Wine comes from grapes, which come from nature…therefore isn’t all wine “natural”? This is a valid question that is not uncommon for anyone new to the term. What does “natural wine” mean? Is it just another marketing gimmick that has hooked the yuppie, artisanal-everything crazed who are on board? The answer is, to a certain extent, no.
Though legally there is no definition or certification, natural wine is wine made without adding or removing anything in the process. Aka organic (though not always certified) farming, no additives, solely native yeasts in fermentation, naturally occurring or minimal use of sulfur dioxide or sulfites, and no sterile filtration. “Low-intervention, quoi…”, the French might say (probably with a shoulder shrug).
The aim is for the wine’s natural expression to shine through. It does so through the grapes, the soil which the grower is able to nourish in their process—through organic, biodynamic, or sustainable farming—and the “terroir”, or land whence it grows. Each terroir’s unique geological and physical factors bestow character that can be more or less palpable through the whole process—both viticulture and viniculture.
Winemaking began naturally, but the 20th century, with its “Green Revolution” of industrialized farming, greatly changed the connection between farmers and winemakers alike to their land and its yield. Some natural growers call it “textbook farming”. The mechanized nature is great for consistency, but disconnected and controlled.
Making natural wine is not the path of least resistance and arguably a noble pursuit. However, traditional modern methods have their challenges and advantages as well. It all comes down to personal preference. That said, natural winemaking is certainly more sustainable in the long-run as levels of chemical degradation and soil erosion from agriculture climb.
Natural winemaking does require a lot of love and dedication, a sensitivity for the living organism that is the vine, and the delicate ecosystem of an entire vineyard. Sébastien Riffault, a natural grower in Sancerre, France, expresses how the vines are like people and have varying needs at varying times. It takes a passion that requires openness to the possibility of nuance between vintages and occasionally bottles, and an excitement for the exploration of character produced—on the part of the grower and buyer at any level.