Updated: Jul 22, 2020
EVERYTHING YOU EVER WANTED TO ASK ABOUT NATURAL WINE
So now that we've dealt with some of the claims of Cameron Diaz's new Avaline "Clean Wine" brand, let's turn our attention to - what the hell is ‘natural’ wine?
WHAT IS NATURAL WINE?
Natural wine lacks a strict (legal) definition, though there have been moves to put parameters around it such as the recently designated ‘Vin Methode Nature’ in France.
It is a broad church, self-defined by its proponents who share a similar philosophy, but usually it means the following:
Fermented with whatever natural yeasts are found on the grapes (as opposed to lab-cultivated commercial yeasts that are added)
Made with no “intervention” - you cannot add or take anything away - as opposed to ‘normal’ winemaking where you can de-acidify, acidify, de-alcoholize, enrich or otherwise enhance.
You cannot fine or filter, i.e. remove tiny particles that make the wine cloudy or potentially even spoil the wine.
Either NO sulphites (very risky) or very little sulphites can be added at bottling to preserve the wine.
Isabelle Legeron MW (a key natural wine proponent) says: "strictly speaking, natural wine is pure, fermented grape juice with nothing added. The aim is to ‘bottle a drink that is alive [and] full of the naturally occuring microbiology that existed on the grapes and in the cellar too’.
Natural wine will often be slightly cloudy (because it hasn’t been fined/filtered which would clarify it) and can be less stable. Without sufficient sulphur, the microbiological ‘aliveness’ of the wine means it's susceptible to going ‘off’ or re-fermenting.
At best, Natural wine can display thrilling complexity and concentration, thanks to the lack of fining and filtration as these processes always strip out some flavour. They can show stunning purity and liveliness, as well as reflecting terroir and individuality beautifully, because nothing is added or taken away. To make excellent natural wine you need extremely high quality grapes - perfectly clean (no mould) and very well-balanced in terms of sugars, acids and ripe tannins, because nothing can be fixed in 'post-production'.
Too much sulphur can also over sterilise a wine, neutralising some of the compounds that might lead to sensory complexity. Too little can lead to microbial spoilage. Getting the balance is a fine art, and will vary, vintage to vintage.
ISN'T ALL WINE NATURAL?
Everything on the planet is natural by some definition. It’s really a philosophical distinction that ‘natural’ winemakers are making, endeavouring to make something 'philosophically' pure.
Yes, at a basic level, grapes have everything they need to become wine. Simply crush ripe grapes so that their sugary juices comes into contact with the natural yeasts living on their skins, and then bottle the resulting alcoholic, fermented liquid.
But in practice, wine, like most things, can be improved with a number of interventions and innovations.
Sulphur, used since Roman times, keeps wine fresh and stable. Egg whites, and other animal or mineral derived substances can be used as fining agents, to clarify what may otherwise remain a cloudy liquid.
Cultivated yeasts can be added in place of wild yeasts for a more stable and predictable alcoholic fermentation.
The list goes on, with 70 “additives” or winemaking aids in the winemaker’s tool box to improve or enhance a wine.
However natural or unnatural (and indeed, some are perhaps more problematic than others) these are deemed to be is not the point: Natural winemakers reject all of these in favour of a purist approach - with perhaps just a little sulphur added at bottling.
SHOULD I BE WORRIED ABOUT ADDITIVES?
Are additives inherently bad? This is like asking are chemicals bad; it depends. It depends on intention, on degree, and on where you are drawing your philosophical lines. Each one needs to be taken on its own merits. As I explore in my blog on Avaline the fact that wine can contain up to 70 additives is often touted as proof of some toxic conspiracy theory.
But some of these “additives” are things that are naturally occurring in the grape anyway - like sugar and tartaric acid.
Others really depend on your perspective. Those egg whites used by the top Bordeaux chateaux for fining? Natural? Yes. Vegan? No.
