They can taste wild, surprising and incredibly alive, are sometimes cloudy and cannot be forced into any typical flavor corset. They are handmade wines in their purest and most individual form.
Natural wine is on everyone's lips, but what is actually behind it?
First of all, it should be known that there is (still) no legal or official definition for the term natural wine.
But there is a common idea, a philosophy, of what constitutes a natural wine: "Nothing added, nothing taken away."
In simple terms, natural wines are handmade wines that do without all artificial additives and technological interventions and whose basis is organic or biodynamic viticulture.
Specifically, it's about the following 6 factors that a wine should meet in order to be considered a typical natural wine.
6 factors that make a natural wine
Even though there is no official regulation for what defines a natural wine (also called Natural Wine), this is what most of the community agrees on:
1. organic or biodynamic cultivation
2. manual harvest
3. spontaneous fermentation
4. no additives, no fining agents
5. no fine filtration
6. no/minimal use of sulfites (sulfur).
Natural wine comes from organic or biodynamic viticulture.
Whether certified with a label or not, the essential basis for natural wine is the organic and thus sustainable cultivation of vineyards.
Among other things, this means avoiding the use of synthetic chemical plant protection products (pesticides, herbicides).
The most important goal is to preserve and promote the fertility and health of the soil and to harvest only naturally grown and healthy grapes.
Image © Wachter Wiesler
Natural wines want to do without stabilizing additives such as sulfur as much as possible - see below. To achieve this, the grape juice, i.e. the grape material, must be in perfect health and free from parts affected by rot.
This can only be achieved by manual harvesting.
The counterpart to this is the harvest by means of so-called "full harvesters". Machines weighing 8-10 tons empty weight, which pick up the grapes lovelessly together with bird's nests and wire parts. This selection can never be as fine as done by hand, and in addition, the soil is strongly compacted, which in turn strongly affects the biodiversity in the vineyard.
To really harvest only healthy grape material, the solution can only be hand harvesting.
In order to "make" wine from grape juice, the sugar must convert into alcohol. You can already tell from the "quotation marks", actually you don't have to do anything for this, this process happens by itself under certain conditions.
In conventional viticulture, however, producers generally use so-called "pure-breeding yeasts". These cultivated yeasts are added to the grape juice in order to trigger fermentation or to push it in a certain taste direction.
Natural wine, on the other hand, is fermented spontaneously.
How does this work? Yeasts are practically everywhere - on the grape skin, in the wine cellar, in the vineyard. Their constellation is very individual, depending on the environment, and it is precisely this idea that we want to bring to the bottle: Natural wine should represent its own handwriting, the vineyard, the soil, the environment, the weather (also called terroir), and not be reduced to prefabricated, adapted flavor additives. And spontaneous fermentation, through the yeasts from their own environment, contributes significantly to this.
No additives, no fining agents
"Over 50 additives may be used in the production of [conventional] wine. You won't find any of them on the label."
— Sebastian Bordthäuser
How can this be? According to EU law, wine is not a food, but a stimulant. And that means that many agents and herbals used do not have to be declared.
If the wine lacks acidity, it may be acidified. Too much acid? Then deacidify. Is the wine lacking sugar? Add the sugar! Not yet the perfect mouthfeel? Add a portion of gum arabic to the wine. Want to round off the wine with a bit of wood flavor? No problem with wood chips.
And to ensure that, after all the additives, the wine in the bottle is visually clear and has a familiar taste, everything has to be clarified again. And this is done with fish gelatin, chicken egg white or gelatin from pork or beef bones and activated cabbage, made from animal and plant ash.
Natural wine does not want any of this.
Natural wine renounces all finings and clarifications, instead the wine is allowed to develop individually.
You can find the list of approved processes and treatments of wine here.
No fine filtration
You've probably already seen it, some natural wines are slightly cloudy, in some there are even lots of floating particles in the bottle.
True to the motto "Nothing added, nothing taken away", natural wine winemakers do not filter the wine.
And this brings some advantages:
- The taste is more intense because no aromas are filtered out.
- The wine retains its natural protection against oxidation (i.e. the wines are more robust and can be enjoyed in their full glory for longer after opening)
- The wine retains a slightly fine-grained texture, and gives an exciting mouthfeel
Instead of classical filtration, sedimentation is used, i.e. the natural settling of suspended matter. The wine is then "drawn off," i.e. carefully poured into another container, to separate the natural wine from any solids that remain.
