What is Natural Wine and Is It Better for You? A Winemaker Explains
A new category of wine is cropping up on liquor store shelves, called natural wine, which promises to be a purer product, with a fresh taste and fewer additives. But what exactly does the term mean? We dove into the world of natural wine to find out.
More and more, consumers want clean, additive-free products, and as organic foods and plant-based dairy and meat substitutes rise in popularity, so do alcoholic beverages that are free of unnecessary ingredients and chemicals. Natural wine is a niche yet notable market that's growing fast, and reds, whites, rosés, and orange wines with no additives are showing up on liquor store shelves and restaurant menus. But what, you may be wondering, does the "natural wine" label mean?
We asked Nick Holman, a natural winemaker and co-founder of the Los Angeles-based natural wine brand General Psychotic Activity for his expert take.
What is Natural Wine?
"There isn’t an actual definition of what natural wine is yet," Holman explains. "It can also be referred to as low-intervention wine." Natural winemakers try to do as little as possible to the product between the time the grapes are grown until it reaches your table. "Natural wine is a movement and a method to simplify the process of making wine. In its simplest form, it is grapes fermenting into wine with as little human guidance as possible, and typically with nothing added."
In contrast to natural wine – also called 'raw' wine – conventional winemaking allows for all sorts of added ingredients to be used in the fining and making of the ultimate product. Unlike food products, alcohol doesn’t come with nutrition or ingredient labels, which makes it tough to know what ingredients are involved in the processes. Additives can include sugars, artificial dyes and flavors, and animal and non-animal-based fining agents; and some red wines even contain woodchips to achieve a desired aroma and color.
Winemakers are not legally required to disclose what goes into the wine, other than the alcohol content, on the label. Without regulation, you don't know how the grapes are grown, or whether any of the potential 70 additives have been used to create the desired taste and color or to elongate preservation on store shelves.
How Did Natural Winemaking Start?
"After World War 2, it became more common to include pesticides and synthetic chemicals in agricultural practices," Holman explains. This practice of adding dozens of ingredients grew until the 1970s when winemakers in the Loire Valley of France began to make "minimal intervention" wines. The region is still the leader in natural wine production. More recently, as the interest in organic food and drinks has grown, there has also been a backlash against the pesticides, herbicides, and artificial additives that get into our food and drinks.
That has given rise to a new "natural" movement in winemaking. "Natural wine starts, ideally, with biodynamic farming practices, which are terribly difficult, so organic farming practices are also used in making natural wine. Native yeast is used to kick off the fermentation process, and from then on, the goal is to do as little as possible to help guide the grapes to become wine."
Many people ask if there are sulfites in natural wine. Sulfites are a natural byproduct of fermentation, but conventional winemakers add more to preserve the wine, which is something natural winemakers discourage.
Some natural winemakers add small amounts of sulfur to the wine to help stabilize and preserve it, Holman mentions, but there is debate as to whether added sulfur is considered natural. "This is where we can see a grey area from the lack of a clear definition," he adds. Natural winemaking does not filter or 'fine' the wine, which is a practice used in conventional winemaking to remove any grit or plant parts that make their way into the wine.
"The natural wine movement is a way for people to connect with each other and be able to know where their wine is coming from, and to understand that each step along the way is environmentally friendly and sustainable," Holman shares. "To me, the bottom line is that wine should be accessible and something that everyone should enjoy."
Is Natural Wine Vegan?
"Yes. For a wine to be natural there should be nothing added to it. In conventional winemaking, it is common for winemakers to use egg white, casein, gelatin, or isinglass which all contain or are derived from animal products. It is safe to assume that any specialty shop or restaurant that focuses on natural wine will mostly also serve vegan food."
That being said, to ensure your bottle or glass of wine served to you at a restaurant is free of animal products, double-check with your sommelier, or look up the rating and review on Barnivore, an online platform that breaks it down by brand of wine, beer, and spirits, and lets you know which alcohol is vegan.
One online retailer, Virgin Wines, recently announced that sales of vegan wine had risen 51 percent in the past two years, increasing from 1.1 million to more than 1.7 million bottles between 2019 and 2021, showing that consumers are increasingly becoming educated about what could be in their wine, and are choosing to opt for vegan, sustainable or organic versions and skip the additives.
The Difference Between Natural Wine and Organic Wine
Organic wine combines organic farming practices – so no pesticides, for instance – with conventional winemaking processes, explains Holman. "That could include the addition of animal products, lab-grown yeasts, gas injections, and other additives."
By contrast, natural wine uses biodynamic farming with little to no additions at all. "It's simply fermented grape juice."
So while all natural wines are organic, not all organic wines are natural. Therefore, while the two may sound similar, natural wine contains fewer additives in every sip than organic wine that is not also natural. If you're looking for the simplest and freshest wine, opt for natural wine.
Where to Buy Natural Wines
Thanks to the growing consumer demand for natural, sustainable, or conscious foods and beverages, natural wine is becoming more readily available at wine stores and restaurants. France is leading the way in pioneering natural wine production, and natural wine is most easily found in major cities like New York City and Los Angeles, both of which are quickly becoming burgeoning natural wine hubs. Your local liquor store likely has a few bottles, but if you're seeking to sample more, online stores including Raw Wine, Primalwine, and Natural Wine Co. all ship natural wine by the case or bottle directly to your door.
Many trendy restaurants are beginning to add natural wine to their lists. Ask your waiter if they stock any natural wines, so you can taste the difference for yourself.
Bottom Line: To Reduce Sulfites and Additives Natural Wine is a Great Choice.
Natural wine is increasingly popular among people seeking to avoid additives in their favorite alcoholic beverage, so even if your local store or restaurant doesn't carry it, ask the employees if they can order a bottle or two from famous winemakers like MicroBio Wines, Partida Creus, or Mas de Gourgonnier.
For more on vegan alcohol, check out The Beet's Ultimate Guide to Vegan Wine, Beer, and Spirits.