DRINK: What the heck is natural wine?
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

Like the Tropicana orange juice for which consumers pay top dollar, natural wines often promise a “nothing added, nothing taken away” product. And the purity of a natural wine has appeal — especially as wine drinkers learn that some winemakers remove alcohol, add egg by-products, and use colouring agents. In summary, you could say natural wines demonstrate a non-interventionist approach.

While this method can challenge local winemakers who work in a severe cold-climate wine region, some wines from Ontario fit the natural bill.

This spring, Pearl Morissette Estate Winery in the Niagara Peninsula started selling — and virtually selling out of — a naturally made riesling. At the same time, Paul Pender at Tawse Winery in Niagara was bottling and shipping his first naturally made chardonnay to bars and restaurants.

Many believe in the benefits of producing natural wine even in a region such as Ontario, where the climate generally requires a hands-on approach.

“It seems like Prince Edward County could very well lead the industry in that direction,” says Alice Feiring, a New York-based wine critic and author who advocates natural winemaking methods. Her book Naked Wine: Letting Grapes Do What Comes Naturally has been translated into French, Italian, and Georgian.

Feiring points to long-time PEC winemaker Geoff Heinricks, who is known for his work at Keint-He Winery and Vineyard and is a regional leader in the natural-wine movement. And Norman Hardie, she says, has had huge success by incorporating natural approaches to his winemaking operations. The wines crafted by Heinricks and Hardie prove that natural wine has broad appeal.

“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,” Feiring says.

Looking farther afield, the Beaujolais and Sicilian wine regions make France and Italy leaders in the natural movement. But Beaujolais and Sicily also make heaps of wine, and a lot is heavily processed. The fact remains that wine made according to natural philosophies is still a tiny portion of the market.

“The idea of wine being made only from grapes is largely a myth, because it represents perhaps one to three percent of wines being made worldwide,” says François Morissette, winemaker at Pearl Morissette and a former Montreal sommelier. He was drawn to new developments in France, such as natural winemaking, long before the natural-wine buzz grew.

“Today the natural wine category has redefined itself in a less dogmatic way. The demon is not the sulphur; the demon is what is not being disclosed because we don’t have ingredient lists on our labels.”

But Morissette knows that if wine labels were suddenly required to include ingredients, his wines would make the natural grade. That’s because additives are so minimal in Pearl Morissette wines.

While that kind of labelling may never be enforced under Canadian Food and Drug Regulations’ Standard of Identity, which exempts wine from listing ingredients, it is equally unlikely that natural wines will be certified as such anytime soon. The Liquor Control Board of Ontario states that federal regulations prohibit the use of the word natural.

According to the LCBO, the regulations “restrict the use of the term natural to ingredients or flavourings, or to products that are truly natural, e.g., honey.” (Though as of 2012, the LCBO makes an exception for allergens such as eggs if the wine is not filtered prior to bottling.) Furthermore, “LCBO has no current plans to categorize wines as ‘natural’ in any way.”

That said, you can still walk into an Ottawa wine bar, ask for a natural wine, and actually get natural wine. It may taste like honey, or it may taste like something else — something you’ve never tasted before. Except for maybe a little bit of sodium dioxide (sulphur, or what those “contains sulphites” stickers allude to) that is added before the finished wine is bottled — to make it more stable and less likely to oxidize undesirably — these wines are indeed within the ranks of the natural movement.

Few restaurants in the Ottawa area serve natural wines more than Soif. The Gatineau wine bar owned by award-winning sommelier Véronique Rivest opened last fall and has been featuring dozens of privately imported natural wines.

“It does surprise our clientele to a degree when they drink a natural wine for the first time, because they are used to what they are trying or tasting at home,” says former Soif sommelier Matheiu Guillemette.

But what is the difference? Natural wines will vary as all conventional wines vary, so generalizing is risky. But Guillemette notes some characteristics.

“The aromatics can be quite different in a natural wine. Natural wines tend to have more of a volatile nose — not volatile as in ‘this smells like varnish’ but more like the aromas carry themselves differently. They are usually more fruit-forward and more flowery. And they maintain a very nice fresh crunchiness on the palate. They’re juicy,” says Guillemette.

He adds that customers often come in aware of organic wine, but natural wine is still largely unknown.

The situation isn’t that different across the river in Ontario. At Supply & Demand, Phil Kelsey prepares the wine list and serves wine to customers. He says he hears little or no talk at his tables about natural wine, but that could be because some producers don’t describe their wines as natural even though they may be.

So restaurant patrons aren’t asking for natural wines even though the wine they ordered might be made using natural techniques. For instance, cabernet franc from Pearl Morissette is not described as nat-ural — on the wine list or the bottle — but Morissette insists it is natural.

But as more natural wines are made and become available, this will change. It’s inevitable that wine drinkers will start talking about these wines and pick up on the term natural — as readily as they pick up on its distinctive charms.


Marcus Gilliam is a wine writer who has a hard time letting his wine age. He tweets at @weingolb.