If you’ve dined out in the past year or two (yes, even during a pandemic), you’ve undoubtedly encountered a new wave of wines sweeping across restaurant menus around the globe. What started as a small fad of brunch-lovers drinking orange wine with their eggs, has turned into a natural wine explosion.
Heading into 2022, natural wines are going to be all the rage, but there is a litany of questions that need some clarity. First, what is natural wine? Second, why are they becoming so popular? And third, are they any good?
At Fine Dining Lovers, we wanted to get to the bottom of this trend, so we did a little research, consulted some experts, and sampled a lot of natural wines to see what this fad is all about.
What is natural wine?
According to Todd White, founder of Dry Farm Wines, which is the largest buyer and seller of natural wine in the world, “natural wine is a return to real wine – organically grown, without processing or additives. That means none of the added sulphites, artificial colouring, extra sugar, genetically modified yeasts, ammonia, and egg whites or other animal products that are often used in commercial winemaking. When you’re buying natural wine, what you’re getting is good, pure wine – and that’s it. Beyond that, natural wine is often produced using biodynamic or organic farming practices, which produces a wine that is often better for your body, and better for the earth.”
This of course leads to other questions – what is organic wine and what is biodynamic wine and how is natural wine different? Again, White has some answers: “Biodynamic farms are wild ecosystems. Farmers work with the land to create an environment that supports healthy, thriving plants. They grow a number of different crops – strengthening the biodiversity of the land they’re living on – which in turn creates healthier plants and benefits the entire ecosystem of the farm. Grapes from organic, biodynamic farms are richer in nutrients than grapes from conventional farms because they’re grown in thriving soil full of minerals and micronutrients, free from harmful toxins. They also have a more complex flavour profile than other grapes due to being farmed in better conditions.”
If that makes things both clearer and more confusing, you’re not alone. To clear it up, we also chatted with Noelia Orts, the oenologist for Emiliana, which is a Chilean winery north of Santiago. Emiliana is the world’s largest organic winery and is one of the leading producers of certified organic and biodynamic wines globally. Orts says that a natural wine has to come from either organic or biodynamic grapes. “The only part that differentiates natural wine from biodynamic wine is the addition of sulphur, which biodynamic wines allow in a limited amount. For organic wine, it’s allowed to use yeasts, enzymes, and other organic products, which isn’t allowed in biodynamic wines and shouldn’t be used in natural wines either”.
To sum up, organic and biodynamic are more about how the grapes are grown, while natural refers to how the wines are made, and according to White, all the varying methods try to let nature do all the work.
Why are natural wines having a moment?
Natural wine’s allure is partly due to its branding. Riding a long trend of healthier eating and living (the Mediterranean diet, veganism, raw food, the slow food movement, non-GMO’s, etc.), natural wine comes along at just the right time.
“Every day, and all around the world, we see more and more people concerned about what they are consuming and how the products or services they buy impact their lives. Not only in terms of their personal health, but also in terms of the environment and how they can have a positive effect for the future.” says Orts.
For his part, White thinks this is nothing new. “It’s how wines have been made forever. That said, natural wine is definitely having a resurgence as many wine drinkers are realising how many additives, sugar, and sulphites are in conventional wines, and are turning to natural wine as a healthier alternative.”
Is natural wine any good? And how do you differentiate good from bad?
For the uninitiated, natural wine can often be off-putting. This has a lot to do with a lack of industry standards. One way to think of natural wine is to compare it to the craft beer craze that happened in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Thousands of beers were being brought to market, many with little concern about standards that have been put in place over hundreds of years of beer making. Some were great, others were terrible, and the market worked out which ones had staying power. Natural wine is similar in that there’s no governing body or widely recognised certification authority to let consumers know they’re getting a quality product or not.
Orts looks at this dilemma scientifically. “Natural wines, like any other wine, can present oenological defects that for us, in Emiliana, are not tolerable – like a very high volatile acidity, the development of some yeast that produces unpleasant aromas, etc. The problem is that many natural wine producers do not care about the details in the process. This is why bad natural wines appear on the market, which ultimately does not do justice to the category. At Emiliana we care a lot about every detail, and for this reason Salvaje (a Syrah/Roussanne blend from Chile) is a wine that does not present oenological defects at all.”
At Dry Farms, the wide range of quality from the wines they source seems to be built into the process with an understanding that there are some natural wines that are far from great. White says: “The same varietal can often taste wildly different when made naturally instead of conventionally with lots of sugar. We find that approaching natural wine with an open and curious mind sets the stage to be refreshingly surprised. At Dry Farm Wines, we take you on a journey of discovery through the world of natural wine. We curate a wide selection of varietals from different countries and flavour palettes – there’s something here for everyone. And every bottle is always protected by our 100% Happiness Promise we’re happy to refund or replace – so there’s never a risk to trying something new.”
How do you choose a wine that works for you?
Again, there’s a wide range of options. Both Orts and White want you to think of natural wine in the same way you’d think of other wines when it comes to food pairings – like reds with meats and whites with fish. But at the moment, choosing the right wine can be very hit or miss.
“Because natural wines don’t contain preservatives, many can have an unwanted bacterial or yeasty taste, effervescence, and volatility to them that makes drinking natural wines off the shelf a little bit of a gamble. We started Dry Farm Wines with a heavy focus on tasting and testing our wines to ensure that each bottle has a balanced, enjoyable taste,” White explains.
And if you don’t want to take those risks, you should probably consult an expert like White or stick to tried and true winemakers like the biodynamic vineyards from Gérard Bertrand in the south of France or organic, natural, and biodynamic vineyards of Emiliana in Chile. Orts from Emiliana waxes a little more philosophically about the entire natural wine movement.
“Although it is not a new way of making wines, since it is how they were made in the past, it is a new trend that is beginning to emerge in many places. And since there is no official regulation on them, we can find everything in the market. Very well-made wines, correct ones, and of course, some defective as well. Unfortunately, it is not easy to stand in front of a shelf and know what to choose, especially with the wide variety of wines that we see today. For this reason, our recommendation is to look for organic natural wines, and of course, look for the producers too. Because at the end, and especially in these types of wines, it is all about the details – from how the grapes were grown to how the wine was made in the cellar. For us, making natural wines makes a lot of sense, not only because of the quality that we can achieve, but also because they are only fermented organic grapes (in our case). In other words, nature expressing authentically in a bottle.”
For now, natural wine remains a bit of a crapshoot. But like most things in the wine world, producers get better over time, regulations are put in place, and a ‘natural’ order comes about to ensure that what you buy off the shelf hits your palate in just the right way. So, when you follow this trend into 2022, do a little research before hopping on the natural wine train, because getting off at the wrong stop can ruin an entire night of drinking and dining.