Natural Wine – what is it and why is it a trend?
You may have heard of natural wine, or orange wine. But not many people fully understand what it is, and why it is such a big trend. Well, I’m going to explain the history of natural wine, as well as dispel a few common myths about it.
What is natural wine?
Generally speaking, natural wine is made as naturally as possible. While other wines contain preservatives and are processed to stabilise the wine or control acid and alcohol levels, natural wines are not. For example, most winemakers add extra sulphur to ensure that the wine is consistent, but natural wine is made with minimal or no added sulphur. Natural wine makers argue that adding sulphur will dull a wine’s vibrancy. However, the lack of added sulphur makes the flavour and quality fluctuate, from bottle to bottle.
The reason why ‘natural wine’ is a bit of a confusing term is because there is no official regulation or definition. Some in the wine industry prefer to use terms such as ‘minimum intervention’, ‘low intervention’ or ‘non-invasive’, because they feel that is a more accurate and technical description of the way that this type of wine is made. Furthermore, natural wines vary wildly, as some are more cloudy and funky, and others are pure and clean.
Is it the same as organic and biodynamic wine?
Natural wines are made with as little intervention from the winemaker as possible. However, not all natural wines are officially certified as organic or biodynamic (for an explanation of the term biodynamic, go here), because accreditations are expensive, and natural wines are often made by small producers who cannot afford this extra cost.
Furthermore, wines certified as organic can have some additives and industrial processes after the grapes have been harvested. Organic producers in the European Union, for example, can add sulphites to wine, as long each bottle’s total quantity doesn’t surpass 100 parts per million. However, as natural winemakers are interested in making products that appeal to environmentally conscious consumers, it is likely that the grapes will be grown organically, and possibly also biodynamically.
Is orange wine the same as natural wine?
One of the terms often associated with natural wine is orange wine. This is when white wine grapes are fermented with their skins on. The white wine grapes are fermented anywhere from a few hours to a few months, which is what causes the colour to range from golden yellow to bright orange. The name comes from the colour, not because the wine is made from oranges!
Orange wines aren’t always natural, but most of them are. This is because orange wine is often also made in a non-interventionist way. They also tend to have a different, ‘funky’ flavour.
When was natural wine invented? Why is it a trend now?
Wine made naturally or with ‘minimum intervention’ is the way that wine was originally made, and the earliest knowledge we have of this goes back around 8,000 years to Georgia. According to Lazenne:
Thousands of years ago, the Georgians produced wine in a very simple way. Red and white grapes were loaded into giant clay amphorae, known as Qhevri, and buried underground for months where they would ferment slowly.
There is historical evidence that suggests that natural wine started to be replaced with ‘refined’ or ‘sophisticated’ wine at least by the end of the 17th century. (The history of sulphites complicates this, as some people believe that sulphites in one form or another were used to preserve wine as early as the eighth century BC. ‘Sophisticated wine’ means that the wine was refined or manipulated – for example, winemakers filtering it or adding sweeteners. In the following centuries, adding sulphates and other preservatives became the norm.
However, in the last 20 or so years, natural wine began to resurface. There are a couple of different theories about why this is. Firstly, as there has been increased concern about climate change, wineries began to look at the ways that they might be contributing to it. For example, it was reported in 2015 that only 8.4% of vineyards in France were organic, and that France was Europe’s most prolific user of pesticides by volume. This is because grapes are extremely prone to pests and disease. However, a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that about 30% of global emissions leading to climate change are attributable to agricultural activities, including pesticide use. This is a problem because the more that pesticides are intensively used, the more likely it is that insects develop a resistance and the pesticide becomes ineffective. This then leads to the use of even more pesticides, and the cycle continues. Producers of natural wines have decided to stop using pesticides and return to an organic means of production. They therefore provide options to consumers who are looking to drink an environmentally-conscious wine.
Other than the environmental concerns, wine consumers are simply looking for new experiences. Natural wine can definitely provide that, as the flavour and quality can vary from bottle to bottle. This also ties into the increasing trend for sour and fermented beverages, such as kombucha and apple-cider vinegar. Furthermore, there is the very attractive myth that natural wines, as they are low in sulphate or completely free of sulphates, will reduce potential hangovers.
Will drinking natural wine actually reduce hangovers?
No. Consuming alcohol to excess, even if it is natural wine, will lead to a hangover. It is not believed that sulphates cause headaches or other symptoms of a hangover – for example, there are sulphates in other foods such as dried apricots, but these don’t cause hangovers.
Is it possible to make natural wine in the UK?
Yes, Davenport Vineyards have created wines that do not have commercial yeasts, and have low levels of sulphur (with some that have no added sulphur at all). Davenport Vineyards is one of only three commercial UK vineyards to become exclusively organic and registered for organic management with the Soil Association.
Where can I buy natural wine in the UK?
You can buy natural wine at:
Where can I learn more?
Master of Wine Isabelle Legeron has written the book Natural Wine, which explains the process behind natural wine, and gives over 140 wine recommendations. To learn more about orange wine, head to Simon J. Woolf’s book Amber Revolution, which explains the history of this wine, and highlights 180 of the best producers worldwide.