Natural wine is an important and often controversial concept in the world of wine. Although there are many forms, at its core is a singular idea: wine made without any additions or subtractions.
But natural wine is not a recent concept, it is an ancient method of winemaking. Historically, grapes were grown, crushed and put in vessels to allow the natural sugars and yeasts to ferment into alcohol. That simple.
Today, natural wine is an umbrella concept that generates a lot of debate about its true merit. Traditionalists will argue that natural wines often have uneven flavour profiles and wild, funky aromatics - similar in style to beer. Natural wine enthusiasts will argue that many mass-produced and traditional wines are generic and over-manufactured with too much input in the winemaking process masking the original flavour profile of the grapes used.
Some fans of the natural wine concept prefer the terms low or minimal intervention when talking about it because those terms are less contentious and, perhaps, more reflective of the realities of making this style of wine.
In essence, the natural wine philosophy boils down to the belief that winemakers should expend most of their efforts on the process of growing and harvesting the grapes aka vineyard management. The end effect being that if you grow very high quality fruit there won’t be much “intervention” needed in the winemaking process to produce an exceptional, flavourful wine.
This philosophy requires that pesticides, herbicides and synthetic fertilizers are never used. The vineyard is managed as an entire ecosystem which includes the planting of other vegetation and even raising livestock to help protect the grapes from pests and funguses and to ensure healthy soils for the vine roots to grow in.
After the grapes are harvested by hand, the fruit is sorted, crushed and fermented using naturally occurring yeasts. The wine is aged in vessels that don’t impart any flavours (concrete vats, used oak barrels, stainless steel, etc.) and bottled without any fining or filtration.
So how does this differ from traditional winemaking?
We’ll consider mass-produced “popular” wines as a comparison. To achieve a certain volume of production, typically millions of bottles per year, these producers use pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and synthetic fertilizers in their vineyards. These chemicals are detrimental to the chemistry of the soil and the subsoil structures that the vines grow in but they do offer an assurance to the winery that their crop will be protected from pests and uneven growing seasons.
After machine harvest, these brands use industrial additives to ensure that their wines have a similar taste from year to year. Need an oak flavour without having to purchase new, expensive oak barrels every year? Add granulated oak powder to impart the flavour of oak; cultured yeasts for fermentation can be purchased from catalogs; sugars are added to ensure the same “body” of wine and alcohol every year; acid additives used to prevent oxidation of the color or flavours of the wine.
In the United States, for instance, there are more than 60 additives that can be used throughout the winemaking process that don’t have to be included on labeling.
None are more contentious than Mega Purple, an additive used to color correct commercially-made red wines and to mask certain flavours that might not appeal to the average consumer looking for rich, fruity, sugary flavours. The real problem lies in the fact that winemakers who use Mega Purple guard its use like a Top Secret document, leaving many only to speculate which wines employ its effects.
Even when it comes to bottling, additives are used to clarify wines. If you’re a vegetarian or vegan, you might be surprised to know that the two most common fining agents for mass-produced wines are egg whites and isinglass - made from fish bladders.
It could be argued that these are more “beverage” than wine. Certainly, the natural wine followers might view them as more akin to soft drinks that are acidified, colored and contain added sugars. And to conventional wine drinkers, natural wines might smell and taste more wild, cloudy and funky - sometimes unpredictable and uneven as natural winemakers use a minimal amount of sulfites which is a key preservative for wines.
Where does that leave us? Well, like many wine lovers, we have specific preferences for style, flavour and even price point. We can’t make a blanket statement that we love or hate every wine of a specific style or region.
Ultimately, sustainable agricultural practices matter to us. Care, dedication, organic and biodynamic methods and even scale of operation make a massive difference. Our focus is to champion and support small-scale winemakers who are creating wines reflective of the hugely diverse places they come from.
They are worth celebrating. Their efforts might require higher price points than their commercially produced counterparts but this topic is simply too important these days to pretend that price should dictate choice.
Just as people care about where their produce, dairy and meats come from and how those are raised or grown, so too should people be a lot more invested when understanding where and how their wine is made.
Whichever side of the debate you sit on, in the end one thing matters: the wines better be damn good.