Natural wine production has gained popularity among winemakers and aficionados alike in the recent years but what seems like a hot trend is actually an old process that has been discarded by commercial wineries in favor of raising the quantity of production.
What seems trendy now is basically a way for smaller wine manufacturers to return to the roots of winemaking to produce unadulterated vintages, in the most natural way possible, and in favor of quality over quantity. Natural wine flavors are not as consistent as commercial wines but winemakers attribute the difference in taste to the natural fermentation process.
But what exactly is natural wine and why is it becoming a thing now? Here are the facts you need to understand the situation.
What Is Natural Wine?
Think back to the time when wine was first introduced to society. There were no machines that extract the juices from freshly harvested grapes and no yeast to aid in the fermentation process. It was just good old stomping on the grapes and allowing the fruit to ferment on its own in a wooden barrel kept in the cellar.
Since there were no "additives" used in any part of the process back then, the wine was considered pure and, considering the different conditions each batch were subjected to, not all wine flavors were consistent. This is basically what the natural wine movement is trying to get back to: no yeast, no enzymes, no extra tannins, sugar or water. It's just good wine made the old-fashioned way.
"The wines make themselves" or so the natural winemakers like to say. This is because the only external factor that winemakers add to the process of winemaking is taking care of the vineyard, harvesting and squeezing out the juice from the grapes to be placed in containers for fermentation. The rest is up to the wine.
What Is The Catch?
As mentioned above, unlike commercial winemaking where specific and vintage brands would yield the same taste with another bottle filled from a different barrel, natural wines have the tendency to result in unique flavors. This is because commercially produced wines from big companies have a more controlled process down to temperature-controlled fermentation whereas natural wine is exposed to changes in temperature during the fermentation process, affecting the flavor. So even if two bottles came from the same winery, if the wines were produced from different batches, they will not yield the same taste.
Is It Safe?
Natural winemakers try to keep things as organic as they can in their vineyards and are even stricter when the extracted grape juice is brought to the cellar. While they have the option to add a fraction of the additives allowed by law, which is about one-fifth of the allowable additive component, most refuse to.
To give you a better idea, the only additive that natural winemakers consider is sulfur dioxide (SO2), which has a maximum legal limit of 150 milligrams, 200 milligrams and 400 milligrams per liter of red, dry white and sweet wine, respectively. However, natural winemakers are only allowed up to 30 milligrams, 40 milligrams, and 80 milligrams per liter. Even with that small amount, most natural winemakers reject adding SO2 despite the promise of kickstarting the fermentation process.
"There is [...] no rectification of sugars or acidity, no addition of yeasts and no removal of excess dilution in a wet vintage. They are as nature intended: a frank representation of a piece of land in a particular year," Isabel Legeron writes.
The Argument Against Natural Wines
Of course, in spite of the benefits of natural wine, there are still some who have doubts about it. Advancements in winemaking such as using nanotechnology to make better tasting wines are also being explored. Then again, most of their doubts are directed towards the winemakers and not the product.
"[Many] use natural wine as an excuse for inconsistent, faulty wine," The Spirited Gourmet's wine manager Dave Saul says. "But when it's great, there's nothing better than natural wine," he adds. Saul works at The Spirited Gourmet, a shop in Belmont, MA, which carries about 1,300 different hand-picked wines.