Everything you wanted to know about natural wines
What is natural wine?
One of the simplest definitions of a natural wine is: nothing added, nothing taken away.
Although there is no legal definition of how a natural wine is made, there are a few principles that consistently abide to the basic idea that wine should be made in the vineyard, not the cellar: no added chemicals, no added sulfites (or just the bare minimal amount), no temperature control during fermentation, no added yeast, no fining or filtration, and no pesticides or herbicides in the vineyard.
By reducing the winemaker’s intervention to a minimum, what is left in the glass should be the purest expression of the grapes and the soil, not a manufactured product built scientifically to appeal to the mainstream palate. This often results in wines that can be cloudy and rustic in appearance, and that may display very earthy and funky aromas on the nose.
While these traits may be off-putting to some, it is precisely this raw and direct approach that is particularly appealing to natural wine aficionados. The idea that each bottle may differ from the next, and that the bottles are not coming off an assembly line, is attracting consumers that are tired of the fake nature of mass produced products.
Getting to know about the winemaker’s philosophy, is a fundamental value that is impossible to find in mass produced products.
Fermentation with natural yeasts
Regarding wine, fermentation is the process of the microorganism yeast converting the natural sugars in the sweet grape juice (called “must”) into alcohol (and the byproduct carbon dioxide).
This is usually a carefully controlled part of the vinification process where the winemaker adds a calculated amount of a selected strain of yeast (either natural of synthetic). This way, the duration of the fermentation process and the impact of the yeast on the flavor of the wine are in the hands of the winemaker rather than nature.
With natural wines, its philosophy desires quite the opposite and the objective is to let nature have the upper hand in creating the wine. Therefore, no selected and measured out quantity of yeast is added to the must, but the winemaker rather lets the natural yeast (that forms a thin matte-like layer on the outside of the skins of the grapes) take care of the fermentation by itself.
That usually means it takes longer for fermentation to start, and it takes longer for the fermentation process to be completed, sometimes up to several months instead of a few weeks! The yeast, which in natural wines is not filtered out before the wine is being bottled, also adds another flavor dimension to the wine, which in some natural wines is more present than in others.
Barnyard vs. ‘Clean’ aromas
One of the main debates in the wine world when talking about natural wines is that they are too often flawed, and that leaving the wine develop on its own devices may lead to the exposure of defects that the wine industry has been solving throughout the years with the aid of technological advances and research.
While there may sometimes be a tendency in natural wine supporters to justify wines that are objectively flawed, it is the imperfections that are admittedly fundamental to the idea that no wine can ever be exactly identical from one year to the next, and in some cases, from one bottle to the next. The imperfections give the wine character. The infamous barnyard smell, for example, is one of the main elements of discussion.
Because natural wines are fermented by its own wild yeasts, which are not filtered out of the wine after the fermentation is finished, there is often something characteristically different about the aromas (and therefore taste) of natural wines, often described as ‘Barnyard’.
The barnyard smell is particularly referencing to the animal ‘products’ that can be found on the floor of a barnyard, if you know what we mean. This personality trait is created by a kind of wild yeast called Brettanomyces, or Brett, for short. And although Brett affecting the aromas of a wine is not per definition a bad thing - in fact, it can give a wine a certain rustic funk appreciated by natural wine lovers – too much barnyard in a wine will make it smell, err, somewhat unappealing!
Is it true that drinking natural wines reduces the risk of getting a hangover?
Many natural wine consumers are drawn to the lower impact these wines have on our organism, compared to wines that are treated with chemical additives and undergo industrial processes.
The low-intervention process of natural winemaking often leads to wines that contain lower alcohol levels, barely any sulfites (although every wine will always contain a small quantity of natural sulfites) and that are light and easy to drink.
Although it is not scientifically proven, most natural wine advocates are firm believers that due to this lighter profile, the risks of getting a hangover and other negative side effects, are greatly reduced.
While there might be some truth to this theory, it is still advisable to always drink in moderation if you want to make sure you won’t have a bad headache in the morning.
Natural Wines in Italy
The natural wine movement in Italy is in constant expansion, and it is becoming more common throughout the country for restaurants to include a natural wine selection to their wine lists.
Major cities like Rome and Milan have a considerable amount of wine bars and shops with extensive natural wine options, or in some cases exclusively dedicated to this world.
During the week of the most important wine fair in Italy, Vinitaly, that is held annually in Verona, two alternative events focused on natural wines take place: ViniVeri in Cerea and the Vinnatur event at Villa Favorita. These events are proving to be so popular that many wine lovers bypass the main fairgrounds completely and choose only to attend these.
The Vinnatur organization is led by a trailblazer of the Italian natural wine world, Angiolino Maule. He is a winegrower from the Soave area in Veneto, and has been at the forefront of the Italian natural wine movement for many years.
In an effort to establish common ground and regulations within the winemakers of his organization, in 2018 he established a charter outlining the main principles and regulations that all winemakers must follow in order to be part of Vinnatur.
The staples of natural winemaking such as low sulfite levels, hand picking of the grapes, and no added chemicals, were all included.
Natural wines worldwide
This sort of charter was also created in other countries due to the lack of any official, government-recognized set of regulations. Among the associations worldwide that serve this purpose a few of the main ones are:
Les Vins S.A.I.N.S. (Sans Aucun Intrant Ni Sulfite – Without Any Additives Or Sulfites), France.
L’Association des Vins Naturels, France.
RAW Wine, USA, UK and Germany
A great way to get familiar with the wines from these different organizations is to attend the numerous natural wine events that are organized throughout the year in most major cities. For a very reasonable fee, it is possible to taste directly from the producer’s hands, and in the meantime personally learn about their background and ideals.
What is the difference between natural wines and organic, biological or biodynamic wines?
