What is Natural Wine
Natural wines are wines made with minimal intervention and while there is no universally accepted definition, there are a couple of criteria that most natural wines follow.
- Organic grapes that are hand-harvested
- No additives that correct the taste of the wine
- No addition of cultured yeast during fermentation
- No or minimal addition of Sulfites and only at bottling
- No clarification and fining agents
While there are certain criteria that the natural wine movement will proudly stand for, there are no appellation regulations that dictate certain requirements nor is there a clear way of verifying if a winery follows these criteria. Today Natural wines will most likely have a generic geographic indication like Vin de France rather than a specific region or grape. While it is also not allowed to state that a wine is a Natural wine on the label, in recent years there have been certain certifications that have emerged to cater to Natural wine producers and hence add a way for them to distinguish their products on the market. One such certification is Vin Méthode Nature which is a logo you will see on producers that fulfil the above mentioned requirements.
1. Organic and Hand-harvested Grapes
Natural wines will most likely be made from grapes that have been grown organically meaning without the addition of any chemical pesticides.
Grapes should also be hand picked meaning that the use of any machines or mechanical harvesters when harvesting the grapes is also to be avoided. Hand picking the grapes is a sign of quality not only for natural wines but also for many appellations like Champagne and this is done to ensure that only the best grapes are harvested with minimal damage.
2. No additives that correct the taste of the wine
Wine producers normally test the must/wine for sugar and acidity levels in order to understand whether it is headed in the right direction when it comes to wine style, alcohol levels and to avoid any risks of the wine developing off flavours. For this they commonly use additives like sugar, acidity, water, sulfites etc to correct the taste and preserve it. Natural wines on the other hand will avoid any additives.
3. No addition of cultured yeast during fermentation
Fermentation will naturally start in wine with the presence of wild yeast which can be found anywhere, in the air, on surrounding surfaces, in the vineyard etc. Wild yeast is however unpredictable and may lead to an incomplete fermentation and/or unpleasant flavours being developed in the wine. This is why non-natural winemakers will often add strains of cultured yeast which is carefully selected depending on the grape varietal and the desired outcome (body, aroma, complexity). Cultured yeast can also survive different temperatures and alcohol levels which means that there are greater chances of the must undergoing a complete fermentation leaving no unfermented sugar in the must.
Natural wines will stay away from cultured yeast and only rely on the yeast found in nature. Wild yeast takes longer to ferment which means that the grapes will be in contact with the skins for a longer time resulting in added complexity, body and colour. Wild yeast will stop fermenting when the alcohol levels reach around 3% – 4% leaving unfermented sugar in the wine. However, among the yeast that is found on the grapes, besides wild yeast there may also be Saccharomyces cerevisiae (also used in baking) which is a desirable cultured yeast that will take the wine to a complete fermentation after the wild yeast dies off and the resulting wine will be complex and aromatic. The downside is that the presence of Saccharomyces cerevisiae is not guaranteed and even when it is naturally found on grapes, it is in very small amounts which may not be enough to take the must to a complete fermentation.
4. No or minimal addition of Sulfites and only at bottling
Sulfur dioxide (SO2) is commonly added in wine which acts as an antioxidant by absorbing O2 in wine and stops spoilage, bad bacteria and wild yeast fermentation. During fermentation, many winemakers add Sulfites in order to amongst other things, prevent the wine from developing any off flavours, or too much Volatile Acidity and to also prolong its shelf life.
Natural wines will not add any Sulfites during fermentation which is why sometimes they may have a bit of a peculiar smell and even taste. Sulfites can only be added in small amounts at bottling in order to stabilise the wine. The total amount of Sulfites allowed in a bottle of Natural wine according to Vin Méthode Nature, is a maximum of 30 mg/l. This includes both the added as well as the naturally occurring Sulfites as a result of fermentation.
Note: SO2 occurs in all wines as a byproduct of fermentation which is usually less than 10 PPM (parts per million or milligrams per liter). Wines containing more than 10 PPM must be labeled “contain sulfites”. Organic wine must not contain any added sulfites in addition to having grapes that have been organically grown. Wines with no added SO2 can present some economical disadvantages for producers since they normally have a shorter shelf life.
5. No Clarification and Fining Agents
Most wines will use some sort of clarification method like fining and filtration in order to clear the wine from lees (dead yeast) and other sediment that occurs in wine and makes it cloudy. Fining and filtration remove any excess tannins, bacteria or leftover yeast ensuring that the wine is stable and that there is no risk of yeast reacting with sugar resulting in unwanted fermentation. At the same time, filtration and fining can also remove particles that add complexity and flavour to the wine.
Natural wines do not use these methods which is why the wine will most likely be cloudy and in many cases the bottle has a crown cap instead of a cork since it is subject to a slight post-bottling fermentation.
Sauvignon Blanc, 2020
- Country and region: Lujan de Cuyo, Mendoza, Argentina
- Producer: Alpamanta
- Blend: Sauvignon blanc
- Alcohol content: 13.5%
- Tasting notes: peach, pear, vanilla, pineapple, subtle brioche
Vino Frizzante, 2018
- Country and region: Italy, Veneto IGT
- Producer: Monteversa
- Blend: Moscato Giallo
- Alcohol content: 10.5%
- Tasting notes: fresh, light and fruity, high in acidity with notes of citrus, apple, peach, herbs, thyme.