Natural wine tends to cause a fuss. For some reason, certain people find it provocative that others enjoy their wine simple, clean and natural. Sure, natural wines might once in a while be out of the traditional box when it comes to style, but as with any wine, there are good and bad bottles. Can we at least agree on that?
About the Guest Contributor
Linn Johnsen is passionate about great wines, both conventional and natural, but her heart lies perhaps closer to the latter. At the moment, she is undertaking the prestigious wine education WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust), where she is currently studying for level 4 – Diploma. You can find more of her great writing at her own wine blog Vinstudinen (mostly in Norwegian).
The Short History of Natural Wine
With long historical roots, the growing trend of natural wines started with a revival by a kind of hippie movement a few decades ago. They were silently protesting against the increasing industrialization in the wine sector. While some claim that this was because of the fine-wine segment and their classical terroirs having reached astronomical prices, others point to the growing interest in organic and more real food, and believe that trend has transmitted to the wine market.
The combination of these two factors might, in fact, mean that we are looking at a new generation of wine drinkers that could transform the future wine market. Already, restaurants like Noma in Copenhagen, natural wine bars in London and Paris, and even traditional Michelin-starred restaurants in Paris are serving up some funky labels you would not dream about seeing at this level a few years back.
What is Natural Wine?
You may still be wondering: What is natural wine? Luckily, it’s not that complicated. In its purest form, natural wine is simply fermented grape juice – nothing added and nothing taken away. In practice, the wine is made from grapes grown either organically or biodynamically, fermented on its own yeast and without adding any chemicals. The hardcore winemakers will not even add sulfur at bottling, others might, but in very low quantities. Sulfur is a natural substance widely used for conserving both food and wine. While it has preservative abilities, higher doses might affect the taste of the wine.
The process of making natural wine means going further than what is required by the regulations for organic or biodynamic wines. While they both have their own certification systems, natural wine does not. This means we have to trust the producers. To be honest, there may never be a certification scheme for natural wine, since that means people would have to agree on some common denominators. Most likely, there’s always going to be someone who will insist on doing things slightly differently. So, look at the bright side – drinking natural wine will seriously expose you to the risk of reducing the intake of a symphony of chemicals often added to conventional wines. The planet and soil are treated more respectfully, and you might actually have some surprisingly refreshing moments where you realize what wine can be about in its purest and most natural form.
What is Orange Wine?
While natural wine comes in a wide variety of styles, colors, and origins – a few trends are particularly evident within natural wines. Not everything in life is black and white, nor white and red. You may have heard about orange wine? In a way, orange wines are white wines, but made the same way that red wines are made. The juice is not separated from the skins and pips immediately, and the pulp is left to macerate on the skins for some time depending on the style. That is why they are also referred to as skin contact wines. It gives the otherwise white wine tannins more color than a regular white wine, and often feels more meaty. Orange wines are known to be versatile and pairs with a broad range of food, also types of food that are traditionally considered difficult for wine pairing.
Read more: Orange Wine Explained by Linn (article in Norwegian)
What is Pétillant Naturel?
Another trend particularly seen in the natural wine segment, are the pét nats. Short for pétillant naturel, which in French means something like naturally sparkling. Pét nats are lightly sparkling wines made by the méthode ancestrale. This means that the grapes are grown under organic conditions, spontaneously fermented with wild yeast, and bottled before the naturally occurring yeasts have eaten all the sugar. The bottling is done without adding dosage – that mixture of wine, sugar, and yeasts that causes Champagne to have a second fermentation in the bottle. Hence, the fermentation continues in the bottle on the residual sugar, until it is completely dry. Either that or the fermentation stops by the gentle pressure that occurs in the bottle as the carbon dioxide dissolves in the wine.
Read more: Pet Nat for Dummies by Linn (article in Norwegian)
Why Should I Drink Natural Wine?
Taste! Like with anything edible or drinkable, natural wine should first and foremost taste good. The best are delicious, energetic and have the right balance between fruit, freshness, and alcohol. Some are complex, and others are more fruit forward and pure glou glou in style. And, guess what? The only expert on your taste – is you!
In addition to a potentially unique and great taste, there are also other benefits with natural wines. Just as with organic food, there is a deep concern for the environmental consequences of conventional agriculture and the possible health hazards of chemicals added to what we eat and drink. Winemakers working the natural way want to address all of these issues and the result is a clean product that tastes of what nature gives us.
Perhaps, you have also heard that the lack of additives supposedly has the magical power of not giving you a hangover? I fear that might be a myth, but, in either case – everything with moderation! Even natural wine.
Where Can I Find the Juice?
While you no longer have to be an elaborate street smart hipster to get a hold of these energetic drops of pure succulence (it could still help you to get a sip of the rarer bottles, I suspect), you might still wonder where to locate the best juice. Check out these guides and articles for instance:
Linn’s Guide to Wine Bars in Paris (article in Norwegian)
Linn’s Guide to Wine Bars in London (article in Norwegian)
Anders’ Guide to Natural Wine Bars in Oslo
Nice read! Maybe more guest contributions in the future could be fun?
Now I have learned that natural wines are not regulated at all. But is there a difference between natural and naked wine? And between organic and biodynamical? Ecological? I never seem to learn this, and all these terms are widely mixed and used, in my experience.
Happy to hear that, Mats! And, yes, I am very open to guest contributions from people who are more competent than me in some areas.
Linn will have to correct me if I am wrong here, but as far as I understand, “naked wine” is just a term used by certain people, in particular the wine importer Non Dos, to describe their wines as having nothing added – thus, they are naked. Pretty much the same as natural, but since there are no regulations they can make their own definition of what that means.
Organic and biodynamic wines are very different, yes. Big topic. Organic or ecological, which I believe are just two words meaning the same, is mostly about what happens in the vineyard, not using pesticides etc. Biodynamic is a holistic philosophy, so the whole process of winemaking, and is based on the work of Rudolf Steiner. To me, some of it makes sense, while other stuff is just superstitious and close to religious. But – they often make damn fine wine. Perhaps because they care so deeply about each element of the process?
Just to add to Anders’ comments; ecological/organic I also think are the same. In Europe there is a regulation for organic wine, this used to be a regulation only for wine made from organically grown grapes. Today also the cellar work is included.
Biodynamic wine is made on principles deriving from Rudolf Steiner, and like Anders say, are more holistic. There is also a regulation for biodynamic wines, the rules are stricter and often you will see the Demeter certification symbol for instance.
Naked wine derives (to my knowledge) to the book “Naked Wine – letting grapes do what comes naturally” by Alice Feiring. Others call it real wine and Jamie Goode has a concept of Authentic Wine. While there could be slight differences in philosophy I would say it is more about how we use the language.