The Complete Guide to ‘Natural Wine’
Even if you’re just slightly into wine, you’ve likely heard about ‘natural wine’ in the UK. The natural wine movement has become a thing here in the UK, but perhaps you’ve wondered what natural wine even is, or how it compares to organic and biodynamic wines?
Natural … from clothing to bread to shampoo, it’s hard to take too many steps down a (thriving) high street without seeing adverts for all things natural. Sometimes replaced by words like ‘authentic’ or ‘pure’, this is the vocabulary of our times and it’s being used to sell things with impressive success. But what does it actually mean in the context of the things we buy and, in particular, for wine?
“Relating to, produced by or according to nature, to the natural world or human nature; provided by or based on nature; not miraculous or supernatural; not the work of humans, not artificial; not interfered with by humans …” So says The Chambers Dictionary (ed.2000) on the definition of ‘natural’.
In this blog post we’ll dive deeper than the Chambers dictionary definition of natural and answer the following questions about natural wine:
- What are natural wines and what’s considered a natural wine?
- What’s the difference between natural and normal wine?
- Is there sulphur in natural wines? Are natural wines sulphite or sulfite free?
- Does natural wine have additives?
- Are natural wines also organic or biodynamic?
- Can I buy natural wines that are certified organic?
- Are orange wines natural wines?
- Are there any downsides to natural wines?
Note: you can click on these questions above to be taken to their answers directly. Now let’s get started!
What are natural wines and what’s considered a natural wine in the UK?
Beloved by many of the world’s leading sommeliers and championed by the likes of Master of Wine, Isabelle Legeron, natural wines have become increasingly present on restaurant wine lists and on wine merchant shelves. In her book, “Natural Wine: An Introduction to Organic and Biodynamic Wines Made Naturally”, Legeron writes, “natural wine is a continuum, like ripples on a pond. At the epicentre of these ripples, are growers who produce wines absolutely naturally – nothing added and nothing removed. As you move away from this centre, the additions and manipulations begin, making the wine less and less natural, the further you go out”. It seems that “nothing added and nothing removed” is the simplest way to describe natural wines and we would have to agree with Legeron who says that to make wine in this way requires fastidious care and attention, because the risks of wine faults are so much greater. For wine to be truly natural, in the Chambers sense then, it should not be “interfered with by humans” and that means limiting the options to help counter problems like those caused by bacteria and excessive oxygen.
It’s important to remember, however, that unlike organic wine and biodynamic wine, there is little in the way of a legal definition for natural wines. Because of this, it’s not so straightforward to give a clear answer about what makes a wine natural, but it would be fair to expect a wine that’s labelled as natural to:
- Be made from grapes grown by small-scale, independent growers
- Usually be made from grapes grown on more sustainable, organic and biodynamic vineyards, although they’re not always certified organic or biodynamic – so ask for specifics!
- Be fermented with no added yeasts or additives, such as acid
- Be made with a restricted use of sulphur with limits often lower than those currently stipulated by organic and biodynamic certifying bodies
- Be made with no fining or filtration and no other heavy manipulations in the cellar
During 2020, an official definition of natural wine did emerge in France known as ‘Vin Méthode Nature’. This is surely a useful move that may well help to grow this sector further, as it will add reassurance for the consumer. To qualify for the ‘Vin Méthode Nature’, grapes must be hand harvested, and also certified as having been grown organically by a recognised certifying body. Yeast for fermentation must only be found in the same winery or vineyard, rather than being bought in. All additions, such as acids, tannins, sugars and colourants etc. are banned, and no other interventions or manipulations are allowed. Additions of various sulphur derivatives are restricted to low levels or are absent.
What’s the difference between normal and natural wine?
It’s a good question and it can be confusing. If you’re still wondering about this – take a look at the points above about how a natural wine would generally compare to a normal wine. While a so-called normal wine might be made from grapes grown on large vineyards that are treated with pesticides, a natural wine wouldn’t be. Normal wine is normally made with additives and yeasts, whereas a natural wine wouldn’t have anything added to it. However, as there is no official regulated definition of natural wine other than for Vin Méthode Nature regulated wines – it’s important to ask for specifics when it comes to natural wine, as it really could be anything. If you’re looking for an organic or biodynamic natural wine, it’s also important to look out for certification.
Is there sulphur in natural wines? Are natural wines sulphite/sulfite free?
Some natural winemakers will use very small amounts of added sulphur (below 50 parts per million), while others will use none at all. As with the definition of natural wine, there is no set amount that natural winemakers have to adhere to when it comes to sulphur/sulfites in natural wine, but low or none is encouraged.
A key point about organic wine specifically is that organic winemakers also make wines with fewer additives and sulphites to begin with. For sulphites specifically, permitted sulphur limits are already lower for organic wines than conventional wines. However, many organic winemakers today are also choosing to make ‘low sulphur added’ wines and even ‘no sulphur added’ wines, and there are plenty of options to pick from if you’re looking to avoid added sulphites and additives too. Somewhat confusingly a ‘no sulphur added’, certified organic wine, is not necessarily a true ‘natural wine’ always in that sense that the yeasts used for fermentation have been purchased in specially, rather than been sourced from the grapes grown on the vineyard itself. Nevertheless, if you’re after a more ‘natural’ wine, you might find that our low sulphur added or no sulphur added organic and biodynamic wines tick a lot of boxes too!
Does natural wine have additives? A note about additives in natural winemaking
If you’re wondering what sort of ingredients can end up in wine, then here are some examples. Tartaric acid can be added to make wines crisper and fresher in taste, sugar can support lengthier fermentation times, whilst adding water can temper excessive alcohol. Beneficial strains of yeasts are popular in kick-starting and controlling fermentations. The list of additives used to make wine today could go on and on!
