What's the Deal With Natural Wine?

©. L. Reynolds

"Naked wine," "raw wine," and "biodynamic wine" have reached a feverish peak among trend-setting oenophiles. But are these fermented beverages actually better for the environment?

Like many a bourgeois millennial, I like to dabble in drinking trends and new, hip restaurants. Oftentimes, it's not necessarily "new," but rather, new to American diners. If there's yet niche offering that doesn't seem to be going away anytime soon (looking at you, shishito peppers and beet salads), it's natural wine. But what exactly is it?

It's a concept, not a category

Let's start with a very basic overview of the wine-making process, which is generally pretty complex. To make wine, you grow and pick grapes, and then process them into wine via fermentation. There are many stages where "natural" plays a part — or entirely opts out. The following processes often fall under the umbrella of natural wine:

Natural wine is...

made from grapes not sprayed with herbicide or pesticides

hand-picked, not by machines

fermented through native yeast (the stuff floating around in the barn air) rather than commercial, lab-grown yeast

additive-free (no sugar, acid, egg whites, etc. added during the process)

often sulfites-free

often cloudy, because it's not strained

It might be more helpful to think of natural wine as what isn't in it, rather than what is. Conventional winemakers uses a lot of technical interventions in order to mass-produce a product that tastes relatively the same in every bottle and lasts on the shelves for a long time.
“People think that natural wine is a fad or a new thing, but it’s the traditional way to make wine,” Krista Scruggs, a winemaker and farmer based in Vermont and Texas, explained to Vox. “It’s conventional wine that’s actually new.”

Sometimes conventional wine practices can be as innocent as adding a bit of sugar for body (common in the Burgundy region). Or, it can be as unsettling as this list of 60 approved additives U.S. winemakers can toss in without mentioning on their label. Gelatin, egg whites, and isinglass (made from fish bladders) are often added to clarify wine, but, to the dismay of many vegans, are not mentioned on the bottle itself. Maureen O'Connor writes in Grub Street that "the semiotics of what counts as 'natural,' and why, and who gets to decide, can be a source of rancor." So while the debate continues to rage on, consider befriending someone at a locally owned wine shop and getting their personal recommendations — this is one product you shouldn't rely solely on online reviews for.

What does it taste like?

glass of natural wine sits in clover next to wooden fence

© L. Reynolds Now that we've got the scientific stuff out of the way, we can get to the juicy part: is it any good? I'm not a sommelier by any means, but the natural wines I've had a chance to try run the gamut from funky-fresh to pickle juice to delightfully refreshing. "In natural wine," O'Connor writes, "the resulting imperfections are not really imperfections; they are the goal."

In that respect, they're like any wine you might choose off the shelf; you don't really know until you sample a bunch! Some people swear that the risk of a hangover is lowered with natural wine, because there are no added sugars or sulfites.

It might help to think of natural wines as cousins of kombucha or sisters of sauerkraut. When you're working with wild yeasts and healthy soil chock-full of microorganisms, flavors are bound to get a little funky. O'Connor explains that you'll discover "...white wines that can be amber, orange, and cloudy. Red wines that resemble fizzy beet juice and occluded amethysts. The flavors can be intense and unfamiliar — savory, salty, and startlingly sour."

Are these wines better for the environment?

Technically, yes. The grapes used in natural wines are usually grown organically, and often with regenerative or biodynamic farming practices. But, just like with organic foods, there are also small winemakers using organic grapes who can't afford those official certification labels on their bottle.

Perhaps what is most striking about natural wine is the tender loving care winemakers give their soil. Since they're creating wine without relying on additives to fix flaws, their soil must be in tip-top shape. Which brings us to regenerative agriculture, a hot topic in environmental circles these days. Katy Severson writes in Bon Appetit that, "Long degraded by industrial agriculture, regenerating our soil is one of our most promising solutions to climate change, and the natural wine movement fits...naturally...into that conversation."

Of course, any wine, natural or not, is subject to our supply chain and its many wasteful practices serving the global economy. Wine is still being shipped or flown thousands of miles around the world and stored in air-conditioned trucks, pumping out noxious fumes.

Buying domestic wine certainly helps lower your carbon footprint, though many of us aren't lucky enough to live within walking distance of a winery. But individual actions do matter, particularly when you're purchasing items based on a growing trend. Choosing to support a winemaker who is just as devoted to keeping her soil healthy and the natural ecosystem happy as she is creating the next great bottle of wine certainly deserves a toast in my book.

In the midst of climate change, natural wine and its diversity might be one way forward for traditional winemakers. Scientists have suggested that more resilient varietals of wine grapes, ones able to withstand hotter temperatures and drought, should be explored.

Severson believes that many of the natural wine producers she interviewed see themselves as activists in their own way, writing, "[They] think the natural wine movement can lead the way to a much larger revolution against Big Agriculture." Less-processed wine, sustainable farming practices, gentler hangovers, and rebelling against Big Ag? I'll drink to that.