For Epicurious, by Becky Hughes.
If you’ve never heard the term “natural wine” before, it might throw you for a loop — if this is natural, what the hell were you drinking before this? Have you been getting sloshed off of chemical wine-like product since college?
Not quite. Although “natural” is the wine buzzword du jour, the term doesn’t have a hard-and-fast definition. When people wax poetic about the beauty of natural wines, here’s what they’re really talking about.
WHAT IS NATURAL WINE?
In short, natural wine is an ideology, not a specific process. The goal of a natural winemaker is to produce wine the way it was done before chemicals and fertilizers became ubiquitous in mass-produced vino — it’s an old-school approach, based on the assumption that wine will pretty much make itself if you don’t helicopter-parent it. “Natural” wine is usually produced without additives (including sulfur, which is often used to prevent oxidizing), hence the name. Sometimes natural wine–makers allow indigenous yeasts to lead the fermentation process, rather than inoculating the wine with reliable, more controllable cultured yeasts. Oftentimes in natural wines, the fermentation process isn’t temperature controlled, while conventional wineries rely on refrigeration to maintain consistency between products.
That being said, these techniques vary a whole lot between natural winemakers. Think of it this way: “organic” is a descriptor that actually has to meet legal standards, while “natural” is more of an attitude than it is an adjective. Some wine fairs and organizations have strict criteria to define natural wines, but, in general, people who claim to make natural wines are in part trying to distinguish themselves from large-scale, mass-produced wines. Just like conventional (rather, non-natural-identifying) wines, the scope of flavor profiles and price ranges amongst natural wines are vast.
“In short, natural wine is an ideology, not a specific process.”
WHAT DOES NATURAL WINE TASTE LIKE?
The flavor profile of natural wines vary just as much as conventional wines do. Some natural wines develop yeasty or vinegary notes. Natural wines are sometimes described to have — we’re not making this up — a vaguely mouse-like taint. And that’s not meant to be a bad thing. That being said, there are just as many natural wines that taste conventional as there are funky ones.
IS NATURAL WINE THE SAME AS BIODYNAMIC WINE?
Biodynamic wines are a slightly more specific type of natural wine. The process of making them is actually kind of wacky — it was created in the early 20th century by an Austrian philosopher who decided wine would be best if growers considered the moon cycle, gravity…all that Farmer’s Almanac stuff. When producing biodynamic wine, the holistic health of the whole vineyard is taken into consideration, rather than just the grapes. The flavor benefits of biodynamic wines are up in the air, but, if nothing else, the process ensures that the winemaker pays close attention to his or her craft.
WHY DRINK NATURAL WINE OVER CONVENTIONAL?
Making a wine without additives is a real testament to a winemaker’s talent. A sulfur-free wine is at risk of oxidization when stored or transported, so a successful natural wine is a testament to an epically clean winery and a winemaker who clearly knows what they’re doing.
At the end of the day, every choice made by a winemaker is an exercise in artistry. From the planting and growing of the grapes, to the barrelling, to the choice details (like whether or not to inoculate the wines with yeast), a glass of wine is meant to showcase the land, the time period, and the work involved in its creation. Calling a wine “natural” is a winemaker’s expression of pride and investment in the process, and they want you to taste that pride in every sip — naturally.
“Making a wine without additives is a real testament to a winemaker’s talent.”
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