Natural wine is more of a concept than a well-defined category with agreed-upon characteristics. In its purest form, it is wine made from unadulterated fermented grape juice and nothing else.
Many people — winemakers, distributors, writers, sommeliers — take issue with the term “natural wine.” Some prefer the phrase “low-intervention” wine, or “naked” wine, or “raw” wine. Scruggs calls her product “just fucking fermented juice.” But “natural wine” is the term that is most widely used, and anyone at a natural-inclined wine store, wine bar, or restaurant will know what you mean when you use it.
For the purpose of this article, I am working under the assumption that natural wine is not a fraud, nor are its supporters delusional, but rather that it’s a highly debated and endlessly complicated topic that never ceases to get all manner of people riled up. Also, the stuff is very often delicious.
Understanding natural wine requires a basic understanding of the (generally complex) winemaking process. In the simplest terms, that process has two parts: growing and picking grapes, and then turning them into wine through fermentation. Natural wine, then, is made from grapes not sprayed with pesticides or herbicides. Natural winemakers handpick their grapes instead of relying on machines to harvest them. When it comes to turning those handpicked grapes into juice, natural winemakers rely on native yeast, the stuff that’s whizzing around in the air and will land on grapes if you put them in a vat for long enough, to set off natural fermentation. And unlike most conventional winemakers, they don’t use any additives (like fake oak flavor, sugar, acid, egg white, etc.) in the winemaking process.
Occasionally, some natural winemakers will add some sulfites, a preservative and stabilizer that winemakers have been using longer than any other additive. Sulfites ensure that the wine you drink tastes roughly the same as it did when it went into the bottle. Natural winemakers either use no added sulfites or use it in small quantities, while conventional winemakers use up to 10 times as much. They also use it differently: Conventional winemakers add sulfites to grapes to kill off natural yeasts, and then add more throughout the rest of the winemaking process; natural winemakers will add a little bit just before bottling. The purest of the pure — naturally fermented grape juice with no sulfites — is often called “zero-zero,” referring to the lack of added anything.
The presence of sulfites doesn’t necessarily disqualify a bottle from the natural wine category, though. Small amounts of sulfites — around 10 to 35 parts per million — are in natural wine circles generally considered an acceptable amount of preservative to add in the bottling stage. Conventional wine, on the other hand, often uses much higher amounts of the stuff, which some natural wine supporters think “deadens” the flavor of the finished product. In the US, the maximum amount is 350 parts per million.
Given that natural wine is often described as “cloudy,” “funky,” and/or “barnyard-y,” many people assume that it’s always loudly, inherently weird. While natural wine is often unfiltered (that leads to cloudiness) and can veer sharply into funky territory, there’s also lots of natural wine that won’t feel like an acquired taste if you’re used to buying yours at Costco.
“There’s a misconception that natural wine is one thing — that it’s ‘funky’ or ‘not clean,’” Scruggs says. “And that’s an injustice. Because natural wine can still honor your palate if you’ve been drinking wine from the grocery store, but the cool thing is that it’s chemical-free, and that’s awesome.” Consumers shouldn’t be afraid to tell sommeliers and wine store owners that they want a natural wine that tastes like two-buck Chuck, she says. As longtime natural wine advocate Pascaline Lepeltier told GQ, “Whatever you like as a more traditional wine drinker, you can find a [natural] alternative everywhere in the world.”
And then there’s glou-glou, a popular type of natural wine made to be drunk without having to think about it too much. (The French term is onomatopoetic, their version of “glug-glug.”) While it doesn’t taste like two-buck Chuck, it does generally taste like delicious electrified juice: These are lighter red wines, often served chilled, and downed quickly.
What it isn’t
“Conventional” winemaking — shorthand for non-natural wine — is defined by technical intervention. In the vineyard, that intervention comes in the form of pesticides and herbicides. In the cellar, intervention generally comes in the form of lab-grown yeast (to control the fermentation process and regulate flavor), acid (to increase the wine’s acidity, which in turn can help the wine age better), and sulfites added at the time of bottling (to preserve flavor). Many winemakers also add sugar, which doesn’t make the wine sweet but instead, through turning into alcohol, creates the perception of “body.” (It’s common practice in Burgundy, Lefcourt notes.)
On top of that, there are more than 60 approved additives that American winemakers can use to manipulate their wines without listing them on the label. “A lot of wine is a grape product, plus all these millions of additives to create a product that is reliably the same every year,” Lefcourt, who owns Jenny & Francois Selections, explains. “It’s like Coca-Cola.” Egg white and isinglass, which is made from fish bladders, are often used to clarify wine, which makes many bottles non-vegan but not labeled as such.
Conventional wine, as we know it now, is less than a century old. Technological advances are the most influential factor in this change: Pesticides became widespread after World War II, when soldiers sprayed their sleeping bags with DDT to prevent the spread of diseases; commercial yeast entered the market in the mid ’60s. But wine criticism has also played a small role. Partially to thank is American wine critic Robert Parker, who established a 100-point wine rating system in the 1980s. Parker billed himself as the first wine critic not influenced by industry interests, an objective consumer advocate.
As Parker gained notoriety, his scoring began to significantly affect wine sales, so winemakers began manipulating their product to fit his tastes, which often favored full-bodied, fruity wines. “When that started happening,” Lefcourt explains, “there was a homogenization of what people thought good wine was.” (Parker has denied the existence of the “Parkerization” phenomenon, and instead attributed these trends to a “successful industry.”)
That homogenization of taste, Lefcourt says, led winemakers to rely more heavily on additives that would ensure a consistent result every year, regardless of climate or yield. This gets to the core of a large debate between natural wine fanatics and those who think they’ve gone off the rails: Is the “best” wine made with minimal intervention? Or is it made by seasoned, well-informed winemakers looking to achieve a particular result that reflects their land and traditions? This debate likely won’t slow down anytime soon.
Where it came from, and where it’s going
Most people agree that the modern natural wine movement began in rural France, where a handful of low-intervention winemakers who had been toiling (and tilling) in their own organic bubbles found out about each other and began growing a community. “These were natural winemakers who were isolated in their appellations [regions], maybe the only ones there working organically in the vines with little to no additives in the cellar,” Lefcourt remembers.
One of the first organized, formal natural wine tastings was La Dive Bouteille in 1999, which started with 15 winemakers and around 100 attendees, Lefcourt says. Now, La Dive boasts hundreds of winemakers and thousands of attendees and has become a much-anticipated, hype-filled annual event for the natural wine world.