5 Things to Know About Natural Wines

natural wine
Cole Saladino/Thrillist
Cole Saladino/Thrillist

Spring is here, and it’s time for… social distancing. Yup, we’re all still at home. And while smart bars are selling cocktails to go, those of us curious about natural wines have options, too. Wine merchants are still shipping to customers.

Over the past year I’ve been tasting natural wines at restaurants like Gertie and at home, thanks to the solid offerings at Astor Wines just up the street from Thrillist HQ. I’m attracted to natural wines because I’m sensitive to sulfites, the preservatives used in most conventional wines. Between that and the tannins in “big reds” I get headaches and I have trouble sleeping after drinking wine (but I do it anyway, sometimes). 

But more than that, I’m attracted to the novelty of natural wines. And I like that they’re made with fewer additives. More and more, I like my food and drink simple. I’ll take a fresh clementine, a handful of pistachios, plain yogurt. If I’m avoiding pesticides on my apple and artificial ingredients in my aperitifs, why not explore the simpler method of winemaking?

Even though I’m senior editor of food here and should therefore already know everything about everything,  I’m still learning about this old-new world of wine. So I had a chat with Dante DeCicco, co-owner (along with Greg Edsall) of The Natural Wine Shoppe, an e-commerce, direct-to-consumer retail wine store. DeCicco first fell in love with his Italian family’s wine, which was made without any additives. That inspired a passion to seek out other pure, low intervention wines, and ultimately led to his business.

First of all, how do you define natural wine?

Loosely, natural wine is made from grapes grown using organic or biodynamic methods, fermented using native yeast from the grapes and vines, with little to no sulfites added and no filtering. It’s minimal intervention. I like to say it’s a pure representation of terroir.

With conventional wine, even if the grapes are grown organically, wineries add all kinds of things to manipulate the taste, like other yeasts, sulfites, flavorings, colorings, and sugar.

Natural winemakers will maybe add a dash of sulfites, which are a natural byproduct of the winemaking process. You’ll typically get 10-40 ppm [parts per million]. With conventional wines, it’s closer to 350 ppm.

Tell us about orange wines.

A lot of people are introduced to natural wines through orange wine [also known as skin-contact wine], which is a white grape wine made similar to how red wines are made. To make white wine, you remove grapes from the skins before you ferment them. With orange wines, the color comes from the grape fermenting in the skin. The color depends on the duration of fermentation, which also affects the depth of flavor.

Some people dismiss natural wine as a passing trend. What do you think?

This is the ancestral method of winemaking. It’s the way it was intended to be made. If it’s trending, that’s because it’s become a lot more available in the last few years.

Natural wine is bringing together people who were not wine lovers to begin with. It’s opening avenues to people who are looking for something different.

There’s a lot of controversy over how natural wines compare with conventional wines. What do you say to that?

Taste is subjective. What other people call “flaws” to many others are flavor and aroma characteristics that could be desirable. It’s about letting nature take its course.
With natural wine, you’re getting very pronounced fruit flavors, and that resonates with a lot of people.

But don’t just try one natural wine. There’s a vast amount of flavor profiles. Get a mix of white, orange, rose, red, and sparking. And let go of your go-to grape variety, because this is a whole new game. Natural varietals can taste really different from conventional varietals. So if you don’t normally like rosé, for example, you may like a natural version of rosé.

What advice can you give us for picking out natural wines?

We’re all suckers for a cool label, and natural wines have been pioneering eye-catching labels. But really it’s about building a relationship with a wine seller. Reach out to us and we’ll get to know your palate and curate a selection of wines for you. We’re talking with people about wine around the clock.

The Natural Wine Shoppe ships nationwide (with a few restrictions). They’re offering a promotion for Thrillist readers -- enter promo code THRILLIST for 10% off three bottles or more.

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Adriana Velez is a senior food editor at Thrillist.