What is a natural wine?
Without any fuss, rules nor sulfite, natural wine is the wine of the moment. It appeals to all with its magical notes, elaborated solely with natural yeasts and its bacteria’s evolution. A purely natural creation, some of these wines have puzzled even the greatest amateurs and tasters. Would their producers happen to be magicians? In this article, we will see that this wine’s conception has nothing magical, quite the contrary. Their winemakers are rebels, who dare cross different rules and barriers linked to wines’ labels, appellation and even deep-rooted traditions. In a crisis-hit sector following the Covid-19 epidemic, natural wine is gaining momentum. Could this be the future of global viticulture? In line with consumers’ new expectations and ecological challenges, natural wine’s show is definitely not over…
Defining "natural wine"
The difficulty in defining natural wine is most probably its biggest flaw. Our own definition will thus be the thread for the rest of the article, as we will try to outline natural wine’s different components and qualities.
Natural wines do not have a clear definition given by an official institution (the EU or INAO). There is currently no clear official chart defining natural wine such as the one which exists for organic agriculture for instance. The only existing specifications is the one held by the Natural Wine Association. It outlines that, for a wine to be called natural, it must be produced in the following manner:
- An organic or biodynamic viticulture
- A manual harvest
- The use of indigenous yeasts for juice fermentation
- Prohibition to use "brutal" techniques which can alter the wine’s taste (pasteurization, a too important filtration...)
- No oenological input (except a homeopathic dose of sulfur which may be authorized)
- All the wine’s components must be, as with all food products, indicated on the back label.
To give a broader definition: a natural wine is a wine which is cultivated in respect to the earth and biodiversity. It must be organic or biodynamic and must be vinified without the addition of oenological products and the use of commercially purchased yeasts.
There exist two principal labels:
L’Association des Vins Naturels (AVN) (The Association of Natural Wines): the vinification must be conducted with full respect for the living organisms, without any use of oenological products. Only an occasional dose of sulfur is authorized.
S.A.I.N.S. Wines (Sans Aucun Intrant Ni Sulfite, without any chemical inputs nor sulfite): The S.A.I.N.S. label advocates for putting an end to producers’ intervention during the wine’s vinification (fermentation) process. This label indicates that no input exterior to the wine’s natural vinification should be used. Even the addition of sulfur is forbidden.
Sulfites are sulfurous acid’s salts (for the readers out there who happen to be particularly keen on physics, I’ll let you take a look at the Wikipedia page regarding sulfites). They are toxic chemicals.
Sulfites are widely used within the food industry. They are also commonly used in wine, but also in beer, cider, chocolate, chips, dried fruits or pickles. (Sulfites’ use is indicated on labels with the following nomenclatures E220, E221, E222, E223, E224, E225, E226, E227, E228).
Sulfites are mainly used for their antioxidant and antibacterial qualities. They allow to prevent oxidation. Very useful as preservatives, the use of sulfites has however been put in question by various studies. They would impact certain of the intestinal microbiome’ bacteria, 3 to 10% of asthmatics have reactions to sulfites. Sulfites are also thought to cause certain hemorrhoidal crises.
The use of sulfite is put into question within the wine industry, as they tend to have strong antibacterial effects. Sulfite would kill certain bacteria, thus degrading the wine’s aromatic potential. Nevertheless, adding sulfites guarantees wine’s conservation, due to its antioxidant and antibacterial qualities. The production of natural wine is therefore a real challenge. Vinification without any type of inputs heightens the risks of contamination and wine’s early oxidation, i.e. the risk of real aromatic default. The addition of sulfites therefore allows winemakers to secure wine productions.
Here is a summary table of the maximum sulfite levels authorized in wines according to the labels :
Elaboration and the natural wine market
As explained above with the Association des vins naturels broader definition, natural wine must come from an organic or biodynamic viticulture. It is clearly indicated that only products of natural origin can be used to prevent diseases and fertilize vines.
The harvest must therefore also be done manually.
A collective defending “moretanorganic” natural wines pushes the debate towards yields. It states that a light natural wine will have a maximum yield of 40 hectoliters per hectare. A long-keeping wine will have a maximum yield of 40 hectoliters per hectare, either a very low production compared to a conventional wine where the average yield is 57 hectoliters per hectare.
