Exploring the Trend of Natural Wine

Natural winemakers are advocating a return to old world methods


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In bars and restaurants around the country, wine lovers are going beyond organic and filling their glasses with what’s known as “natural wine.” A movement now gaining momentum across the globe, the natural wine phenomenon marks a return to winemaking practices from long ago.

Unlike most wines, natural wine is created without the use of additives, such as preservatives and stabilizers. It’s said that this unadulterated form of wine allows for a truer expression of the grape’s character and, in turn, yields a more vibrant and unique flavor.

Some wine enthusiasts suggest that—due to its lack of additives—natural wine is healthier than conventionally-made wine. And because natural wine is produced from sustainably grown grapes, it’s also thought to have a better impact on the environment.

How Natural Wine Is Made

Since there’s no certification system for natural wine, production methods can vary greatly from winemaker to winemaker.

Still, natural wine is generally produced from grapes grown according to organic or biodynamic farming practices. Both types of practices avoid the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides. In biodynamic agriculture, farmers also use specialized methods that holistically support the farm’s ecosystem, such as treating the soil with compost made from herbs like chamomile and valerian and timing the application according to the lunar calendar.

Most conventional winemakers—and even many organic winemakers—typically use a variety of additives in the fermentation process. For example, certain yeasts are carefully selected to attain specific flavor profiles. In addition, substances like egg whites, fish bladders, and activated charcoal are often used as “fining agents” (i.e., products that remove sediment from wine). Additives are usually not listed on the wine’s label.

Natural winemakers generally avoid additives (including added sugar). They also tend to forgo technological intervention in the winemaking process, opting for traditional techniques like hand-harvesting and foot-stomping of the grapes and low to no filtering.

While some natural winemakers avoid the use of sulfites as well, others allow for minimal sulfite use during the bottling process. A class of sulfur compounds (including sulfur dioxide), sulfites help preserve the wine’s freshness and halt the growth of bacteria. They’re known to cause allergic reactions in some individuals, especially those who suffer from asthma.

In some cases, producers of natural wine use only neutral oak barrels in order to prevent the oak from imparting flavor to the wine as it ages.

The Difference Between Natural Wine and Conventional Wine

In conventional winemaking, the use of additives is essential for achieving consistency in factors like flavor, color, and texture. But when it comes to creating natural wine, the absence of these additives can bring about remarkable variation in such factors.

Many natural wines are found to be exceptionally complex, dense, and/or full in flavor. Natural wines are also often cloudy (because of the lack of filtration), or darker in color when compared to conventionally-made wines.

The Health Benefits of Natural Wine

Overall, drinking wine in moderation may have some health effects. Research shows that wine is high in antioxidants, including a compound called resveratrol. In a research review published in the Journal of Cardiovascular Pharmacology in 2009, for instance, scientists reported that mild to moderate consumption of wine may protect against conditions like atherosclerosis and ischemic heart disease.

Studies published in recent years have also shown that drinking wine may help strengthen bone health, as well as prevent the development of certain forms of cancer.

Some proponents claim that natural wine offers greater health benefits than conventionally-made wine and that natural wine is less likely to cause hangovers. However, there’s currently no scientific evidence to support these claims.

If you enjoy a glass of wine on occasion, you may be interested in substituting your usual choice with a glass of natural wine. Just keep in mind that there's no rigorous definition of what makes a wine "natural."

Like any type of alcohol, natural wine should only be consumed in moderation. The American Heart Association recommends that men limit their alcohol intake to one or two drinks per day and that women consume no more than one drink per day. Four ounces of wine constitutes a drink, with no distinction between natural wine and conventionally-made wine. (People with certain medical conditions may need to consume less, or avoid alcohol altogether.)

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