What is Natural Wine? But what the heck does “Natural Wine” mean? You can say that everything on the planet is natural by some definition, but like most things, they can be improved with a number of interventions and innovations. And what about all the other designators you see starting to be listed on menus, ads, and wine tech sheets? Well, let us help demystify the confusion and rundown some answers for you.
Natural wine: this is more of a concept than a well-defined set of characteristics and the definition is different depending on who you speak to, and their understanding of the wine making process. There are no formal certifications for natural wine. However, natural wine has recently become a trendy topic which is not a new concept and has actually been around for thousands of years. Our perspective of “natural wine” is wine that was made with no additives (oak flavoring, sugar, sulfites, yeast, acid, egg whites, fruit flavoring, etc.) Well, what about sulfites you may ask? Sulfites are naturally occurring and as a common practice, a small amount of sulfites are often used in natural wine as a stabilizer. Sulfites are actually a natural byproduct of fermentation and even natural winemakers will add a very small amount, not to enhance the wine but to keep the wine stable after bottling.
What about fining or clarifying the wine? There are different schools of thought. Some natural wine extremists will be adamant that a natural wine will have no intervention techniques to include fining, so you essentially cannot add or take anything away from the wine. Many natural winemakers do fining to a certain degree and it is a good thing because fining can eliminate extraneous odors like a hideous fecal (sulfur) smell not natural to the grape varietal. How sad it would be to have a beautiful wine and not be able to drink it due to a foul odor. If fining is used, it is minimal, meaning that most natural wines will have some cloudiness and will have more of a “wilder” flavor to them, which is a good thing. In order for these wines to be successful the grapes must be a high quality or the grapes will become off balanced resulting in one or more of the major wine structures (alcohol, acid, tannin, and sugar) to be too high, or non-existent.
Now this does not mean that all additives are bad. Some are natural like oak, yeast, sugar, acid, tannin, etc., which can positively affect the natural flavor and structure of a wine, depending on the varietal. There are additives out there that are synthetic and not natural. Believe it or not, many large production wines use additives to make their wines taste more appealing. In fact, some of the giant producers have research labs where they have hundreds of people taste wines and vote on the flavors they love most and then they design the wines to fit those profiles. If you’re shocked, you’ll be even more surprised to know that U.S. wine laws allow over 72 different chemical additives to tweak everything from color to acidity to even thickness. Some of America’s favorite wines can contain as many as 26 different additives in a bottle. We call this “Designer Wine” and not a single bottle we sell here at Complexity falls into this category.
Organic wine is wine made from grapes grown in accordance with principles of organic farming, which excludes the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides. If you are a U.S. certified organic winery you cannot add sulfites; which, in most scenarios will greatly reduce a wines shelf life. If you are a Europe or Canada certified winery, the certification will state a, “a wine made from organically made grapes that may contain added sulfites.” Something to remember also, is that just because a wine is organic does not mean that it is vegan.
Biodynamic vineyards date back to the 1920’s and use the natural resources to cultivate grapes without the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, or growth stimulants, an often exceed the standards and regulations for organic-certified farming. In addition to exceeding organic standards, they also invoke a complex process that incorporates astrological influences and lunar cycles. The benefits of this practice, protects and encourages the delicate ecosystem to create pure wines, expressive of the vineyard and vintage.
Sustainable wine refers to the ecologically responsible manner in which the grapes are grown and involve organic/biodynamic methods but not necessarily to gain certification. There are no restrictions or rules to sustainable farming, but rather, it reflects a commitment to the land to create a healthy environment and vibrant ecosystem.
Vegan? Isn’t all wine Vegan? The answer is NO. Surprised? Well…the primary reason a wine is not vegan friendly is due to the practice of traditional fining (also known as clarifying) to remove tiny particles of sediment in a wine that cannot be removed without filtration. The most commonly used fining agents are casein (a milk protein), albumin (egg whites), gelatin (animal protein) and isinglass (fish bladder protein). These are known as processing aids not additives to the wine. Once the fining agent collects the tiny haze molecules in the wine, they are precipitated out leaving a clear beautiful appearance. There are vegan options commonly used such as bentonite, carbon and somewhat recently, protein fining agents derived from peas and potatoes. How cool is that?
There you have it. There are a lot of common traits between the various classifications but hopefully we have demystified some of the nuances for you. Until next time… Salud!