Kombucha by day, natural wine by night. It’s all very west coast cool right now.
But natural wine has been around for as long as, well… wine. The Romans and Greeks weren’t adding powdered oak or acetaldehyde to perfect their wines. They were picking naturally sun baked grapes and letting the wild yeast ferment the sugary goodness into alcohol.
Natural wine today doesn't have a certification or a formal definition. But in general, natural wine makers tend to live by the viticultural mantra “nothing added and nothing taken away". Starting in the vineyards, this means using no chemical pesticides on the vines or chemical fertilisers in the earth. When the grapes are picked this is often done by hand, as opposed to machine. And fermentation is left to happen naturally, with whatever yeast happens to be on the grapes’ skins. The young wine is seldom left to mature in anything but stainless steel tanks or neutral oak - the idea is to let the flavour of the grape shine through, reflecting the vineyard’s terroir (we’ll talk about that another time!). The wine isn’t fined or filtered meaning there might be a few bits floating around. And little to no sulphur dioxide (so2) is added.
So2 is commonly used in winemaking to sterilize and stabilise. Without it, microbes can be left in the wine which can spoil it over time. In the US they permit 350 parts per million of So2 in wine and natural wines have about 20. Before you ask, this doesn't mean you are less likely to get a hangover with natural wine. So2 doesn't cause headaches! The main take away is that natural wines can be less stable and should generally be drunk quickly (as in, don't try to age it. Feel free to drink the bottle as quickly as you like). Unfortunately there is no evidence, yet, that natural wines are any better for you than un-natural wines.
So what is the rest of the world doing to make wines un-naturally? For most this means a little addition of So2, perhaps some bentonite clay to help remove some of those floating particles, and often new oak barrels for ageing. But for some wine makers this may mean a whole host of things - from additional acid, to sugar, to oak powder. There is even a machine that can remove alcohol from a wine. Although I'm not an advocate of the latter, wine maker’s intervention is necessary and generally a very good thing.
As with all wines, some are good and some are not. I’m not going to tell you which ones on this blog (unless someone wants Unwined to advertise for them.) But some advice - if you don't like cider, lots of natural wines won’t be for you.