Wine & Spirits

DRINK: What the heck is natural wine?


This article was originally published in the Summer 2015 print edition of Ottawa Magazine.

illustration by
Illustration by Celia Krampien

 You’ve seen it on toothpaste, peanut butter, and ice cream. Now get ready to see it on wine labels and requested at esteemed wine bars. While the term natural wine has been used in France since the 1970s, Europe is always a decade or two ahead of North America. Savvy shoppers on this side of the pond will begin to notice natural on an increasing number of bottles, but trying to decipher exactly what differentiates natural from conventional wines isn’t easy.

That is because — unlike organic and biodynamic wines — natural wines do not have official certification. As such, some wineries that produce natural wines aren’t marketing their product as natural.

Having no single touchstone can create confusion. What is natural to you might not be considered nat-ural to the person who sold it to you or to the winemaker who crafted it. But there is a shared notion of what natural wines are all about. Put briefly, natural wines are unadulterated and therefore, some argue, expressive in a way that conventional wines are not.

The principles that guide natural winemaking include the use of naturally occurring yeasts (also called wild or indigenous yeasts) to ferment the grapes, avoidance of exposure to new oak barrels, and reduction (or even elimination) of added sulphur.

These principles contrast with conventional winemaking techniques that use industrial aromatic yeasts and new oak to impart qualities that have little to do with the vineyard or the grapes. Plus, conventional wines also might overdo the addition of sulphur in order to extend the shelf life of the wine.

“Few, if any, who get used to natural wines can go back to conventional. Drinkers will progress from c’est naturel, c’est bon
and start being more discerning,” 

~ Alice Feiring, New York-based wine critic and author of
Naked Wine: Letting Grapes Do What Comes Naturally