Have you ever walked into a wine shop planning to buy a few bottles of natural wine, browsed up and down a few aisles, and quickly realized you have no idea which wine to choose? Many of us have been there. Trying different natural wines can be a lot of fun, and it’s a good way to figure out if you prefer to sip on something light and juicy, sour, sparkling or even kind of funky. But if you’re new to natural wine and feel like all the natural wine lingo goes right over your head, selecting a bottle can be overwhelming.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. We know everyone loves a bit of good intel, so here’s what you need to know if you’re intrigued by natural wine but aren’t really sure where to start.
What is natural wine?
Natural wine can mean something different from one wine producer to another— there isn’t a standard, universally agreed definition. Generally, natural wine is made with minimal intervention, often under the principle of “nothing added, nothing taken away.”
“Natural wine is an ode to the way wine was made hundreds of years ago, before people started to try to match flavor profiles or manipulate wines to create a more consistent product,” said Erik Miller, owner and winemaker of Breaking Bread Wines. “The philosophy of natural winemaking is adding absolutely nothing, or if anything a little bit of sulfur dioxide at bottling to avoid bottle variation.”
Natural wine producers use organically farmed grapes and native yeasts, and avoid chemicals and additives.
When it comes to using sulfites, there’s a bit of disagreement. “Some authorities say you can use a little bit at bottling, [and] others denounce sulfites completely,” Patric Matysiewski, winemaker and co-founder of Sauvage Spectrum, told us.
Here are some different types of natural wine you might encounter:
Pét-nat, short for pétillant naturel, is a type of sparkling wine. When translated from French, pétillant naturel means “naturally sparkling.” Pét-nat is bottled while it’s still fermenting, without yeasts or other additives.
Pét-nat can be a good gateway into the world of natural wine, Matysiewski said. “Typically these wines are bubbly, vibrant, and fruit-forward, with a subdued funkiness,” he said.
Here’s an example of what a pét-nat can look like:
Glou glou (that’s “glug glug” in French) is highly drinkable and another great entry point into natural wine. “It is a style of natural wine — usually red — that is very approachable, easy to drink and is not complex,” Miller said. “It is similar in style to Beaujolais Nouveau.”
Glou glou is most often light-bodied, juicy, refreshing and fruit-forward. It’s typically served slightly chilled and is usually lower in alcohol than many other types of wine. If you buy a bottle of glou glou, find an excuse to drink it right away. This style of wine is not meant to be aged.
Piquette is a low-alcohol beverage that’s often grouped in the natural wine category, although it is not technically wine. Piquette is made by adding water to grape pomace — which is what remains of the grape pulp, skins, seeds and stems after grapes have been pressed to make wine — and allowing it to ferment. Piquette is often fresh, fruity, and contains a natural effervescence.
Orange wine, aka skin contact wine or amber wine, is made by pressing white grapes (not oranges) and leaving the juice to ferment while in contact with skins. Orange wines range in flavor, but many are bold and complex.
Why does natural wine sometimes look cloudy?
Natural wines are unfined and unfiltered — these are both processes to clarify wine — so they won’t always be 100% clear and may contain small particles like lees, proteins and tartrates, Miller said.
It’s totally OK to buy natural wine that’s a bit cloudy.
“Some people believe the more a wine is filtered, the more you are stripping away flavors that contribute to the overall feeling of a wine,” said Kilolo Strobert, a wine expert and owner of Fermented Grapes. “So think of cloudiness as a natural flavor booster.”
Why is natural wine sometimes described as “funky?”
When talking about natural wine, funky is a broad term people sometimes use to describe unfamiliar or unexpected flavors.
“When someone asks me for a funky wine I give them examples of what that could possibly mean,” Strobert said. “When you say funky, do you mean smells like a barnyard or manure, or are you asking me for a wine that tastes like beets and earth? Funk can be good when done right.”
Tips for exploring the world of natural wine
Keep an open mind
Some natural wines might taste completely different from what you’re expecting — which is part of the fun — so keep your mind open to the possibilities. Even if you’re not a fan of the first natural wine you taste, try not to get turned off because there’s probably something else out there that you’ll like.
Pair your wine with food
Many natural wines pair well with food without being overpowering or stealing the show, Miller said. Break open a few bottles of natural wine to share with friends at your next summer gathering. This will give you the chance to try different types of natural wine and learn more about what you like.
Chat with someone who’s knowledgeable about natural wine
“Go into a store and state what you are looking for, be upfront about your budget, and hopefully have an idea of what kind of wine you like,” Strobert said. Even if you have no idea what you want, a trained professional can ask you some questions to help you make the right decision, she added.