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Does 'natural wine' deserve the hype?


5 min read

Natural wine has exploded in popularity over the last few years, but what exactly defines wine as natural? And more importantly, is it worth giving natural wine a try? Read on to find out more about this growing movement, and our recommendations for some exciting and distinctive natural wines. 

Natural origins 

You may not be surprised to know that natural wine has its origins in the pre-industrialised era. But it actually goes back much further than that - Georgians were burying grape juice to ferment as long as 6,000 B.C. Like sourdough bread before commercial yeast was introduced, natural wine was the conventional way to make wine before new products and processes were invented in the 1900s. 

The natural wine revival 

The revival of natural wine in the second half of the 10th century has sometimes been referred to as the 'punk movement for wines'. In the 1970's, four influential winemakers in the Beaujolais region of France began reminiscing about how their grandfathers made wine. Known as the 'gang of four', they started making natural wine on their own vineyards, as well as persuading others to take up these more traditional practices. The movement spread across France, and an official "vin methode nature" label was created with a strict definition. 

Over the following decades, natural wine grew in popularity across the world, but France is still the only country that has an official classification. 

What makes wine 'natural'? 

Outside of France, there is some of leeway on this, but in general, it means viticulture with no or very limited herbicides and pesticides. And winemaking without any - or very limited - additives. There are about 50 additives approved for use in winemaking in Europe and the US, and these are used for a range of different reasons - from sulphites that help preserve the wine, to synthetic yeast to aid fermentation, or egg white to soften tannins. Natural wine generally avoids all of these - but small amounts can sometimes be used without natural wine losing its status. 

Natural wine is usually made by small, artisan winemakers using traditional methods, but this isn't a pre-requisite. 

What processes are involved in making natural wine? 

Grapes are usually handpicked and fermented in the vat using the natural yeast that occurs when the grapes are pressed. Sulphites are naturally occuring in wines, so a limited amount - up to 100 parts per million - is acceptable in natural wines. Due to the simple way natural wine is produced, the terroir- the land and climate that the grapes were exposed to - is the key emphasis for the wine's character and flavour.

Is natural and organic wine the same? 

There are lots of different terms for new practices in wine production with plenty of crossover so it's easy to get confused. For a wine to be labelled organic, the grapes must be grown without any synthetic pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers. And any additives must be organic too. In practice, additives are kept to a minimum in organic wine, but there isn't the same emphasis on limited intervention as there is with natural wines. 

There are other definitions that are similar to natural wines too. Biodynamic winemaking follows an holistic approach to wine making based on the ideas of Rudolph Steiner from the 1920s. While is also uses organic methods, it applies broader spiritual principles to protecting the land ecosystem. In practice, vegan wine is often natural too, but the only condition for that label is that no animal-delivered products are used in the winemaking process. 

Low intervention wine is another name for natural wine - and one that is gaining popularity, as many people in the industry think it better describes the wine's distinction from conventional wines. Pet-Nat - abbreviated from ‘Pétillant Naturel’ - is a specific type of natural wine. It is bottled before the fermentation process is complete, which makes it lightly sparkling. And for hardcore natural wine fans, there is zero-zero wine - which is 100% natural in every way. 

Is natural wine better? 

This depends on your point of view. There is no evidence that natural wine is healthier for you than commercially produced wine, although many natural wine fans feel happier drinking wine that hasn't been touched by pesticides and certain additives - like choosing artisan honey over refined sugar. The processes involved are less damaging for the environment, and many producers choose to make natural wine out of resect for their land.  

And what about taste? This is subjective. Without the same level of filtration, natural wine can be cloudy and have sediment. Its taste has been described as hazy, funky, earthy, wild, effervescent, and unpredictable. But it's also unique and distinctive - and if you like wine, exploring different natural wines is a fresh and exciting journey to go on. Natural wine also gives you a sense of place - with the taste unique to the land and history of the vineyard. 

Orange wine 

Is orange a natural wine? Yes and no. The main characteristics of an orange wine is that it uses white wine grapes with red wine production process - where the wine is left in contact with the skin for a period of time, giving it a richer, orange colour. But the emergence of orange wine have dovetailed with that of natural wine, and most orange wines are produced using natural wine methods, so they are often considered part of the same movement. 

Our eto recommendations 

The Domaine Ratte range are some exciting wines from Jura, extremely clean, crystalline and mineral, lifted and aromatic. All farming is organic, with plenty of old vine material. 

Our eto verdict 

Natural wines might not be to everyone's taste, or right for every occasion, but we definitely think they're worth a try. For one, they're better for the environment, but they also offer something different in taste. And while natural wines do share some characteristics due to their similar production methods, there is huge variety between countries, grapes, and vineyards, which means there are lots of new and interesting wines to discover. 

We recently interviewed Bridget Berry at Blonde Crow, a natural wine label from Western Australia that produces red, white, and rose natural wines. You can read the interview here