To sum it up, a wine vinified without sulfur will not be considered as natural wine if the vines are not cultivated organically and if the grapes are not harvested by hand. It will only be considered as a wine vinified without sulfite and you will be able to read “Sulfur free” on its label for instance.
Vinification, or sometimes called winemaking, for natural wine does not differ from traditional vinification. However, inputs and brutal vinification techniques are prohibited (flash pasteurization, fining, filtering). Vinification without any type of inputs is a complex task. The harvest’s sanitary conditions (absence of rotting substances or diseases) must be optimal. The number one challenge is the fermentation via indigenous yeasts. Indigenous yeasts are the yeasts specific to the terroir, they are the yeasts naturally present on the grapes (especially on their skins) and in the winery.
A natural wine will never be clear and limpid.
Tasting natural wine can be quite surprising for the uninitiated. Sulfites act as an antiseptic for the wine, they protect it from bacteria. Sulfites can also stop the yeast’ impact and thus stop the wine’s fermentation. In a natural wine, during the bottling process, yeasts are still present in the wine and in some cases, new processes of formation take place inside the bottle. This very light fermentation will lead to the production of CO2 and slight sparkling.
To compensate for these confusing aromas and sensations, the wine needs to be aerated. Different techniques exist to aerate wine: grinding it in the mouth (retro-olfaction), opening it in advance and decanting it. These techniques will allow you to enjoy your wine to the fullest. If strange aromas persist, it may be that the wine has been contaminated.
Natural wines’ conservation
In conventional wines, sulfites act as preservatives. A wine’s alcohol, acidity and sugar levels also facilitate a wine’s conservation. This is why a Sauternes will age much better than a Sancerre, as Sauternes wines have high sugar, acidity and alcohol levels.
Natural wine is often criticized by its opponents as a wine which does not age well.
They’re not completely wrong, natural wines which are produced to be rapidly consumed often have a time duration of 3 to 5 years.
Wines which are vinified without inputs will keep just as well as their conventionally elaborated cousins (with sulfur).
Experienced natural winemakers have now been making wine through natural methods for several years, they know the production method perfectly. Making natural wine cannot be learned with one vintage, winemakers reduce their sulfur levels progressively each year before trying a sulfur-free vinification. It is true that with natural wines’ upcoming popularity, certain novice winemakers have been trying to produce wine vinified without any sulfur straight-away. Whilst certain have brilliantly succeeded in this task, others fail their vinification, the whole production then becomes undrinkable and thus unsaleable.
Many wines vinified without sulfur are sold in France only. For their exported production, winemakers vinifying without sulfur add a small dose of sulfur only during the bottling process; to protect their wine from travel and storage conditions.
To compensate for the absence of sulfite, professionals advise to keep bottles of natural wine in a cellar with an average temperature below 14°C. The secret of wine conservation would therefore lie not in its composition, but rather in the place in which it is stored.
The market and appellations
Have you ever seen, in your local wine shops, wine bottles sold under the appellation “vin de France” (French wine)? This appellation is the most open and overall less severe of all the French wine appellations.
Winegrowers, natural or not, voluntarily sell their wines under this appellation as it allows them to enjoy more freedom in terms of viticulture and vinification processes.
Unfortunately, other winegrowers find themselves refrained from using these appellations as they do not meet the standard taste criteria.
According to the website Idealwine, the average price for a bottle in France is 6,33€. The price for a bottle of natural wine is far superior to the French average due to its production costs and in particular its meagre yields. The starting price for a bottle of natural wine will be around 10€, depending upon its appellation. The maximum price can go up to 1600€ for the rarest bottles.
Should natural wine remain as it is, without any structure?
It is difficult to imagine limiting or bounding natural wine’s production method within sets of laws and rules. Wine is a product of pleasure, consumption and creation. A winemaker should be free to venture into any type of winemaking technique, as long as the production is not harmful to its consumers. It is actually its lack of structure, its respect for the living and its input-free vinification process which makes natural wine’s strength.
Natural wine is a rebellious wine that dares to break the administrative codes and “taste rules” of the wine world. Whatever one thinks of it, it allows us to dust off a world governed by grand tasters and large production and distribution groups who sometimes prioritize a name, an appellation or a price over the wine itself.
The appeal and fascination that natural wine prompts among consumers has allowed the entire sector to evolve towards a more environmentally friendly transition.
Long live natural wine!
"This is an opinion article written by César Dechaene, project manager "Relation Vignerons" at Cuvée Privée".