Once considered fringe, natural wine is seemingly everywhere these days. It's made appearances in grocery stores, boutique wine shops and even has a slew of dedicated subscription services. The eccentric labels and niche status associated with natural wine could even be perceived as trendy. Still, the concept is as old school as it gets, with producers eschewing the new industrialized norm and stripping winemaking down to its purest, most traditional form.
Natural wine evangelist Alice Feiring, author of "Natural Wine for the People," puts it perfectly: “nothing added, nothing taken away.” And, while the science behind winemaking is enough to make your head spin, you don’t need to understand malolactic fermentation to enjoy red, white, rosé, sparkling, or even orange natural wine. Natural wine is carefree yet skillfully crafted, trendy yet traditional, and ultimately really delicious. So get ready to dip your toe (or dive!) into the wild world of natural wine without ever leaving your couch.
If you’re looking for a deep dive, check out Natural Wine for the People. Natural wine evangelist, journalist, and author Alice Feiring breaks down the ins and outs of the fascinating wine category, from how to find it to stories about her favorite producers.
What is natural wine?
Instead of a category with official requirements, natural (aka low intervention) wine is a philosophy adopted by wine producers. Loosely defined, natural wine is wine made using organically – or biodynamically-grown grapes that are hand-picked and spontaneously fermented with wild yeasts, without the use of additives and little (if any) added sulfites.
This low intervention process allows the grapes and terroir as well as the ambient yeast and bacteria to influence the wine throughout production and after bottling. These winemakers also choose not to filter or fine. (Some natural wines will have sediment at the bottom of the bottle, these are byproducts of the production method and don’t affect flavor or quality.)
Wild – or spontaneous fermentation – results in wines that often have more interesting textures and more complex flavors. People often describe natural wines as tasting “alive” – and they are! The yeasts and microbes that make wine, well... wine are still alive. Translation: natural wines aren’t meant to be cellared for 20 years but enjoyed now.
Because natural winemakers use various grapes, you can expect to find white, red, rosé, and sparkling natural wines. Another style to know is orange wine or skin contact wine, where white grapes are left to macerate with the skins for a more extended period than white wine. The time with the skins gives orange wine more tannins, a fuller body with more complex flavors, and its characteristic pale orange to deep russet color.
If bubbles are your go-to, try pét-nat, short for the French term “pétillant naturel” or “naturally sparkling.” Pét-nat is bottled while still undergoing its first round of fermentation, giving the wine its natural effervescence. (Champagne and sparkling wines are made by adding yeast and sugar to still wine, causing a second fermentation to take place in the bottle, which creates carbonation, followed by aging.)
And then there’s glou-glou, the “natty” wine version of session beer – low ABV and endlessly quaffable and crushable. Glou-glou can be red, white, rose, or orange from any region and are usually considered light, bright summer sippers.
Because natural wine doesn’t rely on commercial yeast, its slow fermentation creates wonderfully complex and unexpected flavors. They can taste tart like a sour beer, savory, saline, or even funky, but there’s not one adjective that describes natural wine as a whole. The range of flavors is so vast, the only way to understand them is to start tasting.
Okay, so then what is conventional wine?
Conventional wine is fundamentally different from natural wine, whether it’s "Two-Buck Chuck" or costs a pretty penny. Conventional wine, aka non-natural wine, is made using a relatively young process – synthetic pesticides were introduced in the 1930s, and in 1965 the first commercial yeasts were used in a large winery. Conventional wine is produced with the aid of herbicides, pesticides, and machine pickers. These winemakers can control the fermentation process and achieve consistency using commercial yeasts, yeast nutrients, additives, sulfites to inhibit microbes, sterilizers, and even an industrial grape juice concentrate to color-correct wines. These are tools used to control the finished product’s flavor, smell, color, and texture.
What about organic or biodynamic wine?
Natural wines start from grapes grown organically or biodynamically. Still, organic and biodynamic wines are categories in their own right, and unlike natural or low intervention wine, these have official guidelines and certifications. So if you’re interested in organic and biodynamic wines, check out Plonk Wine Club.
How can I tell if a wine is natural?
This question is THE million-dollar question because none of the bottles will say “natural” or “low intervention.” And, in a regular wine shop, you’ll get directed to the organic section if the person is not familiar with the category. Seeking out natural wine out in the world can feel like trying to find a needle in a haystack. So, if you live in a major city, the simplest way is to simply Google “natural wine (insert your city)” and go talk to someone in your local bottle shop or wine bar. However, if you’re staying in, the simplest way to figure out what you like is to shop online bottle shops. Eventually, you’ll start to recognize producers, wine styles, label art, even importers.