Natural wine might seem like an odd term. Isn’t all wine natural? Well, yes, sort of. The wine that’s dominated the market for the last few decades is made from fermented grape juice, so in a way, it is natural, but it can also contain a host of other ingredients and is often manipulated both on the vine and in the winery. This kind of wine — let’s call it conventional wine — is what most of us are accustomed to drinking. Natural wine, on the other hand, is made with organic grapes, contains almost no added ingredients and is produced with far less intervention from the winemaker. As Alice Feiring, author of the recently published "Natural Wine for the People," puts it, natural wine boils down to “nothing added, and nothing taken away.”
Natural wine is a growing category, with more people making it, importing it and buying it, but it’s not a fad or fashion, stresses Feiring. In fact, it’s not even new. In recent years, winemaking has become increasingly technical, but natural winemaking, says Feiring, is actually the traditional approach.
It’s also not going anywhere. “For those who have tasted the real thing,” says Feiring, “there’s no going back.” With that in mind, now is the perfect time to learn more. With Feiring’s help, we’re taking the mystery out of natural wine, so you can better understand it, know how to find it and most important, discover the joys of drinking it.
What is natural wine?
There’s no regulation or certification for natural wine, which makes it tricky to define, but Feiring’s “nothing added, and nothing taken away” pretty much sums it up.
Natural wine begins with organic grapes, so there are no pesticides. It’s also free of additives. According to Feiring, “there are over 72 legal additives allowed in winemaking and many of them end up in conventional wine.” They “help a winemaker control flavor, aroma and texture.” In contrast, natural wine contains no additives, with the possible exception of a super small dose of sulfites, which are a by-product of fermentation and used as a preservative. While all wine naturally contains sulfites, conventional wine allows for significantly more added sulfites (350 parts per million in the U.S.) than what is generally acceptable for natural wine (around 20 parts per million).
The other major difference is the winemaking process. While conventional winemaking includes steps like fining and filtering, all designed to create a wine to suit the market, natural winemakers do far less fussing and simply work with “what nature gives in that particular year.”
How is natural wine different from organic and biodynamic wine?
Though it sounds natural, organic wine can have any of the additives allowed in conventional wine, as long as they’re organic, says Feiring. Biodynamic wine is more complicated, because the term biodynamic really refers to farming not winemaking. It’s possible to get what’s called Demeter certified, which means certain rules are followed in the winemaking process and the wine could be close to natural, but it’s important to note that some biodynamic wine is essentially conventional wine made with biodynamic grapes.
Is natural wine always cloudy?
Sometimes natural wine is cloudy, because it is not fined or filtered, two steps that keep conventional wine “nice and sparkling,” says Feiring. However, natural wine can be clear if the winemaker takes the time to let it settle so any cloudy bits fall to the bottom. Not fining or filtering wine also explains why natural wine sometimes has a lot of sediment in the bottle.
Get the better newsletter.
Does natural wine taste like cider?
Natural wine is often described as having funky or sour aromas and flavors that are reminiscent of cider and this, explains Feiring, is because natural wine — like cider — has a slower fermentation. The longer a wine ferments, the more opportunity for it to be exposed to oxygen, which contributes to those cider-y tastes and smells. While this is common, it’s not the rule.
“One thing we can say about natural wine is that it’s not easily categorized as far as flavor profile and that’s one of the joys of it,” notes Feiring. “There’s a greater range in flavor and aroma depending on the winemaker and grapes.”
Is natural wine always fizzy?
Carbon dioxide is a natural by-product of fermentation, but conventional winemakers de-gas their wines to remove any fizziness, explains Feiring. Natural winemakers, on the other hand, bottle the wine as is. Any fizziness will go away on its own, but you can decant natural wine and give it a good swirl to dissipate the gas.
Is natural wine better for you?
There’s a lot of chatter about natural wine being healthy, but that’s a hard distinction to make. “Alcohol is alcohol,” stresses Feiring. It’s a toxin and drinking too much can lead to hangovers, as well as longer-term health problems. Still, there are arguments for drinking wine in moderation, which, according to nutrition and weight loss expert Samantha Cassetty, MS, RD, means one 5-ounce glass per day for women and two 5-ounce glasses per day for men. At those levels, says Cassetty, alcohol is associated with a lower risk of heart disease.
You can also argue that natural, organic or biodynamic wines are better if you want to avoid pesticides. While natural wine is made with organic grapes, there’s no certification, so if you prefer to see a label, go for organic or biodynamic, just know that either of those may contain additives.
Does natural wine cause fewer hangovers?
Alcohol is dehydrating, interferes with sleep, and disrupts the GI system, all of which can cause a hangover, explains Cassetty. Does natural wine do less of this? Maybe, but it’s too early to say for sure. While there is some early research into the connection between sulfites and hangovers and likely more to come, most of the thinking around this is anecdotal, says Feiring.
If allergens are an issue, natural wine may be a better option, suggests Feiring. It’s common to blame sulfites for a reaction to wine and it is possible to have a sulfite allergy, but if you can eat dried fruit, you’re not allergic to sulfites. Instead, you might be sensitive to one of the many other additives used in conventional wine, including tannins, enzymes or even dairy or shellfish.
How do I find natural wine?
Natural wine is gaining momentum, but it hasn’t reached every corner of the country yet. “If you’re in any major city, you’re going to have an easier time finding natural wine,” says Feiring. However, unless a wine shop or wine list has a natural wine section, it can be tricky to know if a wine is natural. Thankfully, Feiring has a few tricks.
First, with a little research, you should be able to find a wine shop, restaurant or bar that offers natural wine, which hopefully means they have someone knowledgeable on staff. When it comes to dining out, many restaurants and bars post their wine lists online or are happy to email them, so you can peruse your choices in advance.
At the shop, restaurant or bar, Feiring says to ask questions to determine how much they know about natural wine. If you say you’re interested in natural wine and they point you to organic wine, find out if they know the difference and if they do, let them guide you. If not, don’t ask their opinion, as you likely know more about natural wine than they do!
If a shop, restaurant or bar isn’t helpful, Feiring recommends choosing wine by the importer. You’ll find a list of importers specializing in natural wine in Feiring’s book, so you can look for yourself or ask if a wine shop, restaurant or bar has any wines imported by one from the list. Consider it your natural wine cheat sheet.
Want more tips like these? NBC News BETTER is obsessed with finding easier, healthier and smarter ways to live. Sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.