A Beginner's Guide to Natural Wine

Everything you need to know about this raw style of winemaking

Natural Wines

S&C Design Studios

As more and more people look to natural, organic, and raw foods, beverages are quickly becoming a growing focus. Natural wine, specifically, is one of those trending drinks and you may have started to see them pop up on restaurant menus. But what exactly makes a wine "natural?" It's hard to define—essentially, it's a wine made with minimal intervention, from the vineyards to the cellar.

Natural wine takes the concepts of organic and terroir—a wine's natural environment—to an extreme. It's traditional, rustic and pure compared to the highly-refined wines that today's wine lovers are used to.

These wines are made using methods that allow the fermented grapes to shine in as unprocessed of a state as possible. This produces wines that tend to be cloudy, less fruit-forward, lower in alcohol, and often more sour or yeastier.

Many words are used to describe the taste, including funky, wild, honest, and untamed. Natural wines offer a new experience for the adventurous drinker and a taste of wines from centuries ago.

Defining "Natural" Wine

There are no official definitions or regulations for this style, though some localities in France and Italy do have standards for wineries in their area. In general, there are a few accepted practices that natural winemakers follow during production:

  • Organic and/or biodynamic grape growing practices, including pesticide-free and sustainable vineyards.
  • Small-scale grape production, often hand-picked and local to the winery.
  • Natural and native yeasts are used during fermentation rather than cultured yeasts.
  • No additives which can speed up fermentation or produce consistent wines.
  • Unfiltered, leaving a cloudier wine that may have impurities or natural sediment in the bottle, much like a Hefeweizen beer.
  • Unfined, which is the winemaker's method of adding agents like gelatin or casein to soften a wine and make it less astringent.
  • Little or no use of oak barrels or sulfites.
  • No other preservatives to stabilize the wine, leading to a shorter shelf life.

Making Natural Wines

Each vintner will approach the winemaking process in different ways. Most will take every step possible not to intervene with or manipulate the true taste of the wine.

The common factor is a dedication to the grape and ensuring its pure, raw flavor is present in the wine. Some will cultivate specialty grapes or work with rare, threatened, or indigenous varieties. Others will use one of the six noble grapes, and many use a blend of grapes. Most are farmed locally by the winery or trusted sustainable farmers.

Many wineries try to be as low-tech as possible. During fermentation and aging, they will often use clay amphorae pots and concrete "eggs." A few use new oak barrels and some use stainless steel. You will even find the practice of foot stomping juice out of the grapes.

Unlike the majority of modern wines, natural winemakers steer clear of additives. The use of sulfur dioxide is a matter of debate, however. Sulfites help stabilize wine and prevent it from refermenting in the bottle. Some producers choose to add a minimal amount, while others avoid sulfites entirely.

Overall, making natural wines is a risky business that requires a lot of experimentation to get everything right. Each wine is subject to any number of things that can go wrong. While you may be used to the variances in annual vintages, the flavor of natural wines can change from one bottle to the next.

Types of Natural Wine

Natural wines span the full spectrum of wine styles. You'll find reds, whites, sparkling, and almost any type of grape. Whether you enjoy a Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, or Rosé, it can be found as a natural wine.

One style that is unique to natural wines is "orange" wine. This is a white wine made with the grape skins and seeds left in contact with the fermenting juice. It's a technique typically reserved for red wines and it adds a distinct twist to the taste of a white.

Other popular types of natural wine bring back traditional methods of winemaking. For instance, Pétillant Natural (or "Pet Nat") is a sparkling wine made with the oldest method that continues fermenting in-bottle, producing the carbonation. Col Fondo Prosecco is similar and produces a funkier, distinctly more sour version of the Italian favorite.

Where to Find Natural Wines

Some estimates place natural wines below 1 percent of the wine market, so they may not be the easiest to find. While they have long been produced in France, Italy, and Spain, there's currently an expansion in the United States, Australia, and many other countries.

While many wineries tout their devotion to sustainability and non-intervention, it's often not as simple as reading the wine label. You may even be greeted with a blank stare or the comment that "all wine is natural" when asking for it at the store.

If you're interested in exploring natural wines, it's best to seek out a wine shop or restaurant that specializes in them. This market is growing and venues can be found in many large cities. The Natural Wine Company in Brooklyn, New York stocks an entire inventory of natural wines and they'll ship to many states.

You can also explore on your own. For instance, you might attend or look into the vendors of the RAW Wine festival, led by Isabelle Legeron, author of "Natural Wine" and an invaluable resource for anyone interested in untamed wines.

The catch is that, due to the instability of natural wines, it's often best to look as local as possible. As a consumer, you are going to take some risk in a wine spoiling in transit; however, with quick shipping, your odds of success are pretty good. Also, due to the diversity in this style of wine, you may not like every bottle you try.

If you thought that finding a "good" regular wine was difficult, natural wines will be a far bumpier road. Some are not good, others are okay, but may be a bit harsh, and others are spectacular with a natural acidity and full flavors of the grapes. For wine lovers who are open to new experiences (and a few duds), it's a worthy road to go down.

Storing Natural Wines

Storing natural wines properly is critical. Generally, these are young wines that will not age well in the bottle, though some longtime producers do produce well-aged wines. Rather than stock a cellar full, follow these storage guidelines to ensure they don't get too wild before you drink them:

  • Keep storage temperatures below 80 F. Most—even red wines—will be best refrigerated and served cold.
  • Do not expose the wine to light. Even minimal lighting can cause a bottle to go sour, so dark is best.
  • Drink a bottle within one year of buying it. Once open, be sure to recork it tightly and drink within a day or two.