Updated: Mar 17, 2021
What is natural wine?
If you ask ten people "Hey, what is natural wine?"
Chances are, you will get a variety of answers, and the reason for that is because there isn't an official definition around what natural wine really is.
However, there are a few common traits that most people will mention when it comes to defining natural wine.
To be considered as natural wine, wine maker actually needs to start as early in the process as the 'grape growing' stage, to make sure they do not use pesticides or herbicides.
Pesticides - often used to help farmers to safely deter or manage pests, such as insects, fungi and weeds
Herbicides - often used to control weeds and avoid unwanted weeds to compete with vines for water, sunlight and nutrients in the soil
Next up is the grape picking process. Grape picking can be broadly categories into two, "Manual Harvest vs. Mechanical Harvest"
Manual harvest (hand-picking) - performed only using tools like grape shears or knives. After grapes are 'hand-picked', they are usually placed in collection baskets or bins and transported to the winery
Mechanical harvest (machine-picking) - introduced in the 1960s where an over-the-row harvester travels through vineyards using rubber rods to shake fruit off vines and into large reservoirs. Mechanical harvest is one of the key drivers for affordable wine to be made available across the globe.
Although mechanical harvest certainly has its own benefits, like faster speed of harvest, or lower cost of production, grapes that make up natural wine are manually harvested for the following reasons:
hand-picking is gentler on grapes, especially important for fragile grape varieties like Pinot Noir
less damaged vines from forceful shaking
ensure collection of the best ripe grapes while avoid picking rotten or bad grapes
avoid collection of unwanted materials such as stems, leaves, or even small animals, like in the case of mechanical harvest
Grapes are grown without the use of pesticides or herbicides, and are hand-picked during the harvesting season, that's great, but now what?
Next important process is the 'fermentation' stage of a wine. Instead of using commercial yeasts, natural wine rely on native yeasts to set off the fermentation.
Wait, what are 'yeasts' to begin with? What role do they play in the fermentation of a wine? And what are 'commercial' vs. 'native' yeasts?
Yeasts are tiny single celled fungi that convert sugars into alcohol during the winemaking process, it is the most important element that distinguishes wine from grapejuice. Yeasts are all around us and they collect on wine grapes in the vineyard.
Now moving on to 'native yeasts' vs. 'commercial yeasts'.
For majority of the wine we drink today, 'commercial/industrial yeasts' are used in the winemaking process to help with fermentation, some often-used yeasts include:
Saccharomyces cerevisiae bayanus
Saccharomyces cerevisiae beticus
One argument against the use of commercial yeast however, is its massive potential and ability to influence and alter the flavor of the wine. You want a floral, fruity red wine with exotic cherry fruit? There will be a strain of yeast that can steer the wine that way. Want an exotic Sauvignon Blanc with a big elderflower and passionfruit nose? There’s another strain of yeasts for that too.
Native yeasts on the other hand cannot be purchased, they are present on the grapes when they come into the winery, most of these yeasts are what are known as non-Saccharomyces, or wild yeasts. Native yeasts, for which natural wine relies on to set off fermentation, play a crucial role in expressing the vineyard, the vintage, and the regional character of the wine, which ultimately increases the wine’s complexity and quality, and is the best and most honest reflection of the story behind the making of the wine.
Lastly, most natural wine do not have any sulfites added, nor are additives used in the wine-making process.
What are sulfites to being with?
Sulfites, aka 'SO2' is a preservative that is widely used in the winemaking industry to stop bacterias from growing, to prevent oxidization, and to help ensure stability and maintain freshness in a wine. Highest levels of sulfites are found in sweet wines and white/rosé wines. The reason why red wines usually contain less sulfites than white wine is because red wines contain tannin, which essentially acts as a stabilizing agent. In addition, almost all red wines go through malolactic fermentation, so less sulfur dioxide is needed to protect the wine during winemaking and maturation.
Some arguments against the use of sulfites include:
some believe sulfites are the cause of headaches after drinking wine, although this is not confirmed
some people actually have allergies to sulfites (roughly 1 out of 100 people)
Although sulfites are usually not added in the wine-making process of natural wine, there will almost aways be trace of sulfites in wine, as it is a natural byproduct of fermentation. Some natural wine-makers may add just a tiny bit of sulfites right before bottling to preserve flavor, to ensure that the wine we consumers drink tastes roughly the same as it did when it went into the bottle. Worth noting that because of the minimal sulfites added, natural wine generally has a much shorter shelf-life.
Now moving on to 'additives'. Additives are often used in wine-making to improve the organoleptic qualities, stability, color, clarity, and age-worthiness of a wine. Some examples of additives include fake oak flavor, sugar, acid, egg white etc.
Egg whites for example are commonly used as fining agents. Fining can help winemakers remove unwanted elements in a wine that affect appearance and taste. Some winemakers prefer not to fine their wines, as they believe that this process deprives them of natural flavor and texture, which is why we see many ‘natural wine’ producers do not fine or filter their wine.
Sugar is a another example of a common additive. Sugar being added to wine doesn’t make the wine sweet but instead, through turning into alcohol, creates the perception of 'body'.
Organic vs. Biodynamic vs. Natural
We often hear the terms 'Natural Wine', 'Organic Wine', or even 'Biodynamic Wine', they can be quite similar, but what are some differences?
low-intervention less-manipulated,, more alive
no additives, no chemicals, no sulfur, no filtering, no cultured yeasts
no use of sulfites (although some that occur naturally are permitted)
vineyard farmed using organic practices, i.e. no pesticides, no chemical fertilizers, and no herbicides
biodynamics represent a method of farming based around a specific astronomic calendar. Each day coincides with one of the elements: earth, fire, air and water. Days are organized by fruit days (preferable for grape harvesting), root days (pruning), leaf days (watering) and flower days, where the vineyard should be untouched
biodynamics differs from organic agriculture in its belief that farming can be attuned to the spiritual forces of the cosmos