Natural Wine 101
What is Natural Wine?
If you ask 10 people you’ll get 10 different answers. Anything from "it's trash" to "magical unicorn juice". In fact, natural wine is probably one of the most polarizing wine topics of the last 20-30 years. One of my favorite summaries of natural wine comes from Isabelle Legeron, Master of Wine - and arguably one of the most powerful women in the natural wine movement:
“Natural wine is not new; it is what wine always was, and yet, somehow today it has become a rarity. Healthily grown, nature-friendly, low-intervention wines that truly express their place of origin. Natural wine is a continuum, like ripples on a pond. At the epicentre of these ripples, are growers who produce wines absolutely naturally – nothing added and nothing removed. As you move away from this centre, the additions and manipulations begin, making the wine less and less natural, the further out you go. Eventually, the ripples disappear entirely, blending into the waters of the rest of the pond. At this point the term ‘natural wine’ no longer applies. You have moved into the realm of the conventional.”
When it boils down to it, the definition of natural wine is on a sliding scale that encompasses both farming and winemaking practices. In my opinion, wine must at least meet one or both of the following standards to be considered "natural":
- Care for the land: farmed organically or biodynamically
- Minimal to no intervention: made without adding or removing anything in the cellar. No additives or processing aids are used, no fining or filtration. Fermented with indigenous yeasts.
The key to knowing if a wine is "natural" is held in understanding the person and methods behind each wine. Unfortunately, it's not always overtly clear by looking at the bottle. For example, organic or biodynamic farming standards do not necessarily require certification. In fact, most natural wine producers aren't certified. Many are small, independent growers and the certification process and costs are prohibitive. So, while they may strictly adhere to the same if not even more stringent farming practices than what is required to be certified – they are not. To make matters even more confusing, not all organic wines are natural (yes you read that right). Organic wines can still be fermented with things like lab grown yeast or other additives to manipulate the wine in the cellar, breaking standard number 2. So, while organic wine is still a great choice when it comes to caring for the earth, it doesn't let us experience the full expression of the fruit, the land and the climate.
If it's too much time to research winemakers that you like or want to try, there are other ways to find natural wines to try. One trick I learned early on was to look for specific importers. There are several that mostly if not exclusively import wines that adhere to the above standards and their names can be found on the back of the bottle. A few of the names I look for are Fifi's Imports, Goatboy, Jenny and Francois, Louis/Dressner, Selection Massale and Zev Rovine.
Simply put, natural wine is the closest thing to grapes, grapes and more grapes - as possible. Hopefully you've come away from this post with a little bit more clarity and a trick or two on how to find natural wine in the wild.