Unfortunately, the answer is a bit complex. First you have to know that there is no internationally recognized definition of natural wine and meanwhile it almost seems as if every winery, every association, every sommelier and every natural wine nerd has their own definition.
…the best definition of Natural Wine is, Thierry Puzelat getting into a fistfight with Alain Castex at the funeral of Marcel Lapierre.
Context of the quote:
Marcel Lapierre is the legend of natural wine. He is considered one of the first winemakers to make natural wines and made them known through his followers and friends. This also includes Puzelat and Castex, two respected and well-known winemakers. However, since they disagreed on small points on the subject of natural wine, they fought at Lapierre's funeral.
What natural wine purists say
Purists say that natural wine should contain nothing but organic grape juice , contain no additives of any kind and, above all, not be filtered or refined. The French seal "Vin méthode nature", for example, adheres to this definition. In this article, we will therefore use their criteria as a guide.
What "Vin méthode Nature" demands
- The grapes are at least organically grown
- The grapes are harvested by hand
- The wines ferment spontaneously, not by adding yeast
- No addition of other agents such as sugar, acid and tannins
- No "brutal and traumatic" methods, such as fining , reverse osmosis, filtration, tangential flow filtration, flash pasteurization, thermovinification and centrifugation
- No added sulphites , with the label dividing into a classification of "Without added sulphites" and a "Below 30 mg/L".
How grapes should be grown for natural wine
The beginning of every natural wine begins with the grapes, or thought further: the earth. In order to produce natural wines, the winegrower must work organically or biodynamically. This protects the earth, nature and of course the people who work in the vineyard. Almost all natural wine vintners are at least BIO certified, some even Biodynamic. However, there are still some who work in this way but do not want to be certified. Natural wine By nature, winegrowers are somewhat rebellious. But be careful: some use this as an excuse not to be certified, although this has completely different reasons.
Organic viticulture is a form of viticulture in which the measures are based on technical and scientific principles, but certain applications in fertilization, plant protection and winemaking are not used. In the natural wine scene, this is seen as the absolute minimum (by many even as too little). There are different ways of working biologically, with different specifications and requirements.
EU organic seal
The organic seal of the European Union is probably the most present and influential organic certification that exists worldwide. Farmers must abide by strict rules such as a ban on genetically modified organisms, limited use of fertilizers, which include compost and mineral fertilizers , limited use of herbicides and pesticides, and a ban on hormones. Pesticides containing copper and sulfur may be used in viticulture to combat downy mildew, red rot, oidium and black rot. In addition to the European seal, there are country-specific organic seals such as in Germany and France.
The organization goes further than the organic seal in its requirements for farmers and winegrowers. For example, a company may not work partly according to the Bioland criteria and partly according to conventional methods (which is possible with the European organic seal). In 2022 there were over 8700 Bioland-certified companies in Germany, making Bioland the largest private organic seal. The Isegrim winery is one of the Bioland-certified winegrowers .
Biodynamic viticulture is a spiritual view of organic viticulture based on Rudolf Steiner with the aim of creating a holistic operation. Biodynamic farming is based on the idea of farm individuality, where each farm is uniquely designed to take into account site conditions, landscape and people. The focus is on the approach of looking at the soil and plants as a unit and trying to maintain the balance in the system.
Although biodynamics is viewed critically by many scientists, it is becoming more and more widespread in the wine industry. The champagne house Louis Roederer, for example, now cultivates 24 hectares of biodynamic vines ,
Demeter is the largest certification organization for biodynamic agriculture, certifying products worldwide according to international standards. Until the 1980s, Demeter did not certify any winegrowers and winegrowers, since alcohol was considered incompatible with anthroposophical philosophy. Today there are over 800 Demeter-certified winegrowers worldwide, such as Domaine Muller-Koeberlé , Weingut Schmelzer and Domaine Geschickt.
Demeter does not allow some fertilizers approved by the BIO seal and obliges farms to use certain preparations, often made from parts of cow manure. In addition, Demeter has certain rules for wine as far as cellar management is concerned, such as the permitted means of fining wine and the addition of sulphur. Nevertheless, Demeter wines are not natural wines. Many processes that are not considered natural are allowed.
