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What Is Natural Wine?


Natural wine has become achingly trendy in recent years, with specialist natural wine lists, wine bars and wine festivals cropping up across the world — but what is it?

The first thing to clarify is that natural wine isn't a particular style of wine - that is, it doesn't describe the way a wine tastes. Natural wine can be red, white, rosé or orange, still or sparkling.

You can no more know how a wine will taste based on the fact that it's described as natural than you can know how any other wine will taste based purely on the fact that it's a "regular' wine.

Instead, natural winemaking describes an ambition for how wine is made: from the way the grapes are farmed and harvested, to the fermentation and bottling. The movement developed over the last few decades as a reaction against modern, industrialised, mass-produced methods of wine production that natural winemakers argue are detrimental both to the environment and to the quality of the wines we drink. But, unlike labels such as 'organic' or 'biodynamic', there's no regulation defining what a natural wine is, or what can and can't officially be labelled as natural, so everything is a question of interpretation and sliding scales.

The word 'ambition' is important here. Natural winemakers aim to make their wines with as little intervention as possible. This may include working with minimal chemical pesticides, using traditional farming methods, working relatively small parcels of land so that they don't have to use industrial harvesting machinery, or allowing the fermentation process to run its course without using the stabilising and preserving processes that have been introduced to winemaking over the decades to guarantee reliable consistency. (Some of the world's oldest and most traditional estates have a lot in common with natural winemakers, simply because they never modernised their methods!)

Natural winemakers may also be committed to certifiably organic or biodynamic methods, or both: biodynamic farming is a particular approach to sustainability that goes further than organic farming and which has its own set of rules and methods. However, not all organic or biodynamic wines are natural wines: they're not the same thing.

Every natural winemaker will interpret the idea slightly differently, and be at a different point in their winemaking journey. A process that one natural winemaker accepts might be decried by another. And a winemaker may well be aiming to significantly reduce the amount of interventions they make in the process, but not yet have got as far as they want. That's why natural winemaking is best described as an ambition - something winemakers are exploring and working towards - rather than any locked-down definition.

Because of this ambiguity, there are a few common myths about natural wine that deserve to be busted.

The first is that all-natural wines taste 'funky' - maybe more like cider. Some do, but some taste very much like you'd expect any other wine to taste. Funkiness is not a defining quality of natural wine. If you like that style of wine, simply ask for it, rather than asking for a natural wine.

The second big myth is that natural wines don't give you hangovers. This is a brilliantly wishful bit of thinking based on the fact that most natural winemakers add lower levels of sulphites than you'll find in "regular' wines. (Sulphites are common food preservatives - found in dried apricots, for instance - that are added to wine to prevent it from oxidising, to keep the appearance and taste fresh.) People believe that sulphites give you a hangover, so, according to that thinking, a low or no sulphite wine = no hangover.

Sadly, it's alcohol that causes hangovers, not sulphites, as you'll discover if you spend a night downing gin or vodka, which are usually sulphite-free, but certainly not hangover-free. (A very small percentage of the population is sensitive to sulphites, which is why their presence is marked on packaging, but that's a different story.) If you want to reduce your chances of a sore head the next day, the surest approach is to reduce your alcohol consumption by seeking out wines with a low ABV - say, 5.5-12% rather than 13-16% - or, of course, just by drinking less.

Fundamentally, the best reason to seek out natural wines is if you share the movement's anti-industrialising philosophy of farming and food production. Whatever matters most to you about the wine you drink and the story behind it, there are many great, well-made wines that aren't natural wines, and not every natural wine is great - so the best way to drink well is to stay curious and be open-minded.

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