If you’ve gone to a hip bar or restaurant in the last few years, you’ve probably heard of “natural wine.” It’s arguably the biggest trend in the beverage world—and the most controversial. You don’t have to look hard to find an expert who decries it, or a regular drinker who has bought a bottle and found it unpalatable. And yet, natural wine bars keep springing up, and more and more young winemakers are taking to the style. So, what is natural wine? Why does it provoke such debate? And, most importantly, should you drink it? Here, we seek to answer those questions.
What Is Natural Wine?
The answer—basically, that it depends on who you ask—goes a long way toward explaining the confusion (and the uproar) around “natural” wine. Unlike with organic food products, there’s no official certification process, no governing body that determines whether someone can put the word “natural” on a label. As a general rule, wines that self-define as natural are made with organically or biodynamically farmed grapes and then fermented and bottled using no additives—which can impart a flavor profile that is, to use a buzzword, funkier than many wine drinkers are used to.
“The appeal of natural wine from a philosophical level is that nature, in many ways, is perfect, so why are we trying to control nature rather than [follow] its lead?” says Martha Stoumen, a highly regarded natural winemaker from Sonoma County. “Each grape is its own little winemaking package—it’s got everything you need in it—so adding chemicals or additional food products just doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.”
How prevalent are such additives in standard winemaking? It depends greatly on the producer, but a wine can include more than 60 additives that aren’t required to be listed on the label—everything from food coloring to dried fish bladders. (Yes, really; they can be used in the filtration process.) Natural winemakers don’t use any of that stuff.
Then What Does Need to Be on the Label?
One additive that is required to be noted on the label is sulfur dioxide, or sulfites, because a small percentage of people have a potentially dangerous sulfur allergy. (Coincidentally, it’s widely—and erroneously—believed that sulfites are what cause those infamous red wine hangovers.) All wines contain a small amount of naturally occurring sulfur dioxide, as it’s a byproduct of fermentation, and it’s common practice for winemakers to add sulfites as a preservative; even some proudly “natural” winemakers will add a minimal amount to prevent spoilage, although those who produce what are known as “zero-zero” wines will eschew it altogether. The risk in not using preservatives is, of course, that it increases the odds of spoilage.
The use of sulfur may be the biggest debate in the natural wine world, but our humble opinion is that a little doesn’t hurt. Santa Barbara–based winemaker Dave Potter, who produces natural wines under his Nowadays label (as well as more typical styles at Potek Winery and Municipal Winemakers), offers a helpful comparison: “We’re adding, like, 20 parts per million; a dried apricot has over 1,000 parts per million.”
How Did Natural Wine Become a Trend?
The rise of natural wine in America begins, in many ways, with Jenny Lefcourt, a native New Yorker who didn’t even enjoy wine—it was too big, too heavy, too juicy—until she moved to Paris during grad school and had “a huge moment of discovery of the way food could be,” she says. “Just sitting down and somebody offering me a glass of wine that paired well with the meal—brighter, higher-acid, more food-friendly wine—I realized that it could be something completely different.”
Lefcourt had stumbled into a moment when a growing number of young As far as global trends go, Lefcourt had good timing. There was, of course, the rise in demand for natural products and organic food; natural wine dovetails particularly well with the slow food movement. “A lot of the best chefs in the world are really looking toward the farm or the farmers market, seeing what’s peak season right now, and building their dishes around that,” Stoumen says. “That’s kind of the approach of natural wine: What are the grapes giving us this year from the vineyard, and what is the best wine I can make from them? Not necessarily, How can I copy the wine that I made in the previous year?”
At the same time, the prevailing winds in the wine world had begun to shift away from the bolder styles—think big cabernet sauvignons and oaky chardonnays from Napa Valley—that influential critic Robert Parker favored. Lower-alcohol, higher-acid Old World wines made a comeback. Those are better suited to natural winemaking, largely because fewer preservatives are required when the acidity is higher and the sugar (which is what yeast converts into alcohol) is lower. “Acidity and tannins help preserve wine, so maybe less sulfur is needed because of your choice of grapes,” says Stoumen, who often gravitates toward Italian varietals like vermentino and nero d’avola. In many ways, low-interventionism (a term some vintners prefer) harks back to the way wine was made eons ago. “Wine is the oldest beverage in the world,” Stoumen says, “and there are people who are reclaiming those traditional ways of making it and reclaiming indigenous grape varieties. It’s a new frontier for learning and exploring.”