Mega-Purple - a concentrate made from the highly-pigmented grape variety Rubired is allegedly widely used by producers in the US, particularly for <$15 wines, targeting a certain kind of consumer; a few drops will significantly deepen the colour of your wine (and don't forget we taste with our eyes) and add a touch of sweetness. For winemakers working towards a certain price point and taste profile, is it really that bad?
The premium version of this is adding a dash of Petit Verdot, or similar, into the blend for a deeper colour. And let’s not forget Valpolicella Ripasso, a classical DOC wine of the Veneto, is enhanced by co-fermenting the leftover raisined (“passito”) naturally sugary grapes from the production of Recioto della Valpolicella, a DOC Sweet wine. Without it, Valpolicella would be lighter and less complex. (Perhaps they should have branded it ‘Ripassissimo’ rather than Mega-Purple).
Some of these additives are better classified as winemaking aids - they don’t end up in the final wine, such as Bentonite clay, which is another option for fining. But if you're a hardcore vegan, whether there's traces of fish swim bladder or egg whites in your wine is hardly the point.
HOW CAN A WINE NOT BE VEGAN OR VEGETARIAN?
Some winemaking aids used for fining (clarification) are animal-derived.
Egg whites - traditionally used in top Bordeaux chateau for gentle fining. The egg white protein coagulates with the harsher tannins, creating a smoother final wine, without stripping out flavour or colour. The famously rich patisserie delicacy, the ‘Canelle’, is the result of a surplus of egg yolks. Necessity is the mother of all invention.
Isinglass - a fining agent made from a collagen derived from the swim bladders of fish.
Milk products such a Casein.
Rather disgustingly, Ox blood was traditionally used as a fining agent, until it was banned in 1997 during the mad cow disease scare.
Increasingly wines will specify if they are vegan/ vegetarian and I think it's likely that vegan options will supersede animal derived ones.
IS NATURAL WINE BETTER?
It depends on your definition of better:
BETTER AS IN TASTIER?
Natural wines can be thrilling. But the flip side of their liveliness and complexity is that sometimes the wine can spoil; literally go off. Unfortunately at a certain point compounds that can create complexity cross the threshold into faults.
BETTER AS IN MORE ENVIRONMENTALLY FRIENDLY?
This comes down to the individual winemaker. Natural wines are always organic, for a start. There is a certain element of self-selection here where a winemaker who is drawn to a more ‘natural' philosophy may be more ‘conscious’, in other ways, but we can’t make sweeping generalisations.
On the flip side, Jancis Robinson make the point that natural wine needs to be kept cooler, because it’s less stable and therefore is perhaps more energy intensive in that regard. There is also more spoilage, so that is more wasteful.
One of the other key environmental impacts of wine is the carbon intensity of shipping in glass bottles. So no points for the natural wine movement here.
BETTER AS IN HEALTHIER?
On the healthy side, we have the beneficial anthocyanins and antioxidants which are contained in all red wines - natural or not.
The main ‘unhealthy’ component is alcohol. Natural wine is still wine, surprise surprise, so no panacea here.
Natural wine sometimes is slightly lower alcohol because the natural yeasts are often less efficient at converting sugar to alcohol. This means some natural wines MAY be marginally less alcoholic than a ‘normal’ counterpart from the same region in the same year, but this is by no means guaranteed. Valentina Passalacqua’s natural Puglian Negroamaro clocks in 11% when typically you might expect 14% from a Puglian Negroamaro.
Organically produced wine (which all natural wine is) by rights should have less traces of pesticides and herbicides. That is not to say that non-organic wine is full of it glyphosate. The organic vs non-organic debate transcends wine so I won’t enter that here.
The additives left over in conventional winemaking are usually negligible, barely traceable, harmless or at least harmless in the approved quantities (like most things in life - sugar, salt, sunshine).
Most well-made wine is produced with a judicious, minimal use of these winemaking aids anyway. Again, no good winemaker starts off thinking - how much can I add in to this wine?
