I’d actually like to start by defining what it’s not. “Natural” is not a style, a taste or a smell. It doesn’t mean a cloudy, cidery-smelling liquid brimming with volatility, neither does it represent a star-bright, manicured creation that feels polished to perfection. Paradoxically, it could be either of those things, or neither. It’s not a religion, a creed or a caste — at least it shouldn’t be.
The term “natural wine” for me is just a convenient short-form — a codeword to signify to consumers, retailers and other interested parties that the wine was made with the minimum possible intervention in both vineyard and cellar. It is indicative of an overarching philosophy or set of ideals that the winemaker/grower adheres to: to let nature rather than technology take center stage, and through doing so to reconnect with the idea of wine as an honest beverage, rather than status object, investment instrument or supermarket commodity.
What this means in practice is that farming will adhere (at minimum) to organic or biodynamic principles (so absolutely no synthetic inputs to the vineyard) and the fermentation will be spontaneous, without any corrections or additions at any stage. It will be unfiltered and unfined, with either very little or no added sulphites. Neutral ageing vessels will be preferred, and the wine won’t be manipulated in any other way that would dramatically change the raw material — so definitely no chaptalization, no reverse osmosis, no blocked malolactic fermentation, no aggressively controlled cold fermentation.
The aim of all this is to produce “a wine without makeup” — an honest wine which tries to reflect its terroir, in all its glory but also all its shortcomings. If it’s a lean vintage and the wine ferments to dryness with 10.5% ABV, so be it. If the soils and the planted grape varieties produce a wine with green pepper and mineral overtones, rather than abundant fruit, this is what we want to taste in the glass. Rough edges, idiosyncrasies and even a little “dirt” or “funk” are part of the proposition.
In terms of taste, natural wines for me often feel more alive and expressive in the glass than their mainstream counterparts. Common traits such as earlier harvesting, higher natural acidity levels and little or no oak influence translate into wines which are joyful, easy to drink and gentle on one’s system. This at least is why I love drinking them.
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