapes into decent wine

Some bottles of wine are cheaper than a bottle of water. And the reason those bottom barrel wines don’t all taste like antifreeze mixed with grape Kool-Aid is: additives.

It’s no secret cheap wine comes from cheaply grown, cheaply harvested grapes — how could they not? The ripeness, flavor character, and freshness of the grapes are far from guaranteed and additives can correct all kinds of faults stemming from poor grapes (and can also be used to speed up and/or standardize the winemaking process).

Additives can correct acid levels, clarify, stabilize, sterilize, boost yeast activity, and more. The US Code of Federal Regulations allows for more than 60 approved additives in wine and grape juice.

Some winemakers also rely on stuff called Mega Purple and Mega Red — grape concentrates that boost color, thickness, and flavor in many less-expensive (and a few pricy) traditionally produced wines.

Probably the most talked about difference between natural and traditional wine is the use of additional sulfur. While all wine contains sulfur already (it’s a byproduct of fermentation) additional sulfur dioxide is added in many traditional wines throughout the winemaking process.

Used as a stabilizer since Ancient Roman times, sulfur dioxide works as an antioxidative and antimicrobial agent in wine. Natural winemakers who strive to use as little as possible only add it at the end — or add none at all. In fact, certified organic wine can’t have any added any sulfites if they want to keep that USDA organic seal.

And when it comes to fermentation, the natural winemaker who foregoes adding domesticated yeast has to set up just the right environment for the ambient yeast — those beasties living in the air, on grape skins, and around the vineyard — to do its thing and not turn the whole batch into undrinkable composty sludge.

grapes vineyard wine sky
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Is natural wine better than traditional wine?

Not necessarily. It’s partly a matter of opinion, partly a matter of taste, and partly a matter of which bottle you pick up and which winemaker it came from. Just because a natural winemaker avoids additives, that doesn’t mean all other winemakers are tra-la-la-ing around their mega wineries chucking powdered chemicals and grape concentrates into vats willy nilly.

And just because natural winemakers use good grapes and skilled techniques, that doesn’t mean other winemakers use crap and their best guesses.

The thing that may set a natural wine apart from others is the fact that natural wine has little to hide behind. Since a natural winemaker can’t rely on additives to correct their wines, can’t add (much) sulfur to preserve it, and can’t control the fermentation with specific and strategic yeast added to sterilized grape juice, then everything must be on point for it to turn out right.

Which doesn’t mean it always does. There are many hits in natural wine, and plenty of misses too.

What does natural wine taste like?

When everything goes well, natural wines taste “alive” and will carry tangy, earthy, even bready notes from the wild yeast. When a natural wine turns out less than ideal, you get flavors of animal fur, barnyard funk, and, well, rotten grapes.

Beyond that, natural wine tastes exactly how you want it to taste, because every varietal of wine you already like, from chardonnay to Muscadet, is offered in a natural version, it’s just a matter of seeking it out.

And while you might not find much at your neighborhood grocery store, and you aren’t likely to find many bottles for less than $20 or $30, a small splurge at your local wine shop (or mega winemart) will let you bring home something pretty interesting, volatile, and skillfully unadulterated. Cheers.