Respect Biodyn is an example of an organization that only works in the wine segment. The organization was founded in Austria, but now also has members in Germany and South Tyrol. Many principles, working methods and also preparations coincide with Demeter, but as a pure wine organization, they go a little further in terms of the specifications outside of viticulture. For example, manual harvesting of the grapes is required, as is spontaneous fermentation without pure yeast (which may be helped). Andreas Gsellmann is one of the many founding members.
In addition to respect, there are other small biodynamic organizations for wine, many of them in France.
How natural wines are harvested
Industrially produced wines are often harvested with a harvester, especially on large wineries. Harvesters are huge agricultural machines that allow the winemaker to harvest large quantities of grapes in a short amount of time. However, this way of working has major disadvantages for nature and the environment. Harvesters are so big that they damage the soil, animals and plants and thus endanger biodiversity. That is why natural wine grapes are always harvested by hand.
Wine making in the cellar
Where natural wines really differ from organic and biodynamic wines is what happens in the cellar after the harvest. The BIO seal as well as Demeter have specifications for additions, but they are far from "natural". Natural wine should be a natural product not only from the ingredients but also from the manufacturing process.
additives in wine
The motivation for adding substances other than grape juice to the wine varies. Many conventional winemakers want to keep the taste of their wine relatively constant over the years. However, since the weather has a major impact on the grapes, this is not possible with a product made from grapes. Sun, heat, rain and wind all affect the taste of the grapes, and therefore the juice, and therefore the wine. So if you want to produce a product that is constant, you have to improve it.
Additives to change the taste and body
Winegrowers who produce strong red wines have big problems in cold vintages. Less sun means there is less sugar in grape juice, resulting in less alcohol and sweetness, and therefore a leaner body. Even producers of sweet wines who rely on large amounts of sugar in the wine have problems getting their wines the way they want them to in cold vintages. And that's where the sugar comes in. In most parts of the EU, the EU allows sugaring (also called chaptalization) of up to 60g/L. This is not allowed for German predicate wines.
The situation is similar with acid. Winegrowers who are known for particularly sparkling Rieslings, for example, often have problems presenting this taste to customers exactly as they are used to in warmer vintages. Even very strong and sweet wines need sufficient acidity so that they are balanced. Conventional winemakers add tartaric, malic or citric acid in cases where they lack acidity.
Such additions are never made with natural wine. On the one hand, this is due to the communication: the winegrowers make it quite clear to their customers that wine is a natural product and that it changes over the years. Very heavy red wines (which are now almost always chaptalized by conventional winegrowers) and sweet wines are rare among natural wine winegrowers for precisely this reason.
But that doesn't mean that natural wine vintners simply "let the wine be" - on the contrary. They still have to be much more creative than their colleagues who work conventionally to create great wines. From more precise planning for when to harvest each individual plot, to more creativity in cuveeting, even with single-vineyard wines such as Grand Crus (in sites where multiple grapes are permitted) , to more time for aging and, quite simply, more patience.
The most discussed addition to natural wine are sulfites, also called sulfur or SO2. Sulfites occur naturally during fermentation and help the wine to keep longer or not to "tilt". Conventional winegrowers also add sulphites in the form of powder. This can be done after fermentation in tank or at bottling. In addition, the sulfur production during fermentation can be boosted by adding certain pure culture yeasts. For example, some winemakers avoid or reduce the addition of sulfur, but then have more sulfur content in the wine.
The addition of sulfur is not a free choice for most winemakers. In order to be able to produce wines that remain good without sulphurisation, the work must have been carried out extremely cleanly beforehand. Above all, the health of the soil, which is improved through biological and biodynamic work, and the vines themselves are crucial. Conventional winemakers who do not add sulfur are more likely to produce a wine that is not stable.
Even natural wine vintners sometimes add sulfur to the wine during bottling to make it more stable. "Vin Méthode Nature" has a special category for this, which allows the addition of small amounts of sulphites, but must remain below 30mg/L total (naturally occurring sulphites plus additions). For comparison, the EU BIO seal allows a total amount of SO2 of 100mg/L for red wines and up to 150mg/L for rosé and white wines.
There is much more that is not allowed with natural wine, but which is completely normal for conventional winemakers. Additions to juice or wine are one thing, but what else is done with these liquids is often not particularly well known.
