Natural wine is wine made without chemical and minimal technological intervention in growing grapes and winemaking. The term is used to distinguish such wine from organic and biodynamic wine because of differences in winery practices. All natural wines are farmed organically at a minimum and many growers are also biodynamic in the vineyard.
Natural wines are made without adding or removing anything during winemaking, although some growers add small quantities of sulphur at bottling. Organic wine is organic in the sense of having been produced from organically grown grapes, but may be subject to chemical and physical manipulation in the winemaking process. At the present time, there exists no official or legal definition of natural wine (or as I prefer to call them - minimalist wines)
To date, neither has any legislation been passed by any regional, national or international authority, and there are no organizations that can certify that a wine is natural. However, in a number of countries there are several unofficial definitions or codes of practice published by the different associations of natural wine producers.
The following basic criteria are generally accepted by most natural wine producers:
Organically or bio-dynamically grown grapes, with or without certification. Dry-farmed, low-yielding vineyards. Hand-picked. No added sugars, no foreign yeasts or bacteria. No adjustments for acidity. No additives for colour, minerality. No external flavour additives, including those derived from new oak barrels, staves, chips, or liquid extract. Minimal or no fining or filtration. No heavy manipulation, such as micro-oxygenation, reverse osmosis, spinning cone. Minimal or no added sulphur.
The term ‘natural wine’ is considered by some critics, to be misleading - that it can confuse consumers into assuming that the wine is organically grown and that other wines are made not from pure grape juice. This term has been polarising opinions in the wine world. It is said by those in the know - that it is important for quality wine to express the character of the varietal and the place in which it was grown. The 'natural wines' which I have tasted have this expression and personality blurred by faults, from the fruit and winemaking.
The natural wine scene is growing, with approximately 400 ‘natural wine’ producers in France, and if you include those who make the odd wine, this number could be doubled. There are natural wine producers across Europe as well as in the USA, Australia and New Zealand, as well as in lesser-known regions such as Slovenia, Georgia and Serbia. Given current media articles, natural wine might seem like a new trend, but we must remember natural wines themselves, have existed since time immemorial. When wine was first made over 4000 years ago, it was not made using packet yeasts, vitamins, enzymes, reverse osmosis or powdered tannins - some of the additives and processes used in winemaking the world over. The wines of these bygone days were natural: they were made from crushed grapes which fermented into wine. The minimalist wine movement, however, is a relatively new phenomenon, with winemakers having turned their backs on conventional practices.
Old and New World wine regions have succeeded with the advances in technology - specifically long, cool, temperature-controlled fermentation, often in stainless steel tanks resulting in fruit-driven wines. Natural winemaking is the complete opposite. While advancements in technology and winemaking science mean we now understand wine in a way in which our ancestors might not have, some feel that we have lost perspective. Rather than using science to produce wines with as little intervention as possible, we use it to gain absolute control over every step of the process - from grape growing to the finished wine. Very little is left to nature, which is this key factor that sets natural growers apart from the rest.
Natural growers nurture biodiversity while embracing and observing nature, rather than fighting to control it. Vines grown in soil with a healthy and diverse microbiology will have a more balanced life and will be able, when necessary, to ruse their own immune system to fight disease. They are all about low intervention in the vineyard and winery. As regulations stand, organic and biodynamic accreditation bodies are primarily concerned with regulating the use of synthetic chemicals in the vineyard, rather than additives in the winery. There is, for example, no rectification of sugars or acidity, no addition of yeasts and no removal of excess dilution in a wet vintage. They are as nature provides: a transparent representation of a piece of land in a particular year. All the components necessary to start and complete fermentation and give balance and complexity to a wine must come from the vineyard itself.
The only additive used by some natural wine growers is SO2. Organic and biodynamic certifying bodies are relatively stringent, but natural winemakers are said to be the strictest, with most producers averaging under 30mg/l for reds, 40mg/l for whites and 80mg/l for sweet wines - some growers use none at all.
The main issue is certification. As stated, there currently is none - ‘you are expected to take it on trust’ - that they are using natural methods. Any grower can call themselves natural. Natural wine associations are attempting to rectify the situation with quality charters, working towards a common definition. Certification would certainly help natural wine be taken more seriously. Minimalist wines have opened up the debate about a wine’s authenticity, vineyard practices and winemaking transparency; that alone can be positive.