What is ‘natural’ wine?

There was a lot of interest in our post about ‘Red Wine Headaches’ and what the possible causes could be. Lots of people tout ‘natural wine’ as being the purer (and headache free) option so we thought we’d explore the concept a bit further.

The name is a bit misleading since obviously all wine is ‘natural’ as it’s essentially fermented grape juice. There isn’t a yet a formal codification of practice but the term ‘natural wine’ is loosely used to describe wine made with the bare minimum of chemicals and technological intervention both in the way the grapes are grown and processed into wine; organic, hand-harvested grapes, a rejection of industrially manufactured yeasts, additives and sulphur dioxide (often used as a preservative).

‘Natural wine’ isn’t the same as organic wine which is made from organically grown grapes but could still use chemicals in the wine-making process. For bone fide ‘natural wine’ nothing can be added or taken away  – it’s an umbrella term for producers who are defined more by what they leave out of their grape growing and wine making processes than by what they put in. This small but growing group of natural wine producers tend to be more  interested in the purity of their product rather than in the perfection of the result.

Natural wines tend to be made in small quantities by artisan or independent producers using either organically or biodynamically grown grapes. They are vinified without sugar, artificial yeasts or enzymes and usually are not filtered nor fined (if they are, organic egg-white is most commonly used). Many are made with only tiny amounts of added sulphur and some with none at all. The idea is to ‘rediscover’ the true flavour of wine by capturing the terroir and the nature of the vintage.

There is an argument that not only are natural wines pure but they’re also kind to the planet and ‘very possibly better for your health’. There’s a cult following among some oenophiles at least partly because of a perceived health benefit – few people actually have a sulphur allergy but many people (mistakenly) blame the sulphur in wine for headaches. And of course there’s a movement towards organic food so ‘natural wine’ is an extension of that trend.

The movement was born in the Loire, Beaujolais and Languedoc-Roussillon areas of France in the 1970s and it’s catching on worldwide with producers in Spain, Chile, the US, Australia and New Zealand going ‘au naturel’.

Fashion and questionable health benefits aside, why would you want to drink wine made the way it was 200 years ago and risk a bottle that tastes like cloudy, fizzy cider? It’s par for the course that if you are a consumer of natural wine you will, sooner or later, come across wines that are off, funky (and not in a good way) or otherwise unpleasantly weird. ‘Industrial’ producers, as natural winemakers term those outside the ‘natural’ fold, use manufactured yeast, wine fining agents and sulphur dioxide to produce a product of high standard , that doesn’t vary from bottle to bottle, so consumers know what they’re getting and won’t be surprised by a glass of  fizzy-cloudy-off-grape juice. At Excelsior, while the farm is not certified organic, we use the bare minimum of chemicals in the production of the grapes before they are handpicked. Our wines are made with the least possible interference – consistent quality is our main concern so we use a homogenous yeast, fining agents to clarify the wine and a small amount of sulphur dioxide to preserve it.

Find out more:

Wikipedia – Natural Wine

The Guardian – The Pros and Cons of Natural Wine

Raw – Wine Fair

Blog – Wine Naturally

The Guardian – Natural Wine: How to pick a winner

The Real Wine Fair

Food and Wine. Com – Natural wine; weird or wonderful?

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