Only really the very cheapest, commercially produced wine might start to have 'additives' at levels that might give you pause. And as discussed above, each of these 'additives' would have to be analysed on its own merits as to whether it’s 'unhealthy' or not.
Personally, I would view a glass of well-made wine (sustainable farming, minimal intervention) - whether the winemaker considers herself a 'natural' winemaker or not - as "healthier" in my own definition, than a glass of say, Echo Falls or Barefoot.
SHOULD I BE WORRIED ABOUT SULPHITES?
Sulphur is used as an antioxidant and antiseptic and is a wonder product in wine. Levels are regulated and all well-made wine would fall well under the legal thresholds.
Some people (~1%) are actually allergic to sulphites, and so will have severe reaction. Others can develop a sensitivity to sulphites over time. If you’re struggling after even a couple of glasses of wine, (flushing, headaches) try exploring low and no sulphur wines to see if it helps. Worth a shot, eh?
But unless you have a specific allergy, there’s no evidence that sulphites cause hangovers, and certainly not at the levels you find in wine. Raisins and prunes can contain as much as 500 - 2,000ppm, where as the limit for most conventional wine is 200ppm.
WILL NATURAL WINES AVOID A HANGOVER?
Hangovers are a combination of the effects of alcohol, congeners and dehydration on the body. When the body processes alcohol (ethanol) is produces acetaldehyde (ethanal) which is toxic. The faster and more you drink, the more of this builds up. This is what the breathalyser test looks for.
As discussed above, aside from those with an actual sulphite allergy, there's no evidence that they have adverse effects at the quantities you find in all wine (under 400ppm at the very top end).
Some people believe that the chemicals; pesticide & herbicide residues, certain additives etc contribute the hangovers. There are no peer reviewed studies to support this, though a lot of people hold this view based on anecdotal evidence and swear that natural or even 'just' organic wine doesn't give you a hangover.
Personally, I have noticed on two occasions recently when I happened to only drink natural wine, I was surprised at how much better I felt in the morning. (I had a sense that a roughly equivalent amount of 'conventional' wine (2-3 glasses) I would have felt a bit dusty in the morning). But this is a long way from a scientific statement, and I wouldn't like to make a sweeping generalisation. Why not try it for yourself?
Sadly, if you drink too much of any wine, you will not feel well - 'natural' or not.
WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN ORGANIC, NATURAL & BIODYNAMIC?
Organic can mean different things under different legislation. There’s also a difference between 'organic wine' and ‘wine made with organic grapes’. Grape-growing is one thing, winemaking is another. In theory you could use non-organic additives in the winemaking, even if your grapes were organically farmed.
In the US there are two categories - Organic Wine must have no sulphites added. "Made with Organic Grapes" means Sulphites are allowed, up to 100ppm.
Organic vs Natural
Generally, under organic winemaking, certain practices are permitted that would NOT be permitted under a natural winemaking philosophy:
e.g. Adding in yeast (an “additive”) rather than using those found on the grape skins. Winemaking aids like fining agents, and interventions like sterile filtration or pasteurisation.
Biodynamic is an agricultural approach based on the teachings of Rudolph Steiner. It goes further than organic and works with the dynamic 'energy cycle' of the vineyard and the cosmos in an ultra-sustainable manner. It aims to return microbiological life to worn-out, depleted soils. Key to it are the ‘biodynamic preparations’ (kind of homeopathic-style home remedies) and being governed by the lunar calendar for harvesting and planting etc.
If it sounds wacky, it’s because it is. It is surprisingly widespread amongst top wine producers, despite how ‘unscientific’ and labour intensive it is. Some people will evangelise about it. Others are very sceptical. My view? It’s a combination of the successes of organic viticulture, plus an extreme level of care and attention to detail.
Often you will find all three of these philosophies (organic / biodynamic / natural) co-existing in a winery but they are all distinct approaches.
Organic wine (a defined term) is not necessarily “natural wine” (a generally undefined term).
Meanwhile, all “natural wine” is at least organic, but not necessarily biodynamic.
Clear as mud?!