What Is Natural Wine?
A primer on the wild, funky, and unfiltered.
Was the bottle of grower Champagne your cousin brought on New Year’s Eve the life of the party? Does your pseudo-sommelier roommate pressure you to drink pét-nats? It’s clear: the natural wine movement is not going anywhere. If you don’t want to be left in the pesticide-treated dust, here is what you must know to finally go natural.
What makes a wine natural?
To understand natural wine, you first must understand what it is not. Contrast it to conventional wine, the stuff you’re more familiar with. Conventional and natural wine both are bottled fermented grapes transformed into alcohol. But the choices made to get there are different.
Conventional wine starts with sprayed herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers during farming. Grapes are plucked from the vine by machine. Dozens of additives achieve consistent color, clarity, aroma, and mouthfeel.
So what, in comparison, is natural wine? There is no single definition. Natural wine is not a boxed category, it’s a spectrum. It can be understood as less-is-more winemaking. Perhaps a more precise term is the comparable, “low-intervention wine.”
One winemaker who markets her product as natural may add few or no sulphites, while another opts not to filter. The classification is not legally regulated, like say, a Champagne or Burgundy label are. This results in ambiguity. But many natural wines share certain features, including limited additives, small-scale production, attention to sustainability, and fermentation in wild or native yeast. Sulphites in particular are used not at all or minimally.
Additional methods and techniques include hand-picked grapes, no adjustments for acidity, no filtration, no residual sugar, and no heavy manipulation. You get the picture. Simpler and stripped-down is better.
These methods determine a wine’s taste. Conventional prosecco often tastes saccharine and fruity; natural prosecco is bone-dry.
Leading natural writer Alice Feiring, author of Natural Wine for the People, other books, and the newsletter The Feiring Line, describes natural wine as dynamic: “the wine will continue to change and each sip will be different.”
Expressiveness is prized in natural wine, while consistency is prized in conventional wine. She says two glasses of lab-manufactured pinot grigio will usually taste identical regardless of where its grapes were grown. Natural wine is unique by the bottle, each with a distinct personality.
Overlapping but not synonymous wine movements are organic wine, which is made of organic grapes, and biodynamic wine, made according to a holistic agricultural method in which a farm is treated like a single organism.
When did the natural wine movement take off?
Natural wine is not new. Wine has been made and drunk since antiquity without chemicals or high-tech farming, of course. But the natural wine movement as we know it began in the 1960s. It originated in Beaujolais, France, led by Marcel Lapierre, Jean Foillard, Charly Thevenet, and Guy Breton. (Their wines are iconic, and if you’re interested in natural wine, you should try them.)
The group employed the carbonic maceration method, where grapes are fermented in luscious whole bunches and clusters of fruit. The result is juicy, crushable, and fresh. This drinkable flavor profile is fragile and easily compromised by conventional winemaking equipment, and therefore, required a return to tradition. Soon enough, their techniques and philosophy sparked and spread through France and beyond.
Within the past decade, demand has grown faster and faster. This is especially visible in New York City, where fine dining institutions have taken to including it in their wine lists and natural shops have sprung up.
Part of the movement’s charm is authenticity. In a pandemic-era when our world is less tangible than ever, there’s an attraction to what is real. Especially for the Laptop Class (you know who you are), cabin fever and time spent chained to screens sparked a desire for the sensory, for what is close to the earth. Raw-sounding live music recordings does it for some, hiking does it for others, and good wine does it for many.
“Millennials have taken to natural wine because it connects us to the winemaker,” says Kristin Ma, sommelier at the Tavern by WS (formerly beverage manager of Anfora). “I feel as though I’m connected to a producer and to a story.”
It’s true: the lens through which young people understand wine has shifted from the region to the producer.
The politics associated with natural wine are yet another appeal. Many identify with its environmental and anti-establishment ethos. The movement intends to reject the wine world’s elitism. But it is guilty of its own kind of snobbery. Not all natural wine is scrappy. Some of it is expensive and collectible, and a taste for it serves as social capital in posh circles.
Feiring credits social media, too, for the spike in drinkers’ fascination. Drinkers on Instagram share mouthwatering images that pique curiosity, go viral, and ignite trends. This isn’t the first time a type of wine has followed this path to popularity (guilty: rosé). Visually striking categories like orange wine—made from white grapes that macerate in their skins like a red—or cloudy wines full of sediment, naturally garner attention. So do gorgeous labels.
The movement is not above criticism, however. “There’s a lot of really fucked up natural wine out there,” John Bonné, former wine critic for the San Francisco Chronicle and author of The New Wine Rules, told New York Magazine in a report on natural wine.
His main grievances are a disregard for tradition, inflated prices, and ignorance.
What natural wine should I try for the first time?
Feiring’s advice to folks curious to try natural wine for the first time? Just drink. “Drink whatever you can get your hands on,” she says. Go to a wine bar or spend an afternoon at a natural wine fair with an open mind, and learn what you like.
“Just forget everything that anybody’s told you about wine,” she adds. “Forget preconceived notions about what’s right or wrong.”
To get your feet wet, ask for something cleaner in style. If it’s adventure you’re seeking, request something wild.
When you start purchasing natural wines, keep in mind that certain natural reds—Gamay, Cabernet Franc, and lighter styles of Pinot Noir come to mind—are enjoyable gently chilled.
Some natural wines benefit from a decant or interaction with air. This allows the wine to open, the aromas and flavors to blossom.
Natural wine is fragile, especially those with zero sulphites, and should be stored with care. Due to a lack of preservatives, pay attention to temperature and light.
While natural wine is most available in urban hotspots like New York, LA, and DC, it’s also becoming more accessible in other cities and parts of the country including Chicago, Austin, and New England.
If you’re nowhere near these places, don’t fret, there likely will be natural wine near you soon. “The movement has taken New York by storm, but slowly it is moving west and people are getting really excited about natural wines,” Ma says. For now, your best bets are ordering from online retailers, visiting wine bars when traveling, and patiently waiting.