What is natural wine?
Sales of organic wine were up nearly 50% in 2019 and we are increasingly looking for other indicators to tick our ethically minded boxes. ‘Natural’ wine is one of these. Originally championed by a wave of hipster wine bars in Paris, Berlin and London, natural wines are now on the lips of a wider drinking public everywhere. However, they are the subject of vehement debate between ardent fans who love their cloudy, slightly cidery extremes and those, generally older and/or classically trained winos, who rant about ‘faulty’ wine-making then bang their fists on the table and shout “all natural wine is bad”.
What is natural wine? Frustratingly, and confusingly, there is no legal definition, but it is generally accepted to be made with minimal intervention in the vineyard and the winery. This means that grapes are grown organically and/or bio-dynamically (where the vineyard is treated as a complete ecosystem and governed by certain ecological, ethical and spiritual principles), and fermented with yeasts occurring naturally in the air in the winery. The wine is made with no additives – up to 70 additional ingredients are permitted in traditional wine-making (including some organic wines) which, allergens aside, don’t have to be disclosed on the label. These include sweeteners, acidifiers, stabilisers and other things to make the wine more palatable, as well fining agents to remove particles in the wine that make it murky, and sulphur dioxide to keep it fresh.
Natural wines particularly appeal to a millennial demographic, a generation turned off by what they see as the stuffy world of ‘serious’ wine, and are often made by their contemporaries who have thrown away the rule book of conventional wine-making. In fact, natural wine is nothing new: it is the way wine was made for thousands of years before progress bought the techniques we now term conventional.
That’s not to say that natural wines are more healthy – the alcohol in all wine is potentially more damaging to health than the minimal residues of substances used in wine-making that have all been screened for safety. The extremes of natural wine-making may be an acquired taste, but many natural wines are immaculately clean tasting and would pass muster with even the stuffiest of the natural wine deniers. These artisanal wines are labour-intensive to make, so tend to cost more than their massproduced cousins – one drinker’s fun and funky may be another’s fatally faulty, so seek out specialist suppliers such as Les Caves de Pyrene, or ask for guidance from wine retailers (virtually, if needed, via social media), and experiment to see where you sit on the natural wine spectrum.
The best natural wines to buy…
From Beaujolais, this gamay is gorgeously light and fresh. Try it chilled with garlic butter gnocchi with crispy fried purple sprouting broccoli.
A world away from cheap retsina knocked back on holiday in Greece, this is gently flavoured with the pine resin used to line the clay jars in which the wine is aged. A left-field match for asparagus and crispy bacon quiche.
Bursting with peachy fruit and lime zest, and very versatile with food. Ace with smashed new potato and radish salad with aïoli.
Hats off to Co-op for its growing range of eco-friendly wines. This is its first organic prosecco, and it’s unfiltered. Bang-on bubbles for a pocket-friendly price.
A garnacha (the same grape as grenache) from high-altitude, biodynamic vineyards and made with no added sulphites. Very gluggable – great with an aubergine parmigiana.
Making wines this way for 35 years, the Lapierre family were early adopters of the natural wine ethos and are now shining stars of Beaujolais. Light and fresh with crunchy fruit, this wine is best slightly chilled.
So much prosecco is made industrially and offers simple, affordable fizz with little else of interest about it. This is something very different – slightly cloudy with gentle bubbles, it reminds me of lemon curd on toast but is bone dry and incredibly refreshing.