Of the interventions described here, filtration is probably the most harmless, since almost every winemaker filters a little bit in some way. If this did not happen, insects or leftover grapes would often be in the bottle. Filtration with coarse cloth filters
However, filtration can also be carried out to extremes, which fundamentally changes the wine and can no longer be considered a natural wine. Cross-flow filtration, for example, often filters particles smaller than 1/10,000 (one ten-thousandth) of a millimeter. This also includes the smallest particles that contribute to the taste, as well as microbes.
The aim of filtration is the complete "equalization" of the wine, which is intended to prevent the smallest particles from making the wine appear even the slightest cloudy or having an impact on the taste of the wine. And this works too. For natural wine vintners, the complete harmonization of the wines, which is almost reminiscent of sterilization, is not the goal. Unfiltered wine tends to be more interesting, versatile and also more balanced. More tiny substances that cannot be seen with the eye contribute to the taste of the wine.
If you've ever wondered why some wine isn't vegan, here's the answer: fining. This process involves adding substances to the wine and then heating it slightly so that the substances bind to the smallest particles. For example, egg white, milk protein, gelatin, and isinglass (made from the bladders of fish) are used. The latter substance is responsible for why wine is often not even vegetarian.
But there are also natural fining agents such as bentonite and activated carbon. Nevertheless, these are not used with natural wine because, just like with filtration, complete removal of all particles is not desired.
The best-known type of temperature intervention in wine is probably thermovinification. Some winemakers use them in red wine production to extract the most intense aromas during maceration. The grape mash is heated to break down cell walls and release strong colors and tannins in record time. This means shorter maceration times and more intense red wines.
But other heat interventions that conventional winegrowers undertake are also not used by natural wine winegrowers: slight heat helps with fermentation, for example, and some types of fining require heating of the liquid.
How does natural wine taste?
We are often asked this question, but it is impossible to answer. There are natural wines from all over the world in red, white, rosé and as orange wine, there is champagne, crémants, posecco, burgundy, bordeaux, barolos and almost everything else that also exists as conventional wine. Natural wine is just as diverse as wine. Few specific flavors can be isolated through production, except perhaps sulphur, which many wine drinkers who don't drink much natural wine consider to be normal "wine taste". Due to the diversity of the microparticles obtained, which are normally not in the wine due to fining and filtration, there are often flavor characteristics that do not occur in conventional wine, some of which are fruity, mineral or vegetal in nature and are very difficult to describe. Often the flavor is, to put it simply, more intense and complex.
In France, natural wines are often referred to as "vins libres" or living wines . Because yeast and microbes are not killed by heat or sulfur, many emphasize the natural wine's vibrant character. Probably because these wines are actually alive in a way. This characterization of natural wines is the best for me, although perhaps the least helpful for someone who has never tasted good natural wines.
Pét Nat, Orange Wine and Natural Wine. All the same?
Pet nat , orange wine and natural wine are often thrown into the same pot. But that in itself doesn't make any sense. Pét Nats, the natural way to make sparkling wine, can also be made with non-organic grapes, fined and sulphurised. The same is true of orange wines.
However, there is a large overlap between winemakers who produce natural wine and at the same time try their hand at Pét Nat and Orange wines. There are no clear reasons for this, apart from the fact that natural wine vintners are often much more willing to experiment. Anyone who now understands the few resources available to winemakers to make natural wine also knows why.
How we classify and select natural wines
We mainly work with winegrowers who are small and independent. Even if a winery works completely purist, but resembles a large corporation, it is unlikely that you will ever find these wines here. But we only work with winegrowers who try everything to produce their wines as naturally as possible. If a winemaker is so small that they can't afford organic certification, want a little filtration or add a little bit more than 30mg of sulphites to keep the wine from being thrown away, then we won't turn them down. Above all, one thing is important to us: that the wine tastes special and especially good. Due to the longer ripening of the grapes due to the ban on chemical fertilizers, the wines usually have a particularly juicy character, which is why natural wine is often called "juice" in English-speaking countries. We don't want to do without the special flavor profile that results from the omission of fining in our wines, and we don't want to add massive amounts of sulphites (often over 130 mg/L) to most conventional wines anyway. So now you're a natural wine nerd too, and you can start arguing with others (maybe not as much as Thiery Puzelat and Alain Castex). How many sulphites should now be allowed, is minimal filtration okay (and then, of course, how big the holes in the filter can be) and which seal is better: Demeter or Bioland?