This All Sounds Great! What’s the Problem?
To be blunt, a lot of people don’t think natural wine tastes good. It’s often compared to kombucha—definitely an acquired taste—and there are a variety of terms, from “mousiness” to “barnyard,” to describe the flavors and aromas that some find unpleasant. These are often directly related to the lack of sulfites. “
The idea that sulfites are bad has been blown out of proportion by a certain group within the movement,” says Adam Teeter, cofounder of VinePair, a digital media company dedicated to the beverage world. “When a wine doesn’t have sulfites, it spoils, and people wind up drinking dirty wine.”
Another complicating factor is that many natural winemakers are younger and less experienced than their more conventional counterparts. “Winemaking is actually a really hard thing,” Teeter says. “It’s a science and an art. People study for decades to become good winemakers, and I think it’s an affront to them to say that these wines that are just kind of kombucha-light are equal in quality to the amazing wines that people have taken generations, in some cases, to perfect.”
While he is critical of the movement, Teeter isn’t entirely negative. “There are winemakers doing amazing things within the world of natural wine,” he says, “but honestly, those are the winemakers who kind of shy away from the term, because it has become this weird, hipstery thing over the last five-ish years.”
Even the movement’s cheerleaders acknowledge it’s not perfect. “I don’t think every natural wine is definitely a good wine,” Lefcourt admits, “which is why my job exists: to curate and select wines that are well-made, that don’t have faults, that are easy to love.”
Who Are Some of These Winemakers Who Don’t Use the Term “Natural”?
Take Paul Sloan: The Small Vines winemaker organically farms all the fruit for his highly rated pinot noirs and chardonnays in Sonoma County, and he avoids additives, save for a bit of sulfur at bottling. He went so far as to plant his vineyard rows closer together than most other California vintners, in part so the grapes would get less sun and thus produce higher-acid, lower-alcohol wines. (He and his wife, Kathryn, had to go to France to buy farm equipment, because American tractors were too big.) Sloan would seem to check all the boxes, but when asked about “natural” wine, he says, “To me, it’s kind of become a hipster scene, like sour beer. They have their place, but they’re kind of unpleasant most of the time.”
Or, take Story of Soil’s Jessica Gasca, who calls her style “minimal intervention.” Each of her bottlings focuses on a single vineyard, largely organically or biodynamically farmed in Santa Barbara County; she uses native yeast for fermentation, and she’s “not putting things into the wines that are unnaturally.” (She does use minimal amounts of sulfur, except in one pét-nat she produces.) On a recent visit to her tasting room, we tried a head-turning, yet-to-be-released pinot noir. The grapes came from the Wild King Vineyard, a plot in the Santa Maria Valley that was leased by a farmer who had stopped cultivating it; Will Henry, of nearby Lumen Wines, came across the site, and he, Gasca, and a few other local winemakers harvested some of the grapes, which were essentially wild. All of Story of Soil’s pinots are great, but this one was its own thing, uniquely structured, with lots of tannin. It was a bottle that you could potentially lay down and age for 20 or 30 years, but even young it was delicious.
This vineyard literally was not touched,” Gasca told us. “It wasn’t watered, it wasn’t pruned, it wasn’t weeded, it wasn’t sprayed. There was nothing the way that man wanted it to be made, and yet it still made wine that is incredibly beautiful. I think it’s kind of as natural as it gets.”
Why Does All This Matter?
The biggest argument in favor of this trend is that it emphasizes sustainable farming practices. “We have no choice but to change the way we do agriculture and viticulture at this point,” Lefcourt says. “There’s no reason that this luxury product should be, for example, one of the biggest polluters in France. I think we have to turn toward tools from biodynamics, tools from organic viticulture, and think about sustainability in a larger sense: finding other forms of energy, whether it be solar or using horses in the vines rather than tractors—anything we can do to leave the world a better place.”
“I see a lot of people in all aspects of the wine industry talking about the farming side of things and how to improve it,” Stoumen adds. “Carbon farming and regenerative farming, talking about feeding the soils, which wasn’t even in the conversation 10 years ago—natural wine has contributed to that conversation.”
So, Should I Drink It?
It’s up to you! Try things, see what you like. In general, we think it’s good to support sustainable agriculture, but we also think it’s better not to get wrapped up in the label of “natural wine.” We agree with Teeter when he says, “People should be able to drink what they like.”