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Are natural wines all that? Here’s the scoop behind the hype

If you’re even casually interested in wines, chances are you’ve heard of natural wine. You may not understand the hype – after all, isn’t all wine natural? – but you know it’s been talk of the town for a while now. In recent years, it has become a niche signifier of taste and social capital.

The growing demand for eco-friendly and sustainable drinks has led to a surge in the popularity of natural wine. Once regarded as a passing fad, it is now clear that the natural wine movement is here to stay. It is time for fine wine aficionados to catch up.

What is natural wine and how is it different?

There is no official definition for it, but at its simplest, natural wine is pure wine made from unadulterated fermented grape juice and nothing else. The grapes used are hand-harvested and farmed without any of the chemical pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and fertilisers commonly used in the production of conventional wines.

Natural winemakers rely on native yeast to ferment these handpicked grapes into juice. The yeast collects from the atmosphere and settles spontaneously on grapes if they are left in a vat long enough, setting off natural fermentation. On the other hand, conventional or non-natural wine relies on technical intervention, such as the use of lab-grown yeast for controlled fermentation.

What sets natural wine further apart from regular wine is the absence of flavour-altering additives like sugar, acid, artificial oak notes, etc. Vintners in the US can use more than 60 approved additives to modify their wines, hardly any of which would be present in natural wine. One popular ingredient is sulphur dioxide, a naturally occurring stabiliser and preservative added to the wine at the time of bottling. Sulfites have been used in winemaking since ages. Natural wine either bypasses it completely or only uses it in small amounts.

The flavour and appearance of natural wine differ prominently from those of conventional wine. Natural wine is characterised by a cloudy appearance and aromas that are funkier, gamier, and much yeastier than you’d expect. Some natural wines can be quite clear and fruity, but these tend to be exceptions. Overall, many natural wines have been described as closer to sour beer or kombucha in taste.

How did the natural wine movement take shape?

While natural winemaking may have become trendy only in recent years, it was the traditional way to make wine for thousands of years. The oldest wines were simply fermented grape juice without additives. The modern natural wine movement took shape in rural France in the 1980s with a handful of vineyards making small batches of fresh-tasting wines that were low in alcohol and high in acidity. It was only in the 2000s that natural wine importers like Lefcourt and Louis/Dressner emerged on to the scene and natural wine started to gain traction in the wine industry.

Natural wine is sometimes referred to as low-intervention wine, naked wine, or raw wine. Other terms often conflated with it are biodynamic wine or organic wine, but there are subtle differences between these. Natural wines and biodynamic wines are made in a similar manner, but the latter can only be claimed through certification of the specific method of farming. Wines certified as organic are made from chemical-free grapes but are fermented and enhanced in the same way as conventional wines.

Is natural wine better for the environment?

Natural wine isn’t a ready antidote to the host of environmental challenges confronting us, but there is a definite positive connection between the natural wine movement and safeguarding the planet. Natural winemakers employ sustainable practices that protect the soil (since chemicals lead to soil erosion) and encourage biodiversity (think everything from butterflies and bees to birds of prey) in their vineyards. Regenerating the planet’s soil cover can help control climate change. The regenerative agriculture at the heart of natural wine production fits well into the conversation.

Where to start if you are a natural wine newbie?

If you’re new to the world of natural wines, here are some options you can explore: –

Orange wines – are white wines made using the extended macerations typical to the production of red wines, where the skins and seeds stay in contact with the juice during the fermentation. These are popular in Friuli, Italy and Slovenia, but are gaining popularity in other markets.

Pétillant Naturel – is a sparkling wine made using Méthode Ancestrale, the oldest winemaking method for sparkling. The wine ferments in bottles, which creates a natural fizz through carbonation. You can opt for Pet Nats from the Loire Valley in France.

Fréderic Cossard – produces some elegant Burgundies that are low on intervention and long in maceration, naturally fermented, and free of artifice. The reds are lively, wild, and aromatic. The whites offer notes of freshness and mild oxidation.

The natural wine movement has made its way onto supermarket shelves and into wine subscription services. Before you get a bottle or two, here are some handling tips:-

  • Buy from local retailers to reduce the risk of transport spoilage.
  • Store at or below 26.7 ºC and away from all light sources.
  • Seal open bottles with a cork and store them in the fridge.

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