What You Need to Know About Natural Wine
Wine expert Alice Feiring explains why you should try wines made in this time-honored method.
Organic, biodynamic, sustainable: these are all terms you'll see on bottles when you're shopping for wine. But if you've visited a hip restaurant lately, or scrolled through an "in-the-know" friend's social media feed, chances are there's another term you've come across-natural wine. If you're a little confused by the phrase, you're not alone; most people assume that all wine is "natural," simply made from grapes and sunshine. The truth is a bit more complicated.
What is "natural" wine?
Wine produced with "organic viticulture, and then nothing added or taken away in the process- except perhaps a very minimal amount of sulfites," is the simplest way to characterize natural wine, according to Alice Feiring, award-winning wine writer, author of the forthcoming Natural Wine for the People, and a passionate champion of natural wine. She elaborates: "Natural wine means doing the minimum in the winemaking process while still producing something delicious. Most people are shocked to find out that there are over 72 perfectly legal wine additives-and a normal wine at the supermarket, even those labeled organic, will have a minimum of ten."
These additives can include everything from added sugar and water, to artificial color, gelatin, various enzymes and acidifiers, synthetic tannins, nitrogen, oak chips, egg whites, hydrogen peroxide, and more. So, it's no wonder wine lovers are increasingly seeking out small-production wines from dedicated farmers and makers who use as little intervention as possible in the winery.
If you'd like to try natural wine, keep these things in mind.
It may be hard to identify a natural wine by examining the label because there is actually no legal definition or certification. Feiring says, "It's impossible to categorically define, as it is more a philosophy than a dogma." Because natural wines aren't labeled as such, if your local wine shop doesn't specialize in natural wine, asking the clerk for a bottle will likely yield mixed results. "If you go to a store with, let's say, the ubiquitous champagne houses with orange labels or cupcake brands stacked up, you're in trouble," Feiring warns. She urges wine drinkers to go ahead and ask for a natural wine-but not to be surprised if you're simply directed to the organic section (while natural wines are organic, organic itself doesn't necessarily mean natural; because it refers to the farming of the grapes and not how the grapes are treated in the winery). Don't be afraid to explain that you're looking for organic wines with nothing added during the winemaking process. When in doubt? "Head directly to the French section of the store, that's where you'll have the most luck," Feiring says.
Our best tips for drinking natural wine.
To enjoy a natural wine, make sure the bottles are stored properly: ideally they should be kept in a cool, dark place because heat and light can damage wines-especially natural wines that don't have a lot of chemical preservatives. There's not necessarily a 'drink by' date on natural wines; the aging potential varies for each particular wine. If you're able to find a shop with a good selection of natural wine and a knowledgeable staff, they will be able to advise on the longevity of bottle in terms of what should be aged and what is good to drink now.
Finally, natural wines are famous for potentially having more unusual flavor profiles than conventionally made wines, so it's best to go in with an open mind. Says Feiring, "Expect the unexpected. These are free wines, so expect to fly."