Biological and organic wines are certified labels and the winemaker has to comply with the rules and regulations set by the organization that certifies the wines. It is a kind of membership that the winemaker subscribes to and pays a fee for.
The standards for producing a biological wine are slightly milder than for organic wines, with the latter strictly forbidding the use of any synthetic fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides in the vineyard or the addition of sulfites to the wines (with the exception of Europe and Canada, where the level of sulfites cannot exceed 100 parts per million (ppm) for red wines and 150 ppm for white wines).
Biodynamic wines are also certified, but they take it even further than organic wines, not just setting rules that are science related, but also adopting regulations related to a certain wine making philosophy established by the Austrian academic and philosopher Rudolph Steiner in the late 20s which connects the yearly agricultural cycle of a vineyard to the lunar cycle and the position of the sun and the planets in a spiritual way.
The superior quality of a biodynamic wine compared to an organic wine cannot be proven scientifically, but rather spiritually the way the philosophy of religion can have a positive effect on people.
Natural wines mostly live outside all of the established borders of organic, biological and biodynamic winemaking. Natural winemakers often also choose to purposely not abide by the rules of their official regional and government-certified denominations, in order to produce wines that do not follow the common traits that are officially recognized as typical of these areas.
While official area recognition is still an important factor that can add value and prestige to a wine, these producers choose to prioritize what they consider more true and honest to the grape and soil. Growing interest in the natural wine movement is proving that there is a large amount of wine consumers that seem to agree with this idea.
Italian winemakers traditionally work as close to nature as possible and believe that the representation of the local terroir and character of the grape itself should be the most important aspects of a wine, not human interference.
The craft and art of winemaking has usually been passed on from generation to generation, dating back to a time where modern technology was not yet available. And although some modern equipment has been introduced in the wineries nowadays, these traditional producers never took such a scientific approach to winemaking as many new world wineries do. That being said, natural winemaking is a completely different philosophy, and one that has recently gained much popularity in the world, including Italy.
Here are a few picks from our personal list of favorite Italian natural wine producers. Please note that we are only highlighting a few of the innumerable great wineries that are currently available on the market.
The rose’ wine Susucaru, from producer Frank Cornelissen, has been gaining popularity in the wine world due to the support and enthusiasm of US rapper/TV gourmet personality, Action Bronson.
Admittedly, this is a rather refreshing twist on the usual big-money, big-champagne imagery usually associated with the hip hop world. In this case, the rapper is definitely onto something special.
Cornelissen, a Belgian living on Mount Etna in Sicily, was inspired to start making wine by a trip to Georgia, where he tasted the amphora-aged, traditional orange wines of the area. With no experience in winemaking, he bought land in Sicily, on the Etna volcano, started making wine, and rapidly became one of the most respected (and controversial) producers in the wine world.
A firm advocate of no-intervention winemaking procedures and letting nature run its course, his wines initially tended to be very unstable and inconsistent from bottle to bottle, but after years of experience and fine-tuning, his wines now have reached a beautiful balance between the more wild and rustic elements, and a sharp, focused elegance.
The refreshing and easy to drink Susucaru and Contadino wines, together with his numerous single vineyard bottlings, such as his Munjebel line and the rich and powerful Magma, are currently some of the most sought after bottles by wine lovers worldwide.
Abruzzo had always been known as a region where wine was produced based on quantity, not quality. For this reason, when estate owner Emidio Pepe decided in 1964 to stop selling grapes destined for mass produced, low-quality wine, and started making low-yield wines following groundbreaking strict biodynamic procedures, most of his fellow wine producers and vineyard owners thought that he had lost his mind.
Pepe’s gamble paid off well, and he is now one of the most legendary and respected producers of the natural wine world. The longevity of his Montepulciano red wines, and his Trebbiano whites, have been impressing even the most jaded wine lovers throughout the years.
His wines are funky and complex, and sometimes they tend to give in to their more earthy and wild side. This makes them in some cases somewhat difficult to fully appreciate, especially to wine drinkers with little experience with natural wines.
But if you are lucky enough to open an aged Pepe Montepulciano from a good vintage, or one of his lean, crisp and acidic Pecorino or Trebbiano white wines, the rewards will be great!
The Paolo Bea winery is located right on the outskirts of the small town of Montefalco, Umbria, famous for its highly structured and tannic Sagrantino wine. The estate has been in the Bea family since the 1500s, and is nowadays at the forefront of the natural wine movement.
Montefalco wines are known for their dark fruit and powerful profile, usually highlighting strength over elegance. Bea has somehow managed to tame the wild and rustic Sagrantino grape, known to be of the most tannic grape varieties in the world, into a more refined and subtle version.
One of his top bottlings, the Pagliaro, is a truly remarkable interpretation of a Sagrantino wine. If left to age for at least five years, it begins to lose some of its impenetrable, though characteristics so commonly found in a Montefalco wine, and displays a more herbal and floral profile.
Sagrantino was traditionally vinified as a sweet red wine, and that tradition continues today in the form of the Sagrantino Passito. If you get the chance, don’t pass up the opportunity of tasting Paolo Bea’s deeply concentrated but not overly sweet version.
Other notable natural wine favorites, from north to south:
Cascina degli Ulivi, Piemonte
Bressan, Friuli-Venezia Giulia
La Biancara, Veneto
Podere Pradarolo, Emilia-Romagna
I Botri di Ghiaccioforte, Toscana
Ca’ Sciampagne, Marche
Le Coste, Lazio
Cantina Giardino, Campania
‘A Vita, Calabria
Natalino Del Prete, Puglia
Vino di Anna, Sicilia
Our natural wine guide is lovingly written by Andrew Mecoli & Marloes Fransen