Generally speaking, natural winemakers would sometimes only add small amounts of added sulphur and nothing else. However as natural wine doesn’t have a regulated definition, it’s important to ask questions if you’re wondering. Under organic winemaking standards, there’s also a restricted use of around 80 additives that can be used during winemaking.
Are natural wines also organic and/or biodynamic?
The short answer is not always! While most natural wines are made using organic and/or biodynamic methods, they won’t necessarily be labelled as such. As always, the only way to know if a wine is truly organic or biodynamic is if it has certification.
We cannot help but raise a wry smile when we hear our friends in the natural wine movement complain about how they are seen by the cynics; they want to move away from an oft-perceived image of sandal-wearing, slightly wacky oddballs making experimental wines. Thirty years ago, when we started selling organic and biodynamic wines, we were faced with similar scepticism with organic wines, and it took a lot of hard work to move away from this and for our wines to be taken seriously by the wider population.
Core to our success was our decision to only ever import and sell organic or biodynamic wines that were certified by an appropriate governing body. We also chose to support estates that were in the conversion process to full certification because we believed – and still do – that supporting those that are making the shift is important. It takes three years to become fully organic.
Some further grower-led groups are popping up with guidelines for their natural grower members. These include L’Association des Vins Naturels and Les Vins S.A.I.N.S in France, Asociación de Productores de Vinos Naturales de España in Spain and Italy’s VinNatur. Legeron says that their regulations are far stricter than those set up by the official organic and biodynamic certifying bodies, but charters are not legally-binding and so our stumbling block remains.
Can I buy natural wines that are certified organic in the UK?
Yes! We have many natural wines that are also certified organic for UK customers. We do not have special symbols for natural wines and many of our certified organic and biodynamic wines will be mostly natural. See more recommendations for natural wines here.
Are orange wines natural wine? What’s the difference between orange and natural wines?
Orange wine vs natural wine: In short, they can be, but they’re also different. Orange wines are a white wine made with the juice enjoying an extended time on the grape skins and pips (i.e., made as red wines usually are), which gives orange wines a distinctive colour. The reason that people assume orange wines are natural wines is that orange wines can be made in a natural, non-intervention style too. Some winemakers will leave the fermenting juice alone for a matter of days but others will leave it for months, sometimes extending beyond a year! As a result, orange wines can also have oxidative qualities, tasting a little sour, nutty or funky. They can certainly match foods very well, due to the heightened levels of tannins within – you can browse our selection of organic orange wines here.
Are there any downsides to natural wines?
At Vintage Roots we support the natural wine movement. The ethos behind natural wines is akin to that held by our organic and biodynamically certified producers – indeed we work with organic winemakers who consider themselves natural winemakers.
We remain wary about the lack of proper regulation. Layers of administration are tedious and we are sympathetic to those that argue the idea of certification is somewhat counter to the natural movement, but in the end, who is looking out for the consumer/shopper? For some the anarchic labels that have become a feature of natural wines are all part of the fun… for others they can be a bit of a turn off!
The cost of many natural wines is high, with prices well in excess of £15-£20+ per bottle and that makes them unobtainable for many. Also, the decision to work with less sulphur does make the wines at increased risk of deterioration. However, at Vintage Roots, we select our no sulphur added and low sulphur added organic wines very rigorously. Selection is vital, and over the last five years, we have found no discernible difference with these wines ‘going off’ early. You can enjoy them with confidence!
I’ve bought my first natural wine – what should I expect?
Sometimes, a wine like you have never drunk before! As with all wine selections and categories, you will have the good, the bad and the downright ugly!
Chances are the wine could be cloudy and have some sediment. This is because the wine will not have been filtered or fined. The aroma is likely to a little wilder than what’s familiar – with earthy, nutty, farmyard-like smells being much more common. These wines cannot be pigeonholed. Lovers of the style will tell you that the palate will be more alive and vivid. It’s not unlikely that some of the flavours may strike you as a touch yeasty, or even sour, and towards a cider taste. For many, natural wines make excellent options for food and wine pairings.
Pierre Jancou writes, “some natural wines need to be opened several hours before they are served. They can smell unappealing at first or contain gas, making them slightly fizzy. They are also likely to contain sediment. A little bit of patience and a decanter are all that is needed.”
Can I buy natural wines from Vintage Roots?
Yes! We have many natural wines that are also certified organic for UK customers. We do not have special symbols for natural wines and many of our certified organic and biodynamic wines will be mostly natural. Here are a few suggestions for our best and most liked natural organic and biodynamic wines though.
Meinklang Weisser Mulatschak 2018 (Austria)
A living wine with bags of character made from Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer and Welschriesling. Appley and fresh, with hints of rose and lychee.
Champagne Fleury – Blanc de Noirs
Biodynamic for over 30 years, this Pinot Noir-based Champagne is dry, and has excellent depth and concentration, whilst having a soft elegant mousse.
Davenport Horsemonden Dry White – Kent
Complex citrus-driven flavours make this a joy to drink. Expressive and balanced, this is English winemaking at its best.
Côtes du Rhône – Château Rochecolombe
Impressive, imposing aroma of blackberry, damson and a hint of wild scrubland herbs. The palate is equally enveloping and inviting with copious waves of dark fruit interweaving with notes of liquorice and spice. 60% Grenache and 40% Syrah, a superb example.
Here’s a few more organic natural wines to consider
As with all our wines we enjoy your feedback, do feel free to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call free on 0800 980 4992 or indeed review online.