Natural wines have piqued the curiosity of many customers, and interest has grown for good reason – a return to traditional winemaking practices means a return to terroir-driven, funky, and unique wines. But this trend leaves one question on everyone’s mind: What the heck is natural wine, anyhow?
In simplest terms, natural wines should have nothing added or taken away. From thegrape growing process all the way through bottling, natural wines are made using minimal intervention. Winemakers of this style can even reject fancy machinery in favor of hand picking and making the wine. That being said, there is no legal definition of natural wine, no accreditation that can be received, and no guidelines. Therefore, natural winemaking is a philosophy more than anything else and natural winemakers often have strict, self-imposed standards. So while any wine can be called natural, typically natural winemakers really focus on embracing nature, rather than fighting to control it.
While winemaking has progressed immensely through the use of technology, there has been a call to return to the way wine was made in bygone days. Back in the day, there was no addition of yeasts, stabilizers, acid controllers, sugars, powdered tannins, or other additives that are frequently used in the wine-making process. While these additives can make a wine more stable, extend shelf life and create a taste that is more “user friendly,” they alter the way the wine would naturally taste.
So what can you expect of a natural wine?
- Made in small quantities by an independent producer, on low-yielding vineyards.
- Fruit is hand picked and organically grown.
- Made without added sugars or foreign yeasts, or adjustments for acidity.
- Vinified without micro-oxygenation, a controlled way of exposing wine to oxygen
And what do natural wines taste like?
The flavor profile of natural wines vary just as much their conventional counterparts. They can be made in any style, and can be filtered, or unfiltered. Some are clear and smooth, while others could be mistaken for cider or sherry. At their most extreme, natural wines can be described as yeasty, mousy and vinegary.
But why these funky flavors? Because the wines are untouched, naturally occurring processes can get out of control, and give the wine some unfamiliar flavors.
- Brettanomyces: A wild yeast. A little bit gives wine a pleasant barnyard funk; which some enjoy, but in large quantities it is can give an overwhelmingly horsey flavor.
- Volatile Acidity: In small amounts, it can addnotes of bright balsamic. In larger doses, however, it can add an overwhelming vinegar taste.
- Oxidation: In conventional winemaking, wine is exposed to air during vinification in a controlled manner. This process creates savory notes of bruised apples or nuts (think sherry). When this process is not controlled, the wine can be overexposed to oxygen and not only turn brown, but lose it’s fruity character.
So then, why the drink natural wine?
Low intervention in the vineyard and cellar means the wines are able to truly reflect their terroir (or natural surroundings.) This includes location, soil type of the vineyard, and the climate of that particular vintage– something wine geeks love!
What about sulfites?
The biggest misconception about natural wines is that they have no sulfites. Sulfur dioxide, which has been used since Roman times as a disinfectant and an antioxidant is a natural byproduct of fermentation. Learn more about sulfites, and their effects on wine, here.
Sulfur Dioxide is also the only additive accepted in natural winemaking, and it is up to each individual winemaker to choose if, and how much, they want to add. Natural red wines typically won’t contain more than 10 Milligrams per liter (mg/l,) while white wines typically won’t go above 25 mg/l. When sulfur dioxide is added in natural winemaking, it is typically added in small amounts at bottling. However, many producers will choose not to add any, resulting in a wine that may be a bit more temperamental.
Is Natural Wine different from Organic or Biodynamic wine?
Organic and biodynamic wines are made without any chemicals in the vineyard. However, unlike with natural wines, sugars and other additives such as sulfites, can be blended freely into organic and biodynamic wines. It is commonly agreed that all natural wines should be at least organic. However, since there are no legal regulations for natural wine, it is up to the each producer how strictly they want to regulate their vineyard. For more information on what makes a wine organic or biodynamic, click here.
So what did this all teach us?
Natural wines are an enigma, and each one will taste different from the next. Your best bet? Taste away, find out what flavors you like, and refine your palate! While our selection of natural wines is limited but growing, try our offering of biodynamic wines to explore terroir.
-Pauline Fink, Staff
If you have any questions about natural, organic, or biodynamic wine, you can comment here on our blog, on Facebook or in the store. We are excited to hear from you! We also deliver locally, to East Hampton, Wainscott, Bridgehampton, Sag Harbor, and Montauk.