No/minimal use of sulfites (sulfur)
Sulfites are an antioxidant, ergo a preservative, used in various foods to improve shelf life.
They are supposed to help keep the wine stable and protect it from oxidizing too quickly, and also to preserve the flavor of the wine.
However, this also forces the wine into a corset and prevents it from fully developing its aromas.
Winemakers who produce purist natural wines try to use sulfites only minimally or not at all. The idea behind this is again to manipulate the wine as little as possible and to produce a natural product.
It is important to know that every wine contains sulfites. This is simply because they are produced during fermentation.
So is organic wine natural wine?
SUnfortunately, it's not that simple. The basis for any natural wine is organic (or biodynamic) farming.
However, since an organic wine may also be treated with various additives - according to the regulations of organic certification - including very high amounts of sulfur, it is then no longer possible to speak of a natural wine.
Ergo: Every natural wine is an organic wine, but not every organic wine is a natural wine (if it does not meet the above 6 points).
Are orange wines natural wines?
No. Even though many orange wines can be found among the natural wines, this has nothing to do with it at first. An orange wine is a white wine made like a red wine. This means that the grape skin is not removed after the grapes are pressed, but (depending on the style) remains in the grape juice for several weeks. And this is exactly what creates the orange color in the wine. Likewise, the wine gets a slightly rougher texture, due to the tannins from the grape skins.
Thus, any white wine, natural or not, can be made into an orange wine. Orange wines are therefore often natural wines, because their winemakers want to give the wine more complexity and character through the prolonged maceration.
What does natural wine taste like?
Natural wines can taste very different: some come across more like classic wines, while others are super funky and individual.
This has a lot to do with what style the winemaker:in follows in vinification, what grape variety it is, from what region, and of course what the weather and thus the vintage was like.
There are light, super drinkable, juicy natural wines, both white and red, which jump fruity and floral in the nose and are just fun.
Others are more complex, appearing very layered in their aromatics, bringing herbal and planty notes to the glass or even reductive tones. The latter is also known as "stinky," which sounds uninviting but can be quite exciting in wine.
And still others are challenging to the palate, with oxidative notes reminiscent of must (cider) or even sherry.
But what can probably be said about all of them: they taste more lively, more delicate, more puristic - they are less heavy, less opulent. And they invite the connoisseur to take a closer look at them.
Why make natural wine, what is the idea behind it?
The winemakers we work with always give us a similar answer: natural wine is an attitude to life.
It's about preserving the fertility and health of the soil, making a wine without makeup that completely reflects the terroir and, of course, also about the diverse tastes and the exceptional quality that can only be achieved through the gentle and artisan clean work.
"At the beginning you still think you can improve something in the cellar. But in the end you realize that you can actually only preserve what you bring in from the vineyard."
— Manfred Tement
Is natural wine just a fad?
Natural wines are a revolution, a counter-movement to highly industrialized and engineered wines. It is the search for the original taste of a wine, the respect for nature and the way back to old oenological practices.
So natural wines are nothing new, on the contrary, it is much more the return to handmade, honest wines that existed thousands of years ago, before industrialization entered the "winemaking".
Buy natural wine: Recommendations for getting started in the natural wine world
Enjoying natural wines is a journey of the palate. Many who drink a funky natural wine for the first time find the taste takes some getting used to, to say the least.
However, once you've caught fire, the multi-layered and vibrant flavors won't let you go.
For a good start, we recommend the following wines:
If you like juicy, drinkable and lively wines with light alpine herb notes, you'll love Andi Mann's Cuvée Weiß.
Pittnauer's light orange wine Blonde by Nature prances around the palate like a lemonade for adults. Sweet and funky!
Things get more complex with the so-multi-layered floral Tonsur from Pranzegg, an all-time favorite of ours. Like a meadow of flowers brought to the glass.
Speaking of which, if you want to challenge your palate even more, Bianka and Daniel Schmitt conjure up an intense, spicy orange wine with their Riesling M that even reminds us of black tea.
You'd like a Pet Nat with unbeatable value for money? Voilà! Foam Vulkan from Meinklang will bring you foam party feelings.
If you like juicy red wines, you'll be delighted with Ponzichter by Franz Weninger. Fresh, light and easy drinking. With a mouth watering juiciness and subtle notes of sour cherry. Perfect everyday wine.
And don't forget Wachter Wiesler's quaffable Rote Handgemenge, which sends dark cherry and herbal aromas playfully